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Could a California Chrome Triple Crown hurt racing?

California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, gallops during morning workouts at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York June 4, 2014.
Reuters
California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, gallops during morning workouts at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York June 4, 2014.

California Chrome's bid Saturday to win the Triple Crown has the horse racing world captivated, but the achievement actually could be detrimental to spurring more interest in the sport.

Some who follow racing argue that the 36-year dry spell without a Triple Crown winner is one of the best things to happen to the industry.

Horse racing is all about the chase, the pageantry, the legends. The language of race coverage is dripping with more sugar than a mint julep. If California Chrome wins, some fear the legend and the heartbreaking near misses will need another three decades or so to rebuild into the chest-clenching anticipation the industry has achieved thanks to the lack of a hero horse winning the ultimate prize.

If victorious, California Chrome will become only the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown when he runs at the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y.

The event comes as the sport of kings has not received the royal treatment as of late.

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The problem with horse racing, though, isn't the big three Triple Crown races—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes—it's generating interest all season long. Capturing the imaginations of young potential fans, exposing part-time fans to the drama of a Triple Crown race, and bringing in new revenue streams like high-profile sponsors all carry the hope of renewed interest in the sport.

People inside the industry have mastered the art of anticipation.

The Triple Crown races themselves last less than a total of seven minutes. The buildup to big races is pumped and pumped until it's just about to burst; deep story lines are dug up and examined from every angle.

Daily attendance at horse tracks around the country is in an overall decline but attendance at the Crown races are actually ringing in records.

"We haven't been profitable in years but will be this year. This will be one of the most profitable Belmonts ever," Christopher Key, CEO of the New York Racing Association, which owns Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct race tracks, told CNBC.

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At this year's Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs recorded its second-highest attendance ever at 164,906 while 15.3 million people watched on NBC, a number that was down 6 percent from 2013's TV audience. (NBC is owned by Comcast, the parent company of CNBC)

At Pimlico Race Course two weeks later, a record crowd of 123,469 watched California Chrome claim victory in the Preakness Stakes with another 9.6 million watching on television.

Big Brown was the last horse to go for the Triple Crown. When he finished 10th at the Belmont in 2008, it was before a crowd of 94,476 while another 13 million watched on ABC. When Smarty Jones tried for the crown in 2004, a still-record crowd of 120,319 fans attended.

When a Triple Crown contender is running, the Belmont averages 16 million television viewers compared to an average of 7 million during years without one. NBC has extended its Kentucky Derby deal for 10 years through 2025 but has not signed up to renew Preakness and Belmont deals yet. Would a California Chrome victory change that?

If California Chrome takes the crown, a whole new generation will see horse racing history for the first time. When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, today's 35 and younger demo was not yet born.

If a football player likes playing in the mud, does anyone care? Is there another sport where you know the athletes' parents and grandparents and the heartbreak each endured in their own careers? Ah, heartbreak. That seems to be one of the most-used phrases in the horse racing industry. But, is it the heartbreak that keeps fans coming back?

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A reinvigoration of the industry has some new tools to help it along. Wagering on a race is easier than ever thanks to technology. Like almost everything else, odds, race times and results are a tap away on your smartphone.

Some industry insiders are pushing to spread out the big three races to make room for even more buzz generation. Racing purists argue this would dilute the integrity of horse racing's greatest prize.

California Chrome has already carried the industry near the edge of the spotlight again. If he wins and thrusts his sport firmly back in for a few moments, it's anyone bet where it will go from there.

You can lead a horse to water…

—By CNBC's Shannan Siemens, a "Fast Money" producer, Kentucky native and horse racing enthusiast who writes about the sport occasionally for CNBC.com. Jessica Golden, sports business and field producer at CNBC, contributed to this report.

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