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Racing industry banking on Triple Crown winner

California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, gallops during morning workouts at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York June 6, 2014. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, gallops during morning workouts at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York June 6, 2014. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

By Julian Linden

NEW YORK (Reuters) - California Chrome's fairytale bid to win the elusive Triple Crown has put U.S. horse racing right in the sporting spotlight. The sport of kings is suddenly popular again and everyone is giddy with excitement.

The horse and his oddball connections have become instant celebrities, with their every move broadcast on American television, newspapers and the internet.

Towns in California are being decorated in the horse's purple and green silks and school kids are making videos and rap songs about "Chromie".

His rags to riches story has captivated the country, giving fresh hope to the idea that anyone can strike it rich with hard work and a bit of luck.

More than 120,000 people are expected to cram into Belmont Park on Saturday to witness the colt's bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years while millions more will watch on television.

"Horses like this don't come out that often. He's truly a gifted horse - very athletic and it will be a big boost for the industry," said Martin Panza, the senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association (NYRA).

"When you can get 120,000 people out to Belmont Park, we're exposing a lot of people to the sport and the majesty of these horses running. So it's a positive thing."

No-one will be willing California Chrome on to victory more than the racing community, hoping a Triple Crown success will help revive the sport. Even the connections of rival horses have said they would love to see him win.

Like boxing, horse racing's golden era seems a distant past, more suited to the age of black and white television than today's world of cell phones and social media.

Once a hugely popular sport, all the key indicators point to an industry in decline and the buzz about Saturday's race is a rarity for the sport rather than a reflection of its popularity.

Apart from a few iconic events such as the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup, attendances at race tracks across the country are down.

Betting figures, television viewership, even the number of foals being born each year are all in decline, while other sports, particularly pro football and basketball, go from strength to strength.

If the odds of California Chrome, who was bred by two workers for just $10,500, completing the Triple Crown are long, the odds of him single-handedly reviving the industry would be astronomical, though everyone agrees a victory on Saturday would at least give the sport a boost.

NYRA president Chris Kay said he hoped the unlikely take of California Chrome might convince other people to get involved in the sport as owners.

"The hearts and minds of race fans around the world have been captivated by California Chrome," he said.

"What they have shown is that in this great sport of ours, dreams really do come true.

"I won't ever be able to afford a $2 billion NBA basketball team but I certainly can afford to be an owner or even a part owner of a horse."

Steve Coburn, one of California Chrome's two co-owners, said he fell in love with horse racing when his wife first took him to see a race live.

He said he hoped a Triple Crown winner would raise the profile of the sport and convince more people to get along to the races.

"I hope it brings more people to the racetrack because horse racing needs an uplift in the United States, it really does," Coburn told Reuters.

"It's easier for people to sit in their air conditioned houses and watch TV and make bets than it is to go to the track.

"But the sound and the sight and the smell of horses is just something that people really need to experience."

(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Gene Cherry)

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