1. Television Ratings and Program Content

Two days prior to the Kentucky Derby, CNBC’s Melissa Francis anchored a one-hour primetime television program titled “Run for the Roses:  The Kentucky Derby and the Business of Horse Racing.”    The show was supplemented with four online vignettes hosted by Francis called, respectively, “The $4 Billion Industry,” “Online Betting,” “Big Hats and Strong Drink,” and “Jockey School.”

In addition, NBC and its cable channels promoted the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness on regular programming.   Jockey Calvin Borel, for instance, appeared on the Jay Leno Show.  ABC carried the Belmont telecast.

All of this favorable on-air exposure, especially by NBC, coupled with the attraction of Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, had a desirable effect.   The race portion of the Kentucky Derby (6:09 PM – 6:57 PM) drew the largest audience since 1989 with 16.3 million viewers.   The national rating was 9.8 and the share was 23.    Each rating point equates to 1.145 million households and the share metric means that the Kentucky Derby attracted 23% of all the televisions in use during the telecast.   The audience is larger, of course, than the number of households as multiple people may be watching from each household.

Network television has, over the years, lost a huge portion of its audience to cable channels and the Internet.  The Triple Crown telecasts have followed the same precipitous declines.   Following are audience and ratings data for select years, as measured by Neilsen, for the Kentucky Derby.   The Kentucky Derby began a steep audience/ratings decline after 1975 and then the audience/ratings numbers began to rise after 2001.

Year        Viewers                             Household Rating                        Share of Audience

1975       26.74 million                               18.9                                                  54

1985        12.06 million                               10.9                                                 32

1995         8.13 million                                    6.0                                                 17

2000        7.93 million                                   5.8                                                  17

2005       13.58 million                                   9.0                                                 22

2009       16.30 million                                   9.8                                                 23         

The 2009 telecast of the Preakness had a rating for the race segment of the program of 6.8 and a share of 16, or 10.9 million viewers, up some 3 million viewers from 2008.   This was the best showing for the Preakness since 2004.   In 2009, the Belmont Stakes had no chance for a Triple Crown winner, unlike 2008, and the race segment of the telecast had a rating of 5.0.   This was a significant decrease from 2008, when Big Brown’s attempt to complete the Triple Crown registered a race-segment rating of 9.5.   However, compared to 2007, the last year with no Triple Crown sweep on the line, this was a respectable rating.   In 2007, the race segment had a rating of 3.1.

The reviews for the quality of the telecasts were overwhelmingly positive.   The program content was upbeat and interesting.    The colorful cowboys from New Mexico that brought longshot Mine That Bird, the likeable and emotional jockey Calvin Borel, and the filly Rachel Alexandra, all made for good television.  The only negative publicity surfaced when a couple of owners were revealed to be conspiring to keep the filly Rachel Alexandra out of the Preakness.

2. Wagering

Most racetrack experts expected the down economy to take a heavy toll on handle.   On the contrary, handle held up surprisingly well.   Betting handle was down just 0.1% for the Kentucky Derby, as compared to 2008, and off 4.1% for the entire race card.   For the Preakness, handle rose by 30% on the race and 18% on the 13-race card.    Betting handle for the Belmont was down from 2008, by about 10.2% from all sources.   Keep in mind, however, that 2008 had the second highest Belmont handle ever, both on-track and off-track.  Compared to 2007, the 2009 Belmont handle was up by 2%.

3. On-Track Attendance

Churchill Downs had its lowest Derby-day attendance since 2004, but still attracted a paid audience of 153,563 people.  On the other hand, the Preakness took a big hit.   The reported crowd of 77,850, 30.6% fewer attendees than in 2008, was the smallest number since 1983 and the first crowd under 100,000 since 1996.   As a result, in-state wagering on the Preakness declined by 15.1%, and this was attributable to a 30.6% drop in the on-track crowd.  The Belmont Stakes drew 52,861, which is much less than the 94,476 fans who paid to see Big Brown’s Triple Crown try in 2008.   A sharp drop-off was to be expected given that Mine That Bird had lost the Preakness and therefore could not be a Triple Crown champion.

The Maryland Jockey Club was accused of greed by a few sports writers for not allowing infield fans to bring in their own alcoholic beverages for the Preakness at Pimlico, and this policy no doubt kept away fans by the thousands.   Presumably, The Maryland Jockey Club rendered the policy in order to line its own pockets with the sale of beer, liquor, and wine.  No evidence was offered for this simplistic claim.

In reality, the alcohol issue is not a cut-and-dried decision.   On the one hand, Pimlico’s management wants to see a full infield, especially for the benefit of TV images.   On the other hand, management has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for attendees.   Pimlico could suffer considerably, from a monetary standpoint, should someone get badly injured in the infield while management stood by and let things get out of control.  Joe DeFrancis, a former owner of Pimlico, told the Washington Post:  “The fundamental problem is the full (beer) cans being used as missiles.”    Critics on the outside most likely do not know what Pimlico management was told by its attorneys and insurance companies about  infield-crowd liability or what they concluded on their own.   From a revenue viewpoint, the no-alcohol rule may be a loser, but a necessity unless some compromise can be found.

4. Conclusion

In the aftermath of the demise of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, horse racing was roundly criticized from inside and outside the enterprise.   The public-relations fallout was considerable.   Then, the severe worldwide economic downturn took its toll on business per se and leisure activities like pari-mutuel wagering were affected greatly.   This combination of negative publicity and economic turmoil is a recipe for disaster.   Still, by any objective measure, whether it is TV ratings, betting handle, or on-track attendance, the 2009 Triple Crown race portfolio, on balance, performed way beyond what would be expected given the circumstances.

In my view, much of the credit goes to NBC, which did a superb job of promoting the Kentucky Derby through the CNBC one-hour special, in its Internet podcasts, with mentions on network and cable news programs, and via advertising.   This drove up ratings for the Kentucky Derby.  Underdog Mine That Bird’s improbable win, Calvin Borel’s appearance with Jay Leno, and the addition of the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness fueled more interest.   Although there was no chance for a Triple Crown winner after the Preakness, ABC’s telecast of the Belmont had some draw because Calvin Borel had the opportunity to be the first jockey to win all three Triple Crown races on two different mounts.

With a mediocre economy and no Triple Crown to gin up an extraordinary climate of excitement, the business results from the three races were satisfactory, to say the least.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


-George Santayana, 1863–1953, American philosopher


Never in the history of the Kentucky Derby has the jockey on the winning horse deserted his mount for another entry in the Preakness.   But there is an eerie precedent for a jockey choosing to ride a filly over a Kentucky Derby-winning colt when the jockey was the regular rider of both…and the precedent is a cause for concern–a red flag–for everyone who cares about animal welfare and racing’s image among the general public.

Jacinto Vasquez was the regular rider of Foolish Pleasure, who won the 1975 Kentucky Derby and ran second in the Preakness and the Belmont.  Vasquez was also the rider of the great but starcrossed filly Ruffian.   Like Calvin Borel in 2009, when Vasquez was forced to choose between riding a Kentucky Derby winner and piloting an exceptional filly, he elected to ride the filly.

On July 6, 1975, a match race was run between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian.   It was the heretofore undefeated Ruffian’s eleventh career race.   As 50,000 fans watched at Belmont Park and millions more tuned in on television, Ruffian broke both seasmoid bones in her right foreleg during the race and she had to be euthanized following surgery.

A hue and cry about the inhumane treatment of racehorses ensued as racing’s “Battle of the Sexes” morphed into a public relations nightmare.   Many people asked why it was necessary for Ruffian to take on Foolish Pleasure to prove her merit.   The race, in fact, was an equine version of a male vs. female tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which had attracted a huge television audience. In that denouement, King routed the braggadocios Riggs.

In the wake of the breakdowns of Barbaro, George Washington, but especially the filly Eight Belles, it is imprudent if not crass to risk a rerun of the Ruffian/Eight Belles tragedies.   Racing cannot readily survive an incident come Saturday in Baltimore pertaining to the injury or demise of Rachel Alexandra.   Sure, she might win and be celebrated but, however remote,  the Ruffian outcome looms like the Sword of Damocles.

Have the connections of Rachel Alexandra had a memory lapse about what happened in the 2008 Kentucky Derby? Do they know of what occurred to possibly the greatest filly in turf history in 1975?   Here’s hoping that the Jackson’s, who own Rachel Alexandra, weigh the costs versus the benefits to their filly, as well as to racing’s future, and opt out of the Preakness.

Do it as a tribute to Ruffian and Eight Belles.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business.


“You’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between”

          Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen

On July 22, 1963, fearsome World’s Heavyweight Champion Charles “Sonny” Liston, an ex-con nicknamed “the Big Bear,” knocked out former champ Floyd Patterson in the first round to retain his title. The 2001 movie Ali, starring Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, depicts the brash 22-year-old former Olympic Gold Medalist boxer Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, taunting the victorious Liston from ringside and challenging him to a title match.  That part of the movie is fiction because Clay was watching the Liston-Patterson fight on a giant-screen, closed-circuit television broadcast at Freedom Hall arena in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, along with thousands of other fans who had paid dearly to get in, including Yours Truly, to see less than one-round of boxing.

On my way out of Freedom Hall, I was walking along with a friend in the flow of the chattering crowd when Clay suddenly appeared near me with an entourage and members of the media tagging  along.  Being a somewhat brash youngster myself, of about Clay’s age, I called out something like, “Hey Cassius, how are you going to fight Liston?”  Always a consummate performer, the 6-foot-4-inch Clay approached me with alacrity, followed by a mass of people, and the show was on.  In a state of feigned or real excitement, he began to shout what he intended to do to “that big ugly bear.”  He pumped his right fist into his left hand and carried on for what seemed to be at least a couple of minutes, with me and the crowd laughing and encouraging the histrionics.   The young Clay/Ali radiated the magnetism that made him a superstar and one of the world’s most recognizable persons, even today.

At the weigh-in for the first Liston-Clay match on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Clay acted so bizarre and out-of-control that some observers, including a physician and apparently Liston himself, thought he was scared to death and/or mentally unhinged.  That night, after evading the powerful Liston’s sizzling punches and surviving blinding linament in his eyes from contact with Liston’s gloves, the 8-1 underdog Clay won the title when Liston could not or would not answer the bell for the seventh round.  Bedlam ensued and Clay wildly proclaimed “I am the greatest,” and “I am the prettiest.” 

Ali grew up watching, on early television, a professional wrestler named Gorgeous George, who played a wretched villain so well that fans packed the arena to see him get his comeuppance.  Ali shrewdly adapted George’s approach to entice paying customers, boost television ratings, and psyche opponents.  In the Gorgeous George/Muhammad Ali school of thought, any publicity is good publicity, as long as it sells.

Maybe so for boxing, but certainly not for horse racing.

Yet in recent years, the publicity that Thoroughbred horse racing has received has been more bad than good.  What’s worse, racing has tended to exacerbate the problem.  How so?  Whenever the sport has experienced low points like the tragedies of Barbaro and Eight Belles, it has overreacted and overcompensated, to its detriment.  In its zeal to “show it cares,” racing has unintentionally shone the spotlight on the sport’s vulnerabilities.

Here are some recent cases in point of how the racing industry is its own worst enemy in disseminating images and words for public consumption.

The general public is, of course, most aware of horse racing in the United States during the five weeks of the Triple Crown.  Many people who never watch another horse race all year, tune in the Kentucky Derby.   Thus the telecasts of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, provide a very limited window of opportunity for racing to present itself in the best light to a large audience of casual viewers who know little or nothing about the sport.  Typically, each telecast tries to build up to the actual race through feel-good human-interest stories. 

Some of these glimpses are beneficial to the sport of racing.  Two, for instance, that come to mind are the tie-in between Afleet Alex and Alex’s Lemonade Stand in 2005 and the explanation of how Colonel John got his name in 2008.  But occasionally, one wonders what the producers were thinking.  In 2008, the Kentucky Derby telecast had a vignette that amounted to regaling an international audience with a soap opera.  We were told about a horse trainer whose tale of woe and redemption involved:  a badly broken man-woman relationship, substance abuse by the couple, the effects on their innocent young daughter, and the murder of the mother by a drug dealer.  Almost everyone appreciates redemption, but is this really the story the racing industry should be telling to a worldwide audience on the sport’s showcase day in America?  Especially a story that reinforces preexisting impressions of racing’s seamier side.  To compound matters, the subject trainer also had a history of medication rules violations with his horses and his Muhammad Ali-like bragging on his own colt and trashing of his colt’s competitors were unflattering.

Simply put, this segment did nothing to burnish racing’s image, already tarnished with allegations of drugged horses, cheating trainers, and rigged outcomes?   Quite the opposite, in fact.  Five weeks later, in the Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, sans steroids, was eased and finished dead last.  On-air commentator and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey candidly (maybe too candidly) said, “It makes you wonder.”

In the past several years, the racing fraternity has rightfully been distraught over the tragic injuries to Barbaro in the Preakness, George Washington in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.  As a consequence, the industry has been proactive in such important areas as banning medication, improving track surfaces, outlawing toe grabs, and assessing the effects  of  inbreeding and line breeding on durability.  

However, the industry, through its Eclipse Media Awards,  keeps rewarding people for writing articles and doing television reports on the very subjects that have posed a public relations nightmare.   Consider a sampling of titles and subject matter of some of the winning entries in the past three years:

2006:  “Barbaro” (an HBO national television feature about the colt and his breakdown).

2006:  “A Nightmare Right from the Start” (a newspaper article  in a three-part series on the Barbaro injury and surgery.  Honorable Mention also went to an article on Barbaro).

2006:  “Man Whose Job is Saving Barbaro” (a newspaper article).

2007:   “Death and Durability of the Racehorse” (a three-part newspaper series on racehorse injuries).

2008:   “A Rose for Eight Belles” (a touching but emotional essay.   The runner-up article was “Eight Belles’ Breakdown:  A Predictable Tragedy”).

2008:  “Tragedy on the Track ” (the winner in the Audio and Multi-Media Internet category).

Unquestionably, these were interesting and well-crafted contributions by talented writers and producers.  But why so many awards to a theme that dwells on the most negative aspects of racing?   Why some of the titles that are self-indicting and convey mea culpa?  Tell people the bad about racing over and over and over and they believe it,  like Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate to a ringing bell.  Wouldn’t one or maybe two awards on the topic of breakdowns have served the purpose?

If you demur, ponder the following questions:

  • Were the 2009 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers to return to the Super Bowl next year, would the National Football League allow the game’s telecast to delve into how the 2009 Super Bowl MVP, the Steelers’ Santonio Holmes, has a background encompassing marijuana sales and possession, domestic violence, and assault?  
  • If the NFL had an equivalent to the Media Eclipse Awards, would the League office sanction an award being given for an article or television program titled “Crippling Injuries and Paralysis on the Gridiron” –dealing with collisions that turned players into paraplegics and quadriplegics?
  • Would Major League Baseball allow the World Series telecast to explore steroid use by players from the present and past?
  • Would the National Basketball Association permit announcers to examine, during game 7 of the League championship, the recent case of the NBA referee who was allegedly on the take from gangsters? 

Am I suggesting censorship?  Yes, absolutely, but call it brand management–always be prudent in what you say and convey about yourself and your product offerings and never intentionally weaken brand equity. 

The racing industry is under no free-speech obligation to provide “fair and balanced” treatment in its own radio and television programs and in the awards it hands out.  There is enough public-relations fallout from newspaper writers who equate horse racing with dog fighting, television commentators who zero in on catastrophic breakdowns, and so on ad infinitum, without the industry piling on.  For instance, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal began its otherwise favorable review of the television show “Jockeys” with a gratuitous aside:  “…the new reality series filmed in part at Santa Anita track near Los Angeles does not, cannot, show the darkest underbelly of the horse-racing world…”

Racing needs to do a much better job of  oversight in what is said on the telecasts it is involved with, in formulating specific criteria for its Eclipse Awards, and generally in presenting the sport in a positive way.  This is not to suggest that subjects like drugs, injuries, and breakdowns should not be broached; dispassionate factual reports, without sensationalized titles and content, are necessary and useful in telling the public what steps racing is taking to correct its shortcomings. 

In the wake of the Eight Belles’ fatality, Steve Crist of the Daily Racing Form rationally pointed out that a breakdown had not occurred in the Kentucky Derby since about 75 years ago.  This statistic does not make the pain any easier, but it does put things in perspective for the public to evaluate. 

Effective public relations avoids giving someone with malice the figurative rope by which to hang you.  Accentuate the positive and work to eliminate the negative by improving track safety, coming down hard on drugs…  Then put your best foot forward in communicating to the public.

Copyright © 2009, Horse Racing Business.