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.