The weeks leading up to the 2010 Kentucky Derby fostered some reasonable expectations for Eskendereya to win the race and possibly to become the twelfth colt to win the Triple Crown. As racing fans know all too well, in this sport, there is many a slip between cup and lip. Eskendereya incurred an injury days before the Kentucky Derby and was eventually retired.

With no dominant 3-year-old, the Triple Crown races were not only won by three different colts, but not a single colt raced in all of the races. The lack of a rooting interest for the vast majority of the public had a predictable effect on the business performance of the Triple Crown. While the Kentucky Derby is eagerly anticipated by racing fans, the Preakness and Belmont suffer if fans sense that a Triple Crown accomplishment is highly improbable or know that it is out of the question. In the case of the 2010 Belmont, a Triple Crown sweep was impossible. As a result, even racing fans were largely unfamiliar with the field.

The Kentucky Derby did extremely well in attendance, in spite of rainy weather, with an official count of 155,804, as compared to 153,563 in 2009. The 2010 gathering was the fifth largest in the 136 runnings. The Preakness had a huge increase of people in attendance; the 2010 crowd was 95,760 in contrast to 77,850 the previous year. However, this was accounted for by the relaxation of alcohol restrictions in the infield; the 2009 infield crowd was sparse because of a Pimlico alcoholic beverage policy that caused a boycott, primarily by college-age students. The 2010 Belmont attracted 45,243 people. The last year that there was no chance for a Triple Crown winner was 2009, when 52,681 was the official crowd at Belmont Park. Using this as a benchmark, the 2010 Belmont did poorly with respect to attendance, with a 14.1% decrease.

The television ratings were 9.8 for the Kentucky Derby, which is the same number as in 2009. The Preakness had a rating of 6.4, down from 7.9 in 2009. The Belmont garnered a rating of 2.7, in comparison to a 4.3 in 2009 (click here to see a graph of Belmont Nielsen television ratings in previous years–from 2001-2008).

By contrast to the Belmont TV ratings, the Indianapolis 500–run on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend–had a rating of 3.68, down from 3.96 in 2009; Game 1 of the NBA finals, played on Thursday night or two days before the Belmont, had a 10.4 rating, up by 17% from 2009, mainly because of the classic matchup of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Without a “big horse” to generate buzz, the decline in ratings as the Triple Crown progressed is unsurprising.

The Kentucky Derby racked up $112.7 million in all-sources handle on the Derby-day card, up from $104.8 million in 2009. The comparable Preakness handle was $79.2 million in 2010, down from $86.7 million a year earlier. The 2010 Belmont had all-sources handle for the card of $74.6 million, down by 16.8% from $89.9 million in 2009.

In a year with no colt or filly to generate interest–such as the matchup between Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and the filly Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Preakness—the 2010 Triple Crown did as well as could be expected, especially considering  the relatively stagnant American economy with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate and so many people having given up on finding a job.

Anytime there is a possible Triple Crown champion with a Big Brown or a Smarty Jones to capture people’s attention, the performance metrics will be more satisfactory. Otherwise, as in 2010, the Triple Crown will have to depend on its tradition to bring people to the track, entice them to watch on television, and provoke wagering.

This writer does not as a rule make statements on Horse Racing Business unless they are based on facts and analysis, but here is an opinion based on perception. The quality of the NBC telecasts of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness seemed to me to be superior to the ABC coverage of the Belmont. Not only was the NBC programming smoother and more interesting, but NBC’s on-air personalities were, as a group, more compelling. NBC also did a far better job of creating awareness and interest among potential viewers about the Kentucky Derby and Preakness programs, particularly on its cable channel CNBC. The attractiveness of a telecast is, of course, in the eye of the beholder and others may not share my viewpoint.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. Graeme Beaton says


    I share your opinion on the TV coverage. NYRA really has to drop its demands over a percentage point or two of a shrinking pot, come to the aid of racing nationally and guarantee unified TV coverage. NBC seems interested, while racing seems to get lost in the sauce at ESPN. Also, the three individual tracks need to at least try to attract a sponsor to provide bonuses for running in or winning or placing in each race or all three races of the TC. At the moment there seems little coherence, continuity or cohesiveness to the TC and very little to entice viewers to follow a particular interest from the Derby through the Belmont.