The emergence of California Chrome as the favorite to win the first Triple Crown in 36 years at this Saturday’s Belmont Stakes has the potential to reinvigorate horse racing’s aura as a beloved American pastime.

The horse, a 3-5 favorite to become the 12th ever Triple Crown winner, has successfully captivated the hearts and minds of horse racing throwbacks who long for the nostalgic days of fabled horses such as Secretariat and Seabiscuit. A petty controversy over Chrome’s use of equine nasal strips has also generated a mini-cult following of its own.

Critics might argue that much of the excitement is rather unwarranted. After all, since 1978 – when Affirmed claimed the last Triple Crown, a dozen horses (including my personal favorite, Smarty Jones) have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fall short at the Belmont Stakes.

But there seems to be something special about California Chrome and this race in particular. It seems to be driven largely by the horse’s underdog prestige – a sure-fire way of quickly growing a fan base. The goofy nasal strip scandal seems to be helping out nicely as well, with Breathe Right cashing in on the action and setting up a promotional rally at Saturday’s race.

But that’s about where the feel good story ends, unfortunately. Beyond that, Saturday’s race is a desperation moment for a once proud sport seeking to retain relevance in the American culture. To many, horse racing remains a pre-Depression era phenomenon whose fate was sealed when Prohibition-era gangsters began pioneering modern auto racing.

Sadly, the modern horse racing industry in the US has been trapped in a slow and agonizing downward spiral of scandals, freakish injuries and declining interest from the public – most of whom pay little attention to the sport aside from the Kentucky Derby.

Recent congressional inquiries into the rampant doping and safety violations within the sport have not helped to polish its image. Instead, they have revealed the dark underbelly of an industry plagued by animal mistreatment, steroid use, euthanasia and a lack of protective regulation by states or the federal government.

Ironically, it is the federal and state governments that are largely responsible for the proliferation of horse racetracks throughout the country, constructing scores of these “racinos” as a means of patching leaky budgets by pushing new forms of legal gambling on the population.

A damning New York Times investigation in 2012 blamed the expanded use of racinos for the correlated rise in horse mistreatment, finding that 24 horses on average die each week at poorly overseen US racetracks. The report also detailed the widespread use of trainers injecting horses with heavy painkillers before races to cover up injuries.

Indeed, the practice of doping in horse racing is so prevalent that even Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong would be impressed. In the three years after Congress passed a law restricting the use of anabolic steroids, 3,800 trainers were caught illegally doping horses. Making matters worse, only a small fraction of horses are actually tested, meaning that the actual number of horses drugged was likely far higher.

Sadly, this proud industry that was once a stalwart of American culture has regressed to a pitiful state of barbaric, burn-em and churn-em type practices. One need not be a member of PETA to find this objectionable and abhorrent.

The takeaway here is that maybe the critics are right. For whatever reason, be it auto racing, Xbox or whatever else, Americans just don’t care that much about horse racing anymore aside from three weekends of the year each spring. That lack of demand and accountability has led to the deterioration of any ethical standards that may have once existed.

While a Triple Crown victory by California Chrome tomorrow will certainly help solve some immediate publicity issues, horse racing is a sport in desperate need of a much more transformative makeover.

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