ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. (AP) — Horse racing hasn't had it this good in years.
It isn't hard to figure out why.
"People like to see greatness and they know American Pharoah's got the goods," said Howard Sudberry, the marketing director at Arlington Park. "They also know they won't get many more chances to see him."
Even if the fans are just seeing him on TV.
Some 850 miles to the east, the sport's reigning superstar and it's first Triple Crown champion in 37 years is wrapping up preparations to run Saturday in the nationally televised Travers Stakes at Saratoga in New York in what is likely to be his next-to-last race. Here in suburban Chicago, at a track that first opened in 1927 and was rebuilt from the ground up after a devastating fire in 1985, they're already preparing for the after-party.
As soon as Saturday's live racing at Arlington ends, the giant TV board in the middle of the track will switch to the live NBC broadcast at Saratoga. The track's bars and concession stands will be open in anticipation of a late-staying crowd. In an elevator headed up to the VIP and suite levels on Thursday, two servers debated how many meals they'll be needing Saturday. They quickly agreed on a figure "north of 1,400" before the discussion turned to today's crowd.
"Could be a good one. I saw a lot of people getting off the train just a few minutes ago," one said. Her companion smiled, raising her right hand to show her fingers were crossed.
That's as good a symbol as any about the state of thoroughbred racing in America today.
The sport's biggest events — the Triple Crown races, the Breeders' Cup Classic and a handful of others — are as big as ever.
Nearly 18 million viewers saw American Pharoah cross the finish line at the Kentucky Derby in May and the audience grew to 22 million by the time the colt clinched the Triple Crown at Belmont in June. Ratings are up almost 50 percent for the five races NBC has televised since as part of its "Breeders Cup Challenge Series" — highlighted by American Pharoah's gritty win in the Haskell, which drew a crowd of 60,000-plus to Monmouth Park last month.
Jockey-turned TV commentator Jerry Bailey said the last time he'd seen this much buzz at the racetrack was in 2004, when Smarty Jones, the "people's horse" with the commoner's pedigree, headed to the Belmont after improbable wins at the Derby and Preakness.
"But in that case, there was history still to be made," said Bailey, who will be part of the Travers telecast. "American Pharoah has already accomplished that. What's unique about this horse is how deep into the calendar he's held the attention of fans."
According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the sport has 3 million core fans — defined as those who attend at least one race or wager several times a year — spread across some five dozen tracks. The challenge facing racing officials once again is turning some of those 20 million-plus casual fans pulled in by the big events into regular customers.
"Obviously, every time American Pharoah competes, it's like a gift from the racing gods," said Keith Chamblin, the NTRA's chief operating officer. "But his impact isn't just limited to that one day and the one track he's running at. ... Lots of other tracks had success by having live-racing cards leading up to Kentucky Derby parties, and a few are staging similar events built around American Pharoah's appearances."
Racing wants to make sure the benefits don't disappear when American Pharoah goes out to stud.
"In one sense, we've been a niche sport for years. And it's hard to look at the numbers this close out and draw conclusions," he added. "Get back to me as we get into the 2016 season with the Derby approaching. We'll hopefully know a lot more then."
In the meantime, tracks like Arlington Park are charting their own course. There are 87 racing days spread over its five-month summer season and a handful have become reliable draws: Derby Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, July 4th (followed by a fireworks show) and its annual showcase, the Arlington Million. The key to the track's relative success is filling in the rest of the calendar with special events.
At Arlington, there are live music concerts, wine-tasting and food truck days, a petting zoo and kids' activities every Sunday. Thursdays are "Value Day," with $6 general admission tickets — enough of an incentive on this day to draw a crowd approaching 5,000. In keeping with the track's modern, high-end design, Arlington has added first-class food and drinks for its best-paying customers.
"In the '80s and '90s, racing sat on its backside while other sports went into high gear marketing to their fans and then we let gaming get away from us, too," Bailey said. "Look at how many people started playing poker and how many are playing fantasy sports today.
"We need a way to get back the generation we missed and I've been saying for a while, if we're going to do that, we're going to have to offer things like food and music," he added. "American Pharoah gives us a shot at all sports fans, not just the core group. It's up to us to figure out how to hang onto as many as we can."