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Big hopes for Big Brown--commentary

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By Mike Forster

Has the sport of kings found its Prince Charming?

With Big Brown?s crushing victory in last weekend?s Kentucky Derby, the horse racing industry has its best shot at a Triple Crown contender since Affirmed accomplished the feat back in 1978.

Since the year of Affirmed?s sweep, thoroughbred racing has been on the decline. In fact, since the 1920s, a sport that was the most popular in America has been pushed aside by other forms of legalized gambling and competition from other sports. The three-decade dearth of a triple crown winner (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes) has also had something to do with that decline. Therefore, it needs a fix.

And there is nothing like a popular personality to get you that fix: To get (paying) folks excited about a sport.

Golf found Tiger Woods, who picked up where the sport left off when Arnie and Jack stepped aside.

During baseball?s bleakest days, Cal Ripken, Jr. stepped up to revive the sport with his pursuit of the Iron Man record.

Michael Jordan became the face of the NBA as he led it back to popularity (OK, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had a lot to do with that).

Danica Patrick is helping to lift the numbers for Formula One racing.

The sport of horse racing has had no such hero to help it out of its downward trend. In the past, such legendary thoroughbreds as Seabiscuit and Secretariat piqued the interest of the entire nation. Big Brown, starting from the furthest outside position, put on a performance that puts him on track to be the equine equivalent of Wayne Gretzky.

Not only did the big fella trounce the field, he had to make up an additional 150-200 yards because of that unfavorable starting post.

Big Brown?s performance was as Secretariat-like a run as you?ll probably see in your lifetime.

Sure, there have been horses over the past three decades that have made a run at the Triple Crown. Many of these had personalities with staying power. However, falling short of winning it all equates to falling out of the limelight. The national interest that comes with the chase for the Triple Crown is only sustained for those that win it. And, make no mistake, Big Brown will win it.

Don?t think that the folks who run racing don?t want to see this happen. There is a reason that the Preakness and Belmont fields will be somewhere between 8 and 12 horses, as opposed to the Kentucky Derby?s 21.

Make no mistake, the sport is grateful for the hype the run-up to a triple crown can generate. But that five week period is peanuts compared with what a real, live triple crown winner can bring to this moribund sport.

A Triple Crown winner can make the loop through Saratoga, Gulfstream, Santa Anita and the other major tracks. Win or lose, such a horse is sure to up the crowds, the media and (of course) the take at the betting windows.

Will Big Brown be horse racing?s panacea? The smart money says that he will. However, unless he wins his next two races, we?ll never know.