Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Simply Put -Opportunity Missed

By: Wesley D. White

Will this continue to be the statement made regarding horse racing? Will the leaders that govern the game of horse racing continue to drop the ball? The spectacle that is The Triple Crown, The Breeders Cup, in America at least seem to be so far removed from the reality of the way that this great sport should be treated. Curlin Vs Big Brown, Rachel Alexandra Vs Zenyatta, and now Havre De Grace vs. Blind Luck. Rivalries that either never materialized on the track or while being contested on the track have gone virtually unheard and ignored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

The decree from the NTRA and its governing body and many others in the industry is that people are not there in the stands to support the sport. People don’t put their money into the product, but what product are we supplying them. What mainstream publicity & marketing is there to hold on to as fans, and non fans of the sport?

Thinking back to 2008 when Big Brown was making his splash on the national scene, the publicity was horrible for his group of owners, they were viewed as crooks. Then to be trained by a conditioner with a laundry list of violations as long as most convicts rap sheets didn’t help the situation. But a budding rivalry was there for the taking. Curlin the defending HOY and top rated horse in the world was going about his business, as consistent as ever, Big Brown going into the Derby and Preakness undefeated stubbed his toe a bit in the Belmont, but lost nothing in defeat, he was a champion race horse. And what did the NTRA and their governing bodies do to put these two competitors on the national stage & on the track. Absolutely nothing, we know there was plenty of banter as Rick Dutrow talked the talk, remember his statement after the Haskell win, "Curlin couldn't win the Derby, we could, Curlin couldn't win [the Haskell], we could. Curlin got beat [by] a filly. We haven't. Our horse is undefeated on the grass. Curlin isn't. I don't know why people think Curlin is such a good horse. We're way better than Curlin."

Jess Jackson principle owner of Curlin came back in a statement and showed his hand when saying: "I don't know that there is any horse his equal right now and I loved to match Big Brown," said Jess Jackson, owner of Curlin. "I never thought he (Big Brown) was as good but I've always wanted to find out? At the wire you find out. That's when you know what you have."

So the setting was there, the table was set everything was in place for the NTRA to communicate with both sets of connections, set up the race, there were plenty of options and ample time before the Breeders Cup for the two warriors to square off a couple of times before the Cup. The Woodward run at Saratoga and the JCGC run at Belmont were both the most logical spots, and that is where champion horses run. But there was no movement by the NTRA or anyone else for that matter; they both went their separate ways. We all know what happened, as BB suffered an injury and Curlin finished out his career at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

What are we to make of these developments, or the lack there of? Well the industry is suffering, and it seems as if someone is waiting for some miracle to occur that fixes the problem. Instead of being proactive and jumping at the opportunity to put our stars on the front page of the media and engage the general public, those that govern horse racing figure that it should stand on it’s on. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, and what better way to invigorate the industry than to start with the body that governs horse racing. The game previously was for the older, upper class citizens who would spend their time and money at racetracks across the country. It seems as if this is the demographic of those on the committees making decisions for the ntra. I would see the need for some younger blood or move innovative thinking members to take the reins. Forward thinking, now that’s a concept that we’ve not seen in a very long time, anticipating what might work out much better in the future. Therefore putting a vice grip on the younger audience and those women that have always thought that horse racing was a man’s pastime.

Innovative thinking is what propels great companies to do even greater things in the future. Innovative thinking means making it more attractive to place your horse in a certain race to run against another that would be considered a rival. The NTRA could step in and state that if both Big Brown and Curlin entered the starting gate of the Woodward that: all nomination fees, all shipping fees, all vetting fees and a 50,000 incentive check would go to each set of connections, advertise the race and purchase an hour on a national television station. The buildup would have been amazing. The race would have been something for the ages. More than anything though horse racing would have been center stage on a Saturday night with the two top horses in the world or at least the Unites States running at Saratoga. Is this Missed Opportunity instead of Forward or Innovative thinking?

We won’t rehash the Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta situation. I believe there was some form of ducking and rightfully so coming from each side. The consensus nationwide though especially after Rachel garnered the attention she did by winning the Oaks by 20 and then wheeling back two weeks and defeating males, was that these two super stars needed to meet a couple of times at the very least. Missed opportunity, absolutely, the only races that would have been appropriate for these two would have been the Personal Ensign and the Beldame. Both of these races could have easily been on the schedule of both superstars. There didn’t need to be much forward thinking with this one, it just needed to be common sense and the will power to make it happen. Instead of doing that the powers that be sat on their hands and allowed both fillies to go their way and missed most likely the greatest opportunity and spectacle in the history of the sport. Incredible Kudos to Charles Cella to try to make the super race happen at Oaklawn, unfortunately both stars were not at full steam by Mid April. Is this missed opportunity instead of forward or innovative thinking?

Moving forward to 2011, and coming out of 2010 two fillies, one on the East coast and another on the West coast had met a few times on the track. This rivalry actually took place on the track in 2010 with Blind Luck having a 3-1 edge over all and a 2-1 edge in races which one of the fillies triumphed. It really wouldn’t have taken a great deal in 2011 to get this rivalry budding and on the thoughts and minds of people. The First matchup at Oaklawn Park went by with very little if any fanfare, as Havre De Grace triumphed by almost 4 lengths in the Azeri Stakes. Opportunity Missed, to the fullest, but there was plenty of time left in the year of racing. Going forward the two fillies went their separate way for the next race, prep for the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park. One would assume with such a colossal clash of the titans ranked #1 and #2 in the NTRA poll that the industry would show by means of publicity and marketing that they wanted to get behind these two great horses prior to this race. Unfortunately not, nowhere in the main stream media was this race made mention of, and what an opportunity lost here as these two dueled with each other double digit lengths in front of the nearest competitor to the finish line with Blind Luck winning by the length of a nose over her rival. Stuff of legends, easily, unfortunately only, and I repeat only die hard race fans were able to witness such a stirring renewal of the rivalry. What makes it worse is the fact that the race was not guaranteed to go off until the weights had been released by the racing secretary and one set of connections received the two pound allowance that was afforded their filly. The Trainer stating in an interview afterwards: “I thought she should get some weight from Havre de Grace,’’ Hollendorfer said. “I wasn’t going to run if they put me at equal weights or gave me a pound. They gave us two pounds. We’re coming into her backyard.’’ This did not deter either side as they both showed up and gave a performance that will go down in history as one of the great female 1 ¼ races in history. Where was the national media, where was ntra with the marketing and promotions and publicity. They were nowhere to be found.

This article is being written on August 9th of 2011, and as of approximately less than a month ago the NTRA released a website promoting the rivalry. I again give a great deal of credit to Bob Ehalt a writer at NTRA who has kept the rivalry on the front page of that website as much as possible, but in viewing the website created for the rivalry, I wonder if there wasn’t a more professional way to put this together, this showcase of the top two runners in America. Is this missed opportunity instead of forward or innovative thinking?

As a lover of the sport of Kings, myself like many others only want what’s best for the game and for the industry as a whole. The problem we are faced with right now is not an insurmountable one; it’s one that needs fixing by means of some shake up at the core or foundation of the entities that govern the sport. As of right now they are doing so in a very passive manner, the sport should have new blood willing to take chances, yes mistakes might be made, but that is going to be considered better than not doing anything at all. Promote big days of racing, and I am referring to more than just the “Summers’ at Saratoga” campaign, although a wonderful program, there are times when racing dates like this just don’t fit the regular mold of what one would consider a marketing bonanza. These two fillies Havre De Grace and Blind Luck, they are your marketing bonanza, there for the older and more experienced race fans, they are there for the young fans or newbies if you will and they are there for the ladies to latch onto, and be diehard fans of both. I would hope that we see change in the future so that the game can progress by means of innovative, forward planning and thinking, why, so that main stream America can know exactly who these superstars on the race track are and therefore giving the game the chance to not only be known as the “sport of kings” but the “Sport of the people”.


keltic said...

Definitely food for thought here. This is one of your best. Thanks!

Brian Appleton said...

Really good piece Wes, and you're right. There have been far too many missed opportunities in horse racing...especially with the amazing events that have taken place in the last several years.
When they promoted the Breeders' Cup Classic last year that was a step in the right direction, but they never keep the momentum going.

Cigar said...

The truth of the matter is....the racing industry is far more concerned about promoting the breeding industry end of the sport....It's been that way for sometime now.

Derek Simon said...

The emphasis on breeding has really been evident in the sport since Day 1. A thoroughbred, after all, is supposed to represent the pinnacle of genetic achievement — the perfect blend of speed and stamina. However, the influx of money from foreign buyers that began in the '80s and '90s is what, I believe, fundamentally changed the game.

That said, I think all of us diehard fans need to realize that the game HAS changed and we simply cannot look to the folks that changed it to put Pandora back in her box. I love your sentiment and your vision of racing, Wes, but I am extremely doubtful that the Sport of Kings will embrace your cure — for the simple fact that it never has before.

As much as my non-gambling friends hate to hear this, I truly believe that racing needs to highlight its “game” aspect. Horse lovers — and most of the horseracing industry — argue that, like baseball fans drawn to Ray Kinsella's cornfield, the gamblers will come. Yet, the evidence suggests the opposite is true. Racing begin to fade from national prominence when alternative means of gambling, i.e. state lotteries and casinos, began to sprout up.

And we only need look at the example of poker to see the allure of gambling, especially among the coveted younger demographic.