On June 6, American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought when he became horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, the first since Affirmed in 1978. And while next month's Breeders' Cup will undoubtedly be a sold-out, nationally televised spectacle, it may also be the final time American Pharoah enters the starting gate.
The "American Pharoah Effect," as dubbed by horse racing insiders, has filled grandstands to capacity at some of the major summer races, increased television ratings and created a lot of excitement about the future of horse racing.
Despite millions of new faces finding their way to the window to place bets on races, the question remains: How many of these 20 million-plus casual racing fans will the "American Pharoah Effect" convert into regular customers at the betting window?
Pete Laverick, Director of Marketing for BetAmerica.com, a leading horse race betting website, attests that the Pharoah Effect has had a noticeable impact on online betting activity since the Triple Crown. He says, "[t]here was a lot of additional betting activity generated by California Chrome's close call with the Triple Crown in 2014 leading up to the Belmont Stakes. However, the difference has really been noticeable in 2015 when you look at betting totals for the races which Pharoah has competed in since the Belmont. Betting on the Travers Stakes and the Haskell Invitational following American Pharoah's Triple Crown triumph were both up 51 percent on the previous year at BetAmerica. We anticipate betting on this year’s Breeders’ Cup will see similar growth this year as well due to the Pharoah effect."
According to the New York Racing Association, the betting handle at Belmont Park on the Saturday when American Pharoah won the final leg of the Triple Crown, was the second highest in its history. Specifically, a total of $134,839,391 was wagered on that day's 13-race card, with $16.8 million coming from on-track wagering (second highest in history), and more than $117.9 from off-track betting.
In the months following the Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah raced in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, at Monmouth Park, where he easily prevailed over a mediocre field of horses, and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, a race in which he was outrun down the stretch by Keen Ice, an underrated horse who went off at 16-1 odds.
The Haskell Invitational drew the biggest crowd in the history of Monmouth Park, with $6,544,247 bet on the Haskell (most since 2010), and the total handle for the day’s race card was $20,024,509, a 13.49 percent increase from the previous best mark set in 2008.
As for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, the crowd was capped at 50,000, and the total amount of money wagered on the 13-race card was a record $49,668,753, an increase of 24.5 percent from the amount bet last year.
For novices at the track, unless one's betting strategy is to simply go with the grey, favorite number or horse with the most unique name, horse race betting can be complex and somewhat overwhelming. A sophisticated bet (if there is such a thing) requires homework, i.e., purchasing a racing form and studying each horse's past performance lines, Beyer speed ratings, and other concepts, which are beyond the knowledge base of the one-time horse race bettor. As noted by a commentator within the industry, an "understanding of horse racing and all its nuances, and how that information carries over into betting on races, is a skill not learned overnight."
With that said, the longevity of the "American Pharoah Effect" as it relates to this year’s record-setting betting handles remains unknown. It is undeniable that American Pharoah is a once in a lifetime horse, however, as opined by Andy Sterling, a TV analyst and handicapper for the New York Racing Association and Fox Sports 1, "horse racing is the most exciting sport for me. But it’s a problem of perception. It’s tough to teach fans."
Accordingly, while the upcoming 2015 Breeders' Cup on Halloween weekend will certainly captivate the attention of some of the 20 million-plus casual racing fans, the sport of horse racing can only wait and hope that many of them come back to the wagering window after what seems almost certain to be American Pharoah’s final race; the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.