Even as Tom Chuckas watched more people pour into Pimlico Race Course last weekend than the vintage track has ever held, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club knew better than to think he was witnessing the salve to Thoroughbred racing's ills.
Though the electricity of what began beneath the Twin Spires on May 5 was still reverberating in front of Kevin Flanery's eyes, the president of Churchill Downs racetrack understands as much as anyone how much repair must take place for the industry to get its house in order.
Even if I'll Have Another does what no horse has in the last 34 years and completes the Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes on June 9, those who make their living in horse racing know it will take more than a singular moment to fully revitalize a sport many have tried to declare as being on life support.
The last month has proven that when racing does put its best face forward, it is capable of healing some of its own self-inflicted wounds.
At a time when racing is taking its share of blows, it has found itself thrust into the mainstream consciousness thanks to the lure of talent and pageantry that has been the sport's hallmark.
Whether J. Paul Reddam's I'll Have Another succeeds or not in his Triple Crown quest, the drama created during his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes triumphs has managed to captivate the public even as heated debates about race-day medication, the reorganization of the beleaguered New York Racing Association and controversial reports about racehorse welfare have come to the forefront.
Both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness had record turnouts this year — 165,307 and 121,309 respectively. The Belmont attendance mark of 120,139 set in 2004 is also expected to be in jeopardy come June 9.
An allotment of 3,000 reserved seats for the Belmont Stakes offered on Ticketmaster sold out in three minutes the Monday after the Preakness. On Saturday, the New York Racing Association announced it was making $10 grandstand general admission tickets available through Ticketmaster for the first time.
Though television ratings declined for the Preakness, national television ratings for the Kentucky Derby on NBC Sports registered a 9.0 rating and a 20 share. The 14.8 million viewers made it the third most-watched Kentucky Derby in 23 years, and a ratings boom is expected to continue with the Belmont telecast.
"You know racing is popular now. It's getting beat up by a lot of people and I don't understand why," said trainer Dale Romans, who will saddle Grade I winner Dullahan in the Belmont Stakes. "If you look over the last four or five years, the Triple Crown has been very popular with a lot of horses in it and a lot of people come out for it.
"I think if we could start focusing on some of the positives, I mean ... people are loving horse racing and watching it. And the Triple Crown is what drives our entire industry. Everybody I buy horses for wants to compete in Triple Crown races."
What makes the Triple Crown such an attraction is it brings together the game's best athletes on a day when tracks throw down their best public efforts to sell their sport.
The Maryland Jockey Club has been among the leaders in that department by offering stellar infield acts like Bruno Mars, Wiz Khalifa, and Maroon 5 on Preakness day to help get patrons running through the turnstiles.
The challenge for tracks, however, comes in figuring how to take pieces from its big-day model and apply it toward everyday racing.
The decline in the horse population because of shrinking foal crops has made just filling cards a battle at many tracks — never mind trying to get quality racing every day. Thus, management has to become even more creative in convincing whatever new fans they might make this time of year to stay around for the long haul.
"If you have 10 races carded and each race lasts two minutes, you've got 20 minutes of racing stretched over the course of five or six hours," Flanery said. "So you have to make sure the experience the customer has while they are on the property is really special. It can be based around food or fashion or music and when you couple that with compelling racing, it makes for something people enjoy and want to visit over and over."
One thing fans have demonstrated is a willingness to embrace and follow racing's stars wherever they turn up. Should I'll Have Another take the Triple Crown and remain in training for the months ahead, the sport could have a marketing dynamo on its hands.
Already, Doug O'Neill — the personable trainer of I'll Have Another — is working the rounds like a politician in promoting both his sport and his horse. In Baltimore, O'Neill and his team made visits to organizations like the local Boys and Girls Club and already has a whirlwind slate lined up for New York, including plans to toss out the first pitch at the Mets-Yankees game on Belmont eve.
"You get to meet so many cool people (during the Triple Crown) and you find out how many people really love horse racing, they just don't know that much about it," O'Neill said. "Hopefully in my own little way, I can share something good and get them out to the track more often."
Whether or not I'll Have Another makes history, racing will have the mainstream attention it so desires for at least the next couple of weeks. With its stars doing their part to boost the sport, those behind the scenes know it is time for all involved to ensure its positive energy isn't solely carried by one entity.
"If we look at this as a singular Triple Crown event and stop, we're going to be in serious trouble," Chuckas said. "We have to expand the momentum and one of the ways that obviously would be helpful is if we had a Triple Crown winner. But I think some of the things we do during this time period ... we have to carry that through to the summer and the fall. We have some excellent meets like Saratoga and Del Mar and those are the quality meets we should be using to continue with the momentum we carry through the Triple Crown."