The Brock Talk

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer At Saratoga Success Opens Doors

NBC Sports Group’s Summer at Saratoga series got off to a rousing start last Saturday with the one-hour telecast of the $250,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. 1), one of horse racing’s premier races exclusively for 3-year-old fillies. For the first time in several years, the historic track located in the upstate New York town of Saratoga was featured on network television and they made the most of it.

The Summer at Saratoga series will be featured every Saturday for the next six weeks plus an additional telecast on Sunday, August 7. All programs air from 5:00 – 6:00 pm EDT on either the network’s NBC Sports or on their nationally telecast cable affiliate Versus. This Saturday, the Diana Stakes and the Jim Dandy, both $500,000 grade 1 races, will highlight the Saturday telecast which will air on Versus.

The Diana is for fillies and mares going 1-1/8 miles on the turf while the Jim Dandy is for 3-year-olds going 1-1/8 miles on the dirt. The Jim Dandy is the major local prep race for the Travers Stakes (gr. 1), Saratoga’s signature event and known as the Mid-Summer Derby, to be run August 27. The King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. 1) will also be part of the Aug. 27 telecast on NBC and lists among its possible starters, Uncle Mo and The Factor, both big stars among the 3-year-old ranks this Spring before being sidelined.

According to reports in Thoroughbred Times and, the inaugural Summer at Saratoga telecast drew some 1.18 million viewers who watched It’s Tricky win the Coaching Club American Oaks. To put that in perspective, the Kentucky Derby typically attracts a television audience of approximately 14-16 million viewers while the Belmont Stakes has roughly 5 million watch via television in a non-Triple Crown possible year. Relative to other major sports television ratings, the Derby is typically neck and neck with the Major League Baseball World Series depending which teams make the Fall classic. The San Francisco Giants won game five and the World Series last year over the Texas Rangers in front of a 14.95 million television audience.

The first installment of Summer at Saratoga also attracted more viewers than three of the last five Breeders’ Cups. The Saturday telecasts of the 2006, 2008 and 2009 Breeders’ Cups all fell short of the 1.18 million viewer of last week’s broadcast. Although it was far short of the nearly 3 million who tuned in last year on ESPN to see the strato-popular Zenyatta in her last race before retirement.

Don’t expect these big ratings to continue on the Versus network however. The Versus network is an all-sports network without near the distribution as their bigger brothers over at NBC. They have yet to find a real niche in the very crowded field of national sports networks, with their biggest contract being signed in conjunction with the National Hockey League. The Season at Saratoga premier on NBC attracted roughly the same size audience as Versus gets with their NHL regular season games.

After signing a deal with the NHL at the conclusion of their 2004-05 NHL lockout that cost the league an entire season, NBC Sports and Versus jumped on the opportunity and struck a broadcast deal with the NHL worth. The NBC Sports family has put a great deal of marketing and promotion to the National Hockey League since that contract was first signed and the fans have responded with ratings growth every year since.

It is very possible that the executives at NBC Sports have looked at the vacancy in the American Sports scene in late July and August. When Versus airs the final telecast of the series Sept. 3, Major League Baseball will be nearly four weeks away from the end of their regular season. Although the National Football League Hall of Fame game was scheduled for the afternoon of Aug. 7, it was cancelled due to the NFL lockout.

Even with the NFL preseason resuming, however, NBC Sports suites were keen in observing the NFL preseason games and their start times. Although the Aug. 13 Season at Saratoga telecast will be the same day as many NFL preseason games, the only game set for a national broadcast is Green Bay at Cleveland . And the 7:30 kick-off for that game will be at least 90 minutes after the winner of the Sword Dancer crosses the grassy finish line on Versus.

That pattern holds true the following two weeks of the preseason NFL schedule. New Orleans plays Houston on the same day as the Alabama Stakes (gr. 1) on NBC and the winners of the Travers and King’s Bishop will be out of the test barn and tucked away in their stalls with buckets of hot mash under full assault before New England and Detroit start knocking heads and chipping paint at 8:00 pm.

Having said that, racing still must rally to generate the viewership that NBC vice-presidents have in mind for Summer at Saratoga to be labeled a success – or more importantly – worthy of renewal. Opportunities for races outside the Triple Crown to be telecast by a national network do not present themselves very often. Even the rich and prestigious Breeders’ Cup has been relegated to cable as both days are now shown on the ESPN family of networks.

So the success of the Summer at Saratoga series is potentially very important to horse racing. At a time when the national sports menu is light and even the networks are looking for programming and revenue outside of infomercials, the door has suddenly swung open again for horse racing. It may even be a door similar to the one horse racing slammed shut after World War II when they scoffed at the new technology. Those were disasterous decisions. But telecasts such as the Coaching Club American Oaks last week now have some numbers on which the horse racing supporters at the large networks can rely.

Let’s just keep those numbers up.

NBC/Versus Summer at Saratoga
July 30, Diana and Jim Dandy, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 6, Whitney and Test, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 7, Vanderbilt and Honorable Miss, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 13, Sword Dancer, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 20, Alabama, 5-6 p.m., NBC
Aug. 27, Travers and King’s Bishop, 5-6 p.m., NBC
Sept. 3, Woodward and Forego, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jim Dandy and Haskell Bring Out Old and New Faces Alike

This weekend has traditionally been one my favorite weekends on the horse racing calendar each year. It is when the top 3-year-olds return to racing after the long, seven weeks between the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in the first week of June; and the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and Resorts Casino and Hotel Haskell Invitational (gr. I) this Saturday. It is the weekend when Triple Crown runners typically begin to return to action to meet those that are new to the sophomore scene – having missed the Triple Crown for one reason or the other.

Some might not characterize the seven weeks between the Belmont and the Haskell and Jim Dandy much of a lull anyhow – especially looking at the fields set to run in the Haskell and Jim Dandy this weekend.

Trainer Steve Asmussen won his second Dwyer Stakes (gr. 2) July 2 with Dominus, who ran like he was well-named, winning by some two lengths after leading from the start. Asmussen stays in New York with Dominus who makes his next start Saturday in the Jim Dandy. Peter Pan Stakes (gr. 2) winner Alteration and Matt Winn Stakes (gr. 3) winner Scotus are two other post-Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) stakes winners who will also join the fray in the Jim Dandy.

But the Jim Dandy also features two Triple Crown veterans in Stay Thirsty (second in the Belmont behind Ruler on Ice last out); and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner Brilliant Speed, (third in the Belmont in his last race. So there is plenty of quality for the Jim Dandy with acts as the local Saratoga prep race for the Travers Stakes (gr. I) to be run later this meeting at the Spa.

Past winners of the 1-1/8 mile Jim Dandy include Arts and Letters (1969), Affirmed (’78), Conquistador Cielo (’82), Louis Quatorze (’96), Favorite Trick (’98) and Street Sense in 2007 so there is plenty of quality and history to keep the Jim Dandy on the list of important races for 3-year-olds.

Two Triple Crown race winners are headed for the 1-1/8 mile Haskell at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Preakness (gr. 1) winner Shackleford (photo above) and Belmont winner Ruler On Ice are both expected to enter the Haskell and a win by either, perhaps establishes them as the favorite for champion 3-year-old colt or gelding at year’s end. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was diagnosed with a small fracture to the cannon bone of his left hind leg and will be out of action for an unknown period of time.

Astrology, third in the Preakness; and ninth-place Derby finisher Pants On Fire, are two other Triple Crown alumni headed to the Haskell. Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire, also won the Pegasus (gr. III), the main local prep for the Haskell June 2, defeating Concealed Identity, also back at Monmouth Park for the Haskell.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who won his fourth Haskell with Lookin at Lucky last year, is back with Coil, winner of the grade 3 Affirmed at Hollywood Park in June before being edged by longshot Dreamy Kid in the Swaps (gr. 2) July 9, also at Hollywood.

The Haskell may not have the prestige the Derby, Preakness and Belmont carry, but like the Jim Dandy, there is plenty of history to solidify the importance of Monmouth Park’s signature race. Rachel Alexandra (2009), Big Brown (2008), War Emblem (2002), Point Given (2001), Skip Away (1996), Holy Bull (’94), Bet Twice (’87) and Our Native (’73) are among the Haskell winners’ fraternity.

It is also that time of year when old faces from the Triple Crown and before begin to return while the boys of summer like Scotus, Coil and Dominus have a chance to show their talent against the bigger names.

I again am looking forward to one of my favorites weekends of racing.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Triple Crown Could Benefit From Dog Days of Summer

Just about this time every year the dog days of summer begin as daily triple digit temperatures become the baking norm for some while humidity joins heat to beat down others. If you not just closing your umbrella and taking off you sweater in Seattle, bouncing on a boat in Lake Superior or hiking around Colorado at about 6,000 feet elevation, these are the days when weather is no longer a topic but a concern. It can be dangerously hot.

The dog days of summer are also a miserable time for sports fans with apologies to major league baseball who consider July Fourth the unofficial start of the “things are getting serious in the standings now” season. So by their own definition, many of fans of the boys of summer are just now cranking up their enthusiasm while reading box scores and checking the standings more often.

Fans of the National Football League (in non-lock out years) are still weeks away from training camp and pre-season games; while college football fans are still counting down to the start of their season in months. The National Basketball Association crowned their champions weeks ago, as did the National Hockey League. Women’s World Cup Soccer, Wimbleton Tennis and Derek Jeter’s awkward march toward 3,000 hits are among the major sports stories now and over the July Fourth weekend.

I say this not to sound like the 11-year-old children who repeatedly whine to their mothers, “I’m board!” in every U.S. town and city this time of year. I bring this up to illustrate perhaps a lost opportunity for thoroughbred racing. Let me be clear, however. This is no criticism of racing departments throughout America. They put on a great weekend of racing nationally with Flat Out continuing the trend of upset winners in the older horse division by winning the Suburban (gr. 2); and Smiling Tiger served notice to male sprinters on the West Coast by winning the Triple Bend (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park. Cross country, Teaks North gave similar warning to turf horses with his win the United Nations (gr. 1) at Monmouth Park. The Dwyer (gr. 2) at Belmont Park, the Shoemaker Mile (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park and the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs are just a small sampling of great races this past weekend.

None of those races, however, were nationally televised by a network. They probably never will be. In order for racing to guarantee a network telecast, it has to fire one of their four big bullets – the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup. And the most logical race to move to July 4 weekend – the Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) - third leg of the Triple Crown.

Moving the Belmont Stakes may seem a bit radical, but there has been a large contingent of trainers, owners and media who have criticized the current Triple Crown schedule as to rigid. After the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) is run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness is just two weeks later with three between the second leg and the Belmont Stakes. It has, after all, been 33 years since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978.

Grade 1 horses are not used racing three times in five weeks say these critics. Today’s top thoroughbreds typically race no more frequent than every four to six weeks. Why then, is the sport’s most important series of races substantially different? The answers are as old as they can be annoying.

Because that’s the way it’s always been. You can’t change the way the game is played. It won’t be fair to compare the new Triple Crown winners to the old ones. How do we compare the records?

These are many of the same arguments professional baseball heard when they expanded the schedule from 162 regular season games to 182 games. When the NFL merged with the All-American Football Conference in 1950, they played 12 regular season games. Last year the league played 16 regular season games and are considering 18. Baseball’s American League plays with a designated hitter. It would be difficult to change the game of baseball more that in one fell swoop again. And the NFL has been changing tackling rules going back to when they outlawed clothes line tackles and grabbing face masking.

So you can change the way the game is played as exemplified by the most successful professional North American sports over the last 50 years – baseball and football.

The new Triple Crown would obviously start on the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness could be run four weeks later with the Belmont coming after five more weeks, concluding the Triple Crown each year on the Saturday of the July 4 weekend.

As mentioned above, moving the Belmont Stakes to July 4 weekend would take advantage of the very slow time in American sports. A patriotic Belmont would not likely attract more television viewers than the Coke Zero 400 NASCAR race from Daytona (also run this past weekend), but should have little problem with regular season baseball in early July, Wimbleton Tennis or the Professional Golfers’ Association tournament that week. In years when a potential Triple Crown winner races in the Belmont, horse racing will knock most of these sports out of the proverbial television ratings park.

Stringing out the Triple Crown may also reverse a troubling trend in the races leading up to the Triple Crown. Because of the grueling five week test of the Triple Crown schedule, trainers are running in fewer races preparing for the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown schedule. They want fresh horses going into those races so they are running in few races in the months leading up to the Derby. The last five Kentucky Derby winners had only two prep races in the months before their respective Kentucky Derbies.

That trend hasn’t seemed to impact the major grade 1 Derby preps such as the Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies, nor the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes or Resort World New York Casino Wood Memorial. But early graded preps like the Robert Lewis Stakes, Risen Star Stakes and Holy Bull Stakes are becoming less and less significant. At the very least, they are currently less attractive to the trainers with Kentucky Derby aspirations than in years past.

In the modern sports arena horse racing has been relegated to a position far below the NFL, college football and NASCAAR in their popularity and ability to draw television viewers. Major league baseball and the National Basketball Association may have challenges in the televisions ratings for given games, but their popularity is unquestionably above that of horse racing. Trainers, like football coaches and baseball managers, have a strong tendencies to copy what the champions are doing.

In such a competitive environment for the attention and dollars of American sports fans, there are very few opportunities to acquire a bigger piece of the sports pie. It would take more than a few tweaks to change the schedule of the Triple Crown, and it would no doubt create long debates comparing Triple Crown winners of yore with any future horse who may win the three races in the classic series.

Sometimes big change can also result in big pay-offs. To be fair they can end with big failures too. But horse racing may have an opportunity. It is an opportunity to capitalize on a slow time on our nation’s sports calendar. It is an opportunity to align one of our premier events with a big national holiday. And an opportunity to excel in when others are melting in the dog days of summer.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Texans Will Need Alamo Spirit For Next Two Years

After twelve days of battling the massive army of Mexican general Santa Anna, on March 6, 1836 the small garrison of men defending the Alamo Mission near modern-day San Antonio were defeated. Less than 200 Texians battled the estimated 1,500 Mexican soldiers but were eventually over run in the bloody and cruel battle.

Only two Texians survived to tell of the horrors of the battle, but their reports inspired a sudden onslaught of Texas settlers and additional adventurers from the United States to join the Texian Army. Under the flag of the Texas Republic and with “Remember the Alamo!” as their battle cry, the Texian Army defeated the Mexicans just 45 days after the loss at the Alamo mission near San Antonio de Bexar. The battle of San Jacinto thus ended the Texas revolution and returned southern Texas to the Republic.

Today the Alamo still exists in San Antonio, not as a mission, but rather as a shrine to the spirit of Texas. The “Remember the Alamo” cry still exists in modern state culture in recognition of Texas tenacity, determination and pride.

Now the Texas horse racing industry must embrace that “come back against difficult odds” spirit that was so inspired by the Alamo. Again, the Texas State legislature concluded another session (the most recent a special session) without passing the bill that would have allowed voters to decide if they wanted slot machines at horse and greyhounds tracks and casinos on federally recognized Indian reservations in Texas.

Now those involved in Texas horse racing must endure two more years without the gaming supplements that are pushing purses at competitive tracks in neighboring states ever higher.

“It’s like fighting your competition with one hand tied behind your back,” Bart Lang, Director of Racing at Lone Star Park, told The Brock Talk recently. “We’ve had to cut purses this year and I’m sure we’ll have to cut purses again next year. Every year we are having more trouble competing.”

Trainer Bret Calhoun is a native of Grand Prairie and was raised very near to where Lone Star Park now sits. His barn has grown from a small operation when Lone Star Park opened in 1997 into a nationally ranked stable, winning two Breeders’ Cup races in 2010 with Dubai Majesty (Filly and Mare Sprint); and Chamberlain Bridge (Turf Sprint.) “I’ve tried to encourage some of my Texas owners to run their horses in other states,” Calhoun said. “But some of them want to race in Texas. So I’ll have horses [in Texas] until horse racing is extinct in the state. It will just have to be a different caliber of horse.”

Ken Carson, general manager of Valor Farm in Pilot Point, Texas said the impact of slot legislation not passing will easily reach the breeding industry. “The last time the slot legislation did not pass [in 2009], it triggered a very big lull in the Texas breeding industry,” Carson said. “When the slot bill failed this time, we at least have Global Gaming at Lone Star Park. When Global Gaming got Lone Star Park, that may have been the single biggest moment in Texas racing since pari-mutuel wagering came back to Texas in 1989.”

Global Gaming is the gaming arm of the Chickasaw Nation based in Ada, Oklahoma. Lone Star Park is the second track purchased by Global Gaming, which also purchased Remington Park in Oklahoma City for $80.25, taking possession of that track in January 2010. They quickly spent a reported $15 million on Remington Park and fans in Oklahoma responded with record attendance last year.

Global Gaming recently took control of Lone Star Park after purchasing the track for a reported $47.8 million from Magna Entertainment which bankrupted the track. “I don’t have a problem with the individuals who work at Lone Star Park, but Magna as a corporation did nothing for Texas racing,” Carson said. “They did nothing to improve the grandstand and the backside is literally falling apart.”

Lang said no improvement plans have been solidified for the stable area but the Post Time Pavilion off-track-betting facility at the track will undergo significant renovation in the coming months. “We’re still in the planning stages of work to be done on the barns,” Lang said. “But it doesn’t bother me that money is being spent to improve the front side. The Post Time Pavilion is where our purse money comes from.”

For at least another two years, on-track and simulcast wagering will be the only revenue sources for purse accounts at Texas tracks. At the same time, prize money at tracks like Sunland Park in New Mexico, Remington Park, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Louisiana Downs will continue to grow due to the supplements of additional gaming in their respective states.

The failure by the Texas state legislature to pass the slot legislation was certainly a punch in the stomach of horse racing and breeding in Texas, but it had a more far reaching impact outside of racing as well. The slot bill that went to the state Senate floor before the threatened filibuster of Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, also included a provision to create the Performance Horse Development Fund. The PHDF would be created with funds from revenues created by slots at race tracks in the state and would be used to promote many other breeds and horse disciplines throughout Texas.

Jeff Hooper, executive director of the National Cutting Horse Association based in Fort Worth, Texas, said that in it’s entirety, the PHDF may be worth between $10 and $30 million according to some estimations. That is money that would be used by entities such as the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, the NCHA and the state department of agriculture for various programs, services and shows in Texas.

“It was a large disappointment when the slot bill failed,” Hooper said. “But it just means that we will work diligently toward getting this legislation passed in 2013. It also means that anybody who has a vested interest in any horse activity in Texas has reason to work toward getting this bill passed.”

Although Lone Star Park has been the leader among the Texas horse racing facilities and has an infusion of security from new ownership, the other two class I tracks in the state also appear to be ready to weather the storm. Penn National Gaming recently purchased Sam Houston Race Park in Houston and it appears Retama Park near San Antonio secured financing from CFMB Holdings in New York to operate at least until the next legislative session in two years.

That also means there are some awfully big players that have tall stacks of chips sitting on the come bet of slots eventually being allowed at Texas tracks. That appears to be the silver lining for a horse industry that is supposed to be so much part of the Texas identity yet is repeatedly ignored by those in the state capital. Seems a difficult part of Lone Star culture for lawmakers to miss. After all, they have to pass the Cowboy Memorial and Texas Ranger statues on their way to work. Both figures are mounted on horses in front of the Texas state capitol building. (Mounted is a relative term with regard to the cowboy of course.)(Photo left)

Like the Texians at San Jacinto in 1836, who gathered supporters both from within and outside the state, horse racing too much rally their troops. And just as the Texians avenged the loss at the Alamo and eventually won the Texas revolution, horse racing must overcome the repeated losses thrown at them by their state legislatures both past and present.

Remember the Purse Cuts!