Archive for May, 2013

Horse Racing Not Desperate For Triple Crown Winner

May 19, 2013

by John Furgele

They say it every year, and when they do, you can sense the disappointment in the voice of the broadcasters.  And, after Oxbow won the 2013 Preakness Stakes, you could hear the resignation in NBC’s Tom Hammond, when he said, “for the 35th straight year, there will not be a Triple Crown winner in horse racing.”

Later that night I was viewing the local sports and the sportscaster—a good one—stated that horse racing is “desperate for a Triple Crown winner”, but with “Orb’s fourth place finisher, it won’t happen.”  We all know that winning the Triple Crown hasn’t happened since 1978 when Affirmed turned the trick.

The 1970s made attaining the Triple Crown look easy.  Secretariat in ’73, then Seattle Slew in ’77 and Affirmed in ’78.  In 1979, Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—easily—before finishing third at the Belmont Stakes.  Even with that defeat, as an 11 year old, I viewed that as minor setback and figured the 1980s would see at least three, maybe four Triple Crown winners. 

Of course, it hasn’t happened, and there are a myriad of reasons as to why it hasn’t happened, and since horses dont’ talk and don’t give interviews, there will always be some mystery to be sure.

Every year, you hear it, that horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner in the worst way, to save what some call a dying sport.  And, every year, I chuckle and think quite openly…..why?

Let’s be honest, will a Triple Crown winner really save horse racing?  What will it really do?  Moreover, how will it be measured?  If a horse wins the Triple Crown, does attendance increase at Aqueduct on February 15th?  Do more people flock to Churchill Downs for the Stephen Foster Handicap?  Does the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in the fall attract over 50,000 fans? 

What would ESPN do?  Would they devote huge segments to stakes races on Saturdays and Sundays?  WIll they send a crew out to cover the draw for the Travers Stakes, the Haskell Invitational or the Pennsylvania Derby?  Will TV ratings soar through the roof?  Would there be a Horse Racing Show of the Week every Saturday to showcase the Ohio Derby and the West Virginia Derby?

The Kentucky Derby gets a very nice TV rating, this year it was somewhere between 9.7 and 10, which is quite good.  But, even with Orb’s convincing win, a win that got the experts excited and thinking Triple Crown, the Preakness rating is certain to be lower, and that’s with the Triple Crown hope still alive.  Had Orb won, the casual American would probably be intruiged enough to watch the Belmont Stakes on June 8th, but then what?

A Triple Crown winner would certainly be a popular story for a few days.  On Monday, all the morning wake up shows would have some sort of feature story on the impact and the perverbial, “does (insert horse)Triple Crown win insure horse racing’s survival?”  But, by Wednesday it would be over.  No more stories, no more talk, everybody going in a different direction.  A Triple Crown would not lead to ESPN and Fox Radio having horse racing segments on their daily shows. 

Would I like to see a horse win the Triple Crown?  Of course, it would be an exciting thing to see, and it would be nice to see the impact it would have, but horse racing is lucky.  Unlike a lot of niche sports, horse racing does have moments in the sun.  The Kentucky Derby is its grandest moment.  They get 150,000 plus at Churchill Downs, and as mentioned, good TV ratings.  Many in the northeast consider the first Saturday in May as the sure sign that spring and the warm weather are here to stay.  That’s one day.  

The Preakness may count as the second day.  As Preakness officials say, “the one thing the Preakness has that the Derby doesn’t is the Derby winner.”  Because of that, there is intruigue for the Preakness, because if the Derby winner wins at Pimlico, then…….

The Belmont Stakes, when a Triple Crown is on the line is the third big day in the sun for the sport.  We have seen it.  War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown in 2008.  New Yorkers don’t just show up in big numbers for anything.  A horse going for the Triple Crown brings over 100,000 to Long Island, and remember, no infield at Big Sandy.  With no Triple Crown on the line, expect 50,000 to 60,000.

The other day in the sun is the Breeder’s Cup, and even though the BC is really for the die hards with all the betting that can take place, the Classic gets enough attention that the casual fan does show some interest. 

Think about it.  At least three days in the sun, sometimes four.  How many of the other non-major sports get that many?  Auto racing gets two—the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500?  Major League Soccer, though growing, really doesn’t get one.  The MLS Cup simply doesn’t draw enough to warrant the big time coverage that the major horse racing events do. Even golf, a sport that people of all shapes and sizes can attempt to play has four at best—–the majors— and really it’s the Masters and U.S. Open that garner the big ratings.  Tennis has four majors, but only Wimbledon and the U.S. Open get Kentucky Derby like ratings.  The Australian Open plays their final at 3:30 AM on the east coast and the French Open is played on the red clay, a surface foreign to the average American sports fan.

In the end, I’m disappointed in the disappointment.  The Preakness was a great race with a great story.  The winning jockey, 50 year old Gary Stevens came back from a seven year retirement, and the 77 year old trainer, D. Wayne Lukas was by many written off as a guy who sends sub-par horses to Triple Crown races just for the attention.  There’s really no disappointment there at all.  Orb just isn’t that great of a horse and to win the Triple Crown, you have to be greater than great.  Seattle Slew was great, Affirmed was great, but Spectacular Bid and Point Given were not.  It’s plain and it’s simple.

The sport of horse racing has limitations, limitations that a Triple Crown winner will not help it overcome.  But, despite its limitations ,several times a year, the sport puts on a fantastic show.  It will happen again.  One of these years, a colt, gelding or filly will rise up and sweep the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont and the country will celebrate it.



Preakness Should be Fun

May 12, 2013

by John Furgele

The best day of the American sports calendar, the Kentucky Derby, ended with Orb coming away with a convincing victory in the 139th run for the roses.  Orb, son of Malibu Moon, was, as they say, much the best over the slop at Churchill Downs.  Orb will be the convincing favorite when the posts are drawn this Wednesday for the 138th runnning of the Preakness States at old Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

While the Kentucky Derby is the most famous race in our country, the Preakness Stakes is the most important.  Many will dispute that, but the Preakness, because it’s the middle jewel, in essence, holds all the cards to lure in the American public.  Orb is the only horse that can win the Triple Crown, a feat, that most know, has not been accomplished since Affirmed ran down Alyday in 1978.  If Orb wins the Preakness, it’s on to Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes.  The buildup will be there, the frenzy also.  If Orb wins this Saturday, attendance for the Belmont Stakes likely gets over 100,000; if he doesn’t win, the crowd is likely to be 50,000 to 60,000. 

The Derby is a great betting race.  There are 20 starters and Orb was the favorite at 5-1, meaning a win pays at least $12.00.  At the Preakness, Orb might be a 2-1, or something like 4-5, meaning a win might pay $6.00 or less.  The Preakness field may reach the maximum of 14, with some new shooters and some returnees from the Derby.  But, betting aside, the general public will be rooting for Orb to win to set the stage for the mighty Belmont.

Winning the Derby and the Preakness is not as hard as it might seem.  It’s been done 12 times since 1978, but winning the finale at Big Sandy has been impossible—-thus far.  Last year, I’ll Have Another won both, but because of a leg injury, never made it to the starting gate.  Big Brown, aka Big Clown, made it in 2008, but faltered badly, and was eased up before the finish line.  The most heartbreaking attempt was Smarty Jones in 2004.  Smarty led most of the race, but was cut down by Birdstone in the final sixteenth of a mile.  It’s a race where you watch on You Tube and still hope and believe Smarty Jones will win.

Orb certainly has the pedigree to win the Preakness and the Belmont.  The son of Malibu Moon is trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, owned by Janney and Phipps and lives and trains at Belmont Park, a tricky facility to say the least.  When a longshot wins the Derby, it may be exciting, but those who follow the sport aren’t excited, because deep down, they know a 50 to 1 Mine That Bird probably isn’t good enough to win three major races in a five week span. 

Orb could do it.  He will be challenged.  If he wins Saturday, he would go to the Belmont and his brother may be there waiting for him.  Freedom Child romped to a 13 length victory in the $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont yesterday.  Like his brother, he has the same father and appears to enjoy running in the slop.  He won easily in 1:49 and change for 1 1/8 miles and looked like he could have run for another half mile or so.  The “brotherly love” story could be a good one. 

Orb has the pedigree but also has the pressure and the only chance to win the Triple Crown.  But, he has to win the most important race, the table setter.

The Preakness.