06/13/2016 10:50AM

‘Pharoah effect' largely debunked as Triple Crown business figures dip


The 2016 Triple Crown is now in the books, with a different horse winning each of the three legs of the series. Business results from the races affirmed what the industry already knew – that a Triple Crown try is great news for the third leg, the Belmont Stakes. But another dubious theory – that American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win last year, which ended a 37-year drought, would provide a boost to the series this year – did not pan out, with little evidence that racing benefited significantly from what was undeniably the most positive coverage of racing in two decades.

The only race in the series to post handle gains was the second leg, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, where betting was up 16.2 percent over a relatively unattractive betting race last year. Betting on the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Kentucky was down 9.7 percent, in large part because of a meltdown of one of the country’s largest account-wagering providers, TVG, an hour before the race. Betting on the Belmont in New York, without the lure of a Triple Crown try, was down 37 percent, along the lines of expectations.

While handle figures are a suitable gauge of the interest of horseplayers (who are influenced by a legion of betting-related factors apart from the composition of the fields), television ratings are a better, if limited, gauge of the interest in the races shown by the wider public. On those measures, there was nothing to indicate that American Pharoah’s win had a lingering impact on racing’s popularity.

The television rating for this year’s Derby, perennially one of the most highly rated sporting events of the year, was down 14 percent despite the favorite, Nyquist, being undefeated and the previous year’s champion 2-year-old colt, a record better than that of American Pharoah going into last year’s Derby. Share, a measure of the percentage of televisions in use at the time tuned into a broadcast, was down 12.5 percent.

Curiously, the Preakness rating was up 7 percent over last year, but the share was identical. This year’s Preakness was won by the Derby runner-up, Exaggerator, putting an end to a Triple Crown bid this year and shattering any of the overblown expectations that Nyquist would emerge as a superhorse just one year after American Pharoah electrified the racing world with a dominant win in the sloppy Preakness.

While betting on the Belmont and the overnight rating for the broadcast this year dropped precipitously from last year, the declines were not out of line for any running of the race in which a Triple Crown is not on the line. Betting on the race itself this year was $52.2 million, according to charts, nearly identical to betting on the race in 2013, the last time a Triple Crown was not possible.

There was some good news in the betting numbers for the New York Racing Association, the operator of Belmont Park. Total handle on the 13-race card this year, which was revamped in 2014 to include many of Belmont’s most prestigious spring and summer races, was $99.9 million, up 12.6 percent from 2013. Still, that figure was down 26.5 percent from last year and down 33.6 percent from the record set in 2014.

Interestingly, the theory that American Pharoah’s Triple Crown campaign was a boon to racing was weakened even before he crossed the finish line in the Belmont Stakes last year. The record for betting on the Belmont Stakes was set in 2014, when California Chrome attempted to win the Triple Crown; betting on American Pharoah’s Belmont was down 10.5 percent from that figure. The record set in 2014 for betting on the entire Belmont Stakes card was never threatened either last year, with total wagering on the 13-race card last year down 9.7 percent.

Supporters of the theory that American Pharoah’s 2015 Horse of the Year campaign would reinvigorate racing this year were not dissuaded by the decline in the Belmont numbers. The real gain, the supporters said, would show up later in the year, after the Triple Crown had been won, as those positive feelings engendered by American Pharoah rippled throughout the larger culture.

That support was validated when the overnight rating for American Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic last year was up 46 percent from the rating for the race in 2014. The rating was the highest for the race since 2010, when Zenyatta, the most popular horse in racing until American Pharoah appeared, made her career finale.

After Zenyatta retired, racing did not experience any kind of measurable resurgence either. With the mediocrity of this year’s Triple Crown numbers, it appears that racing should accept that the larger public can be moved by a single horse but not horse racing as a whole.