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Can Big Brown deliver?
By Will Graves | Associated Press
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Published: 6/7/2008 12:21 AM

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"It used to be Atlantic City or Las Vegas if you wanted to do any other type of gambling," said Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. "Now there's gambling on every street corner."

NEW YORK -- Dozens of cameras click in unison as soap suds slide off horse racing's Next Great Hope.

Standing just outside Barn 2 at Belmont, Big Brown poses serenely. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is at ease with the buzz on every side of him and the weight of racing history riding on his tender left front hoof.

Big Brown heads to the starting gate today for the Belmont Stakes with a chance at becoming the 12th horse ever to win racing's Triple Crown, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

It's a feat that used to be among the most celebrated in sports, and past winners have become worldwide sensations.

The industry hopes it is Big Brown's turn, if only to return some luster to a sport that could desperately use a public-relations boost.

The pieces, it seems, are in place.

The scene around the barn Friday morning evoked racing's golden age, when champions such as Citation shared the headlines with Joe DiMaggio and the sport's owners were blue-blooded American royalty.

Yet it's the scene over at the Belmont track a few hours later that paints a more realistic picture of the current state of horse racing in America.

A smattering of fans were scattered like so much confetti around the massive grandstand, scurrying to get their bets in on races run by horses who will never be confused with Secretariat or Affirmed.

Belmont is hardly the only track with plenty of good seats still available.

With the proliferation of other gambling outlets -- from the state lottery to church bingo to Indian and riverboat casinos -- the track no longer is the only place where you can press your luck.

"It used to be Atlantic City or Las Vegas if you wanted to do any other type of gambling," said Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. "Now there's gambling on every street corner."

Most venues stopped releasing attendance figures more than a decade ago. Though the growth of off-track and online betting makes it easier than ever to put $2 on a longshot, the handle has flattened out at $15 billion.

"The sports public is pulled in so many directions," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "There's so many sports, so much more to watch, so much more to do."

Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, agrees. "Big Red" became a legend 35 years ago when his quest for a Triple Crown allowed the nation to takes its mind off the Watergate scandal.

"We're not going to return to the glory days when the whole world tuned in to Citation or Count Fleet or even Secretariat," she said. "I think those days are over."

Are they ever.

Technology and cable TV networks dedicated to the sport have made it easier than ever to get involved. But racing has struggled to stay relevant.

The three Triple Crown races aren't the problem. The Kentucky Derby packed 157,000 into Churchill Downs. More than 120,000 could cram Belmont to watch Big Brown try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. This year's Derby attracted an 8.8 national TV rating and a 21 share. The audience for the Belmont promises to be just as big.

It's the other 51,000 races a year that could use a little help.

A giddy celebration in the winner's circle late this evening would take some of the sting out of the hits the industry has taken over the last few years.

From the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles to mounting criticism of racing's lax medication rules and breeding practices, "the game," as those involved call it, hasn't felt like much of one lately.

A Triple Crown would restore some of the luster, even if only for a few hours, but it couldn't rescue racing by itself.

"I don't think there's anybody that is going to save the industry. The industry has to save itself," said Michael Iavarone, co-owner of IEAH Stables, the syndicate that owns Big Brown. "I think what he can do is gain some positive momentum instead of the negative momentum that we've all been facing."

Though Iavarone has pledged to race Big Brown through the end of the year, it might not be worth the risk when one bad step can cost owners millions.

"Their greatest moment is not when the horse is turned over to the breeding shed," Iavarone said, "it's when they can go in the stands and watch the horse run."

Iavarone estimated Big Brown's value could surge to $100 million if he wins the Belmont, a figure that could double over the course of his stud career. Advances in the breeding process have turned the best thoroughbreds into four-legged ATMs, and Three Chimneys already is taking phone calls from owners hoping to breed their mares with him.

As brazen as trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. has been during Big Brown's Triple Crown pursuit, and as much as the race fan in him would love to see the colt cement his legacy by racing beyond the fall, he knows there is too much at stake.

"I think it's safer for the horse," he said. "I mean, we would all be sick if we talked people into running him next year and something bad would happen."

The best-case scenario for the industry is having Big Brown run through the Breeders' Cup in October, when he could face 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, the rare superstar who has continued to run as a 4-year-old.

The matchup of the sport's two brightest lights would give the industry something to promote all the way into the middle of football season. The hype could reach Kentucky Derby levels, an opportunity the sport desperately needs.

"It's those kinds of rivalries that are critical in every sport," said National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop. "If we can use that Breeders' Cup event to promote interest at that time of year, I think it would be an incredible opportunity."

Of course, the argument over Big Brown's spot in racing's pantheon is moot if he fails to win the Belmont, where so many Triple Crown dreams have been swallowed up along the track's yawning home stretch. None of the last 10 horses who arrived here with the first two jewels of the Triple Crown was able to join racing's most exclusive club.

The importance isn't lost on Dutrow. Having grown up in the game, he knows only too well how quickly fortunes can change.

"I'd like to try to help," Dutrow said. "Maybe Big Brown will help out there. I hope."

Racing needs a pick-me-up. Big Brown could be the one that starts the lifting.