MARYLAND, MY MARYLAND

Post-Preakness Stakes reflections on Maryland Thoroughbred breeding and racing, historically and in the future:

The cradle of Thoroughbred breeding in the United States is Virginia. However, its next-door neighbor Maryland was also a place where blooded stock was bred before there was a United States. In 1747, the Provincial Governor of Maryland, Samuel Ogle, started Belair Stud in what is today Prince Georges County, close to Washington, DC.

In 1898, William Woodward Sr. of New York City purchased Belair Stud. Although Woodward was born in New York, part of his family roots were in colonial Maryland. Belair Stud was the leading Thoroughbred nursery in the United States for many years, breeding two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and his son Omaha, and was a major force in Europe as well. Moreover, Woodward was chairman of the Jockey Club for two decades.

Upon Woodward’s death in 1950, his son William Jr. took over Belair Stud. The Belair dynasty ended tragically when William Jr. was shot and killed by his wife in their New York home in October 1955, when she mistook him for a prowler. His champion 3-year-old of 1955, Nashua, was sold for a then-record price of over a million dollars to a syndicate headed by Leslie Combs of Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky. Today, the Belair Stud stable is a museum.

From 1933 until 1986, Alfred G. Vanderbilt II bred top-quality Thoroughbreds at his Sagamore Farm in Baltimore County. This is where the “grey ghost” Native Dancer is buried.

In the 1960s, Maryland again became a focal point for the Thoroughbred breeding industry after Toronto industrialist E. P. Taylor purchased a farm and established an American branch of his Windfields. Taylor sent his 1964 Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer to stand there, and the Dancer became the preeminent worldwide sire of his time.

Maryland is an historically notable racing state, with the Maryland Jockey Club founded in 1743. George Washington reportedly traveled to Annapolis to watch races.

Havre de Grace racetrack (1912-1950) attracted such greats as Exterminator and Triple Crown champions Sir Barton and Citation.

Bowie racetrack was the winter venue for Maryland racing until 1985, when it closed and was turned into a training center. It was not unusual to see the likes of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in attendance at the Bowie races during the 1940s and 1950s.

Laurel Park racetrack (circa 1911) outside Washington , DC was once the site of some premier racing, and in particular the Washington DC International at 1 ½ miles on the turf. Matt Winn, who built the Kentucky Derby into America’s premier race, was brought in to manage and promote Laurel Park in 1914.

Pimlico,  in Baltimore, has been home to the Preakness Stakes for most of the runnings since 1873. The track hosted the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938.

Timonium still holds a short race meet during the Maryland State Fair in late August and early September.

Currently, the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton is the base of some outstanding trainers, including Michael Matz and Graham Motion. Barbaro and Animal Kingdom were prepared for the Triple Crown at Fair Hill. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations is headquartered in Elkton.

Having attended graduate school and taught at the University of Maryland some 40 years ago, I can recall a vibrant Maryland Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. In the years since then, I’ve watched from afar as the situation has deteriorated, with the occasional mention made of moving the Preakness out of state.

During NBC-TV’s telecast of the 2012 Preakness Stakes, the network carried a vignette about Kevin Plank, who went from being a University of Maryland football player to founder of what has become the hugely successful clothing company Under Armour. NBC described and showed how Mr. Plank bought and revitalized a dilapidated Sagamore Farm.

In my mind, this can be an omen. With a relatively young home-grown doer like Kevin Plank—and many other dedicated people in the Free State–the future of Thoroughbred racing and breeding can be a lot brighter. It would help immensely if elected state officials join in preserving the heritage and the jobs.

Maryland has always had dedicated and savvy people–like the late John Schapiro, Jim McManus, and Frank DeFrancis–who sheparded racing through good times and bad. I am rooting for their successors to find a way to save and enhance the racing and breeding franchise that has been around since more than 30 years before the Declaration of Independence from Mother England.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

TINKERING WITH THE TRIPLE CROWN TELECASTS

Determining the appropriate content for horse racing telecasts is not a cut-and-dried matter. The difficulty lies in striking the right mix for an audience that runs the gamut from channel surfers to ardent fans.

Steve Byk of SiriusXM and Randy Moss of ABC Sports/ESPN were recently discussing this balancing act on Byk’s program “At the Races and Beyond.” Moss said that racing telecasts get roundly criticized on horse-racing forums and blogs for being too elementary. Byk replied that he often watches races on the portals of advance deposit wagering companies rather than on cable or network television.

Any teacher, particularly in complex subjects, has experienced the ongoing challenge of delivering material that is within the grasp of less knowledgeable or less capable students, while not turning off more advanced members of a class. The same dexterity is required on horse-racing telecasts.

Racing enthusiasts and handicappers usually prefer in-depth television coverage of the entrants and how the race may transpire, whereas most viewers appreciate background stories, and some desire primers on the sport.

The task of crafting content is especially perplexing in the Triple Crown telecasts because the audience is so large and diverse. Some people who tune in to the Kentucky Derby may only watch one race a year, while at the other extreme are close followers of racing, and the vast majority of viewers are somewhere in between.

NBC-TV to some degree tackles this issue by supplementing its telecasts with online resources and programs on its cable television channel NBC Sports Network. Specialized website content enables NBC to cater to everyone from beginners to seasoned fans. NBC states: “We dig deep to offer rich, exclusive content.” The NBC Sports Network is the outlet for fans wanting to keep up with key races leading up to the Triple Crown, though many viewers do not have access to it.

Another approach to addressing the wide disparity in both audience expertise and degree of interest in horse racing would be for NBC-TV to alter the present format for the Saturday telecasts of the Triple Crown races. A 30-minute segment prior to each of the main race telecasts could be dedicated to informing and educating new and casual racing fans; it might focus, for example, on the basics of horse racing, human interest vignettes, and the history of the race being run. A subsequent 30-minute segment could be customized for viewers whose foremost interest is in handicapping the race. Thereafter, a condensed (by 60 minutes) and faster-paced version of the principal race telecast would revert to the normal fare for a mass audience.

This tinkering would leave the substance of the normal Triple Crown telecasts largely unchanged, while offering more concentrated subjects for viewers, ranging from neophytes about racing to experts.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Used with permission.

Postscript:

The 2012 Kentucky Derby telecast had an estimated 14.8 million viewers, according to Neilsen Company. This was the third highest-rated Kentucky Derby in 23 years. In addition, the 2012 telecast had the third highest rating for a sports program in the first four-plus months of 2012, behind the Super Bowl and the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.

The Derby telecast had a rating of 9 and a share of 20, which was a 6% increase over 2011. This means that 9% of all American TV households were tuned in to the Kentucky Derby. Moreover, 20% of the American households that actually had their televisions turned on were watching the Kentucky Derby.

There is a high probability that the audience for the Kentucky Derby is underestimated because of so many people watching at parties and sports bars. For instance, I watched the race with approximately 100 people on a single big-screen TV.

THE $11,000 YEARLING

The National Football League draft is well known for its surprises. A future Hall-of-Fame quarterback like Tom Brady is drafted in the sixth round by the New England Patroits, while some absolute busts have gone at the top of the first round. The same hit and miss process also characterizes the dicey business of selecting future racehorses.

Following is a list of the first five finishers in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and the respective sale prices at auction for four of them:

I’ll Have Another, $11,000 as yearling and $35,000 as a 2-year-old

Bodemeister, $260,000

Dullahan, $250,000

Went the Day Well (did not sell at auction)

Creative Cause $135,000

According to the Wall Street Journal, twelve of the twenty entrants in the Kentucky Derby sold at auction. The average auction price for their last sale was $183,000.

In 2010, headlines in racing publications were devoted to sales of seven-figure yearlings. By May of 2012, the media spotlight had turned to an $11,000 yearling that epitomized the adage “pretty is as pretty does.”  In fact, the total paid at public auction (as yearlings) for the first three finishers in the Kentucky Derby was $521,000.

In spite of refined computer-aided techniques of pedigree analysis and scientifically-based methods for evaluating conformation that are often brought to bear on choosing yearling racehorse prospects, in the end the task is far more art than science, with a heavy dose of luck thrown in.

Isn’t that much of the allure of the sport? A relative small fry buying a few yearlings or a share of a partnership offering has a chance to compete with the most deep-pocketed owners.

When a 3-year-old racehorse is called on to stay in deep stretch in the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes, he doesn’t know how much he cost at auction.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business