Friday, May 30, 2008

Will a Triple Crown Winner Matter?

I was chatting with my sister today and as we wondered from topic to topic, she asked if I thought Big Brown was going to win the Belmont Stakes. Now Stephanie is a sports fan, more specifically she's a huge Red Sox and Patriots fan, though she's been known to dabble in World Cup soccer and Triple Crown races. In short, she's the type of casual fan that racing needs to retain throughout the year. Her specific comment to me was, "God I hope he wins! It's been so long since there's been a Triple Crown winner!"

That got me thinking about all that I've been reading about Big Brown's connections - Dutrow's suspensions and past drug issues and IEAH's all about the money philosophy. Much of this reading was coming from industry insiders and I'm not just talking about blogs, many conversations with friends in the industry also revolved around these topics. So while I haven't written about it, I also have been feeling that way.

I think we all have it wrong. While I agree that Big Brown's connections are a far cry from Carl Nafzger and Francis Genter, the HORSE is what drives the casual fan to watch and care. It's not the connections, it's the horse. A Triple Crown winner will put racing on the front of every sports section in the country - probably even above the fold! More importantly, a Triple Crown winner will delight and capture the imagination of the casual fan.

Of course the impact of a Triple Crown winner, should IEAH decide to 'protect' their investment and either retire or race in only the Breeder's Cup, would be minimal. In fact, it could even be damaging. After a few months when Big Brown isn't heard of again outside of racing circles,what impetus does the casual fan have to keep watching? Will they ever tune in again when we keep taking our stars out of the game just as they get drawn into the game? I think the casual fan will continue to tune us out. Why would they get emotionally invested when, after six weeks, you can't follow your horse anymore?

The horse is indeed the star. For many casual fans, Secretariat was the greatest horse they have ever seen or heard of in their lives. They can't tell you about Meadow Stable or Penny Chenery or Ron Turcotte. Don't even ask about Lucien Lauren. I know with my horses that they have great and varied personalities. It's too bad that racing can't find a way to capitalize on that. I'm not sure how you can market a horse or at what magnitude does an individual horse become a star. Do our biggest stars go on tour like days of old? Should Canterbury and other "minor" racing circuits hold Big Brown Day (for example) when folks can come out to the track and get their picture taken in the winner's circle with the big horse? Maybe you charge $5 a picture donated to the Don MacBeth Foundation. But the point would be to showcase the star. For those of you that don't know, at Canterbury the owners are separated from the horse in the winners circle by being on a podium behind a wall - this way you can mitigate the odds of the horse getting spooked or hurt by too much fan contact.

Does racing a horse through it's 5-year old season help cultivate the casual fan? Maybe they would be more inclined to follow the offspring of horses that they have followed for 4 years. You can bet that they won't get revved up for the offspring of a horse that they have been following for six weeks and then disappeared. When, if ever, does the owner's obligation to the sport outweigh the monetary gain? If a Triple Crown winner goes on another year or two and "only" wins another $3 million and "only" wins eight of eleven races is it really that much of a blow if the horse goes on to cover 100 mares a year for the next dozen years? The owners would still be fantastically wealthy and the sport would be better off - much better off. The stumbling block is not necessarily greed, though. There are no guarantees that this horse, or any horse would be able to make it another two seasons without injury. How many breeding years does a horse have? There are no guarantees and many owners feel you have to strike when the iron is hot. Maybe Jess Jackson is playing it right with Curlin by giving the people what they want and rolling the dice. You can't control freak accidents, but with careful management and better breeding practices (well THAT's a post in and of itself) we should race our heroes for another year or two. We need to grow the fan base, not continue to help it shrink.

I'll root for Big Brown next weekend - not for Dutrow or IEAH, but for the good of our sport and for casual fans like my sister. A Triple Crown winner matters.


tvnewsbadge said...

Enjoyed your article, but I'm not so sure that a Triple Crown is going to matter much regarding the public perception of horse racing.

I believe horse racing has become too much of a "niche" sport to ever recover it's former glory.

Big Brown wasn't even on the radar of my local TV sportscaster the day after the Preakness. No mention at all.

And wasn't the TV audience for the Preakness, even after all the pub about Big Brown at the K. Derby and the Eight Belles tragedy in the tank?

Certainly, the Triple Crown is going to be very exciting for those of us into the sport, but beyond the folks who are already fans, it's just going to be a minor blip on the sports fans radar, forgotten by August.


Ted G said...

TvNB - It's a sad state of affairs to be sure. While I agree thay we'll never see popularity like the glory years (racing missed that boat years ago and by a country mile), I think one of the only ways to build a fan base now is to try and capitalize on what we do have. I think Eight Belles did more to hurt the Preakness than anything else, but the real test will be the ratings next Saturday for the Belmont. If we can't move the ratings up for a potential TC, maybe we are indeed past the point of no return...

Jack said...

I was at Canterbury today and during the pre-race discussion/analysis PA and Gorg both expressed their dislike for Big Brown's connections and what it meant for horse racing but they also expressed their admiration for the horse and stated that that was their focus.

I've "always" been a casual fan of racing and recently more interested and now that I'm an owner I of course pay more attention and notice the positives and negatives of the sport and try to guage what it means long term.

When are you planning to run Fizzy again? We're in the 4th this Fri and it looks like a solid field but I like our chances and look forward to the same sucess Fizzy had moving to the turf and distance.