Friday, March 12, 2010

Rachel and Zen don't even merit 'The Ocho'

My blogging pal over at Odds on Favorite, Bill Yates, asks a valid question this week about a weekend that should be one of racing's biggest during the early season: Who is going to be watching?

Bill notes that although Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and two-time champion older female Zenyatta will both open their 2010 campaigns on Saturday, neither race will be televised on a mainstream network. You'll have to watch them on a racing-oriented network such as TVG or HRTV, or stream them live on your computer via But the races will not air even on a network like one of the fifteen dozen ESPN offerings. (Not even on "The Ocho.")

And that indeed is a setback for the marketing of horse racing -- or maybe just a sign of how far horse racing marketing has already been set back.

In January I urged that racing should be riding the Rachel-Zen rivalry for all its worth during 2010. In this age, the average American only pays attention to horse racing for about five or six weeks each spring -- from the Kentucky Derby itself on the first Saturday of May, until the finish line of the Belmont Stakes in June. And if the same colt doesn't win both the Derby and Preakness, most of those casual fans (read "non-fans") drop out three weeks before the Belmont. But a real rivalry between proven older horses -- a filly and a mare, no less, for "girls" at present stand head and withers above the American racing world -- could perhaps draw more attention to our sport for a lengthier period than the racing game has seen in decades, from March all the way through the Breeders' Cup in the fall.

So much for that.

Racing's fan base and powers that be have seen these two starts coming for weeks; it's been well-publicized that Zenyatta was being pointed to the Santa Margarita-G1 and Rachel was prepping at Fair Grounds for its $200,000 -- but ungraded -- New Orleans Ladies Stakes. For a couple of weeks now, it has been apparent that these races are very likely to be the one prep that each champion gets before facing one another in the always-important, suddenly massive, $5 million Apple Blossom H.-G1 at Oaklawn Park on April 9. And not only are Rachel's and Zen's prep races on the same date, they're only minutes apart; the New Orleans Ladies Stakes has a 6:15 p.m. EST post time and the field of the Santa Margarita will break from the gates at 6:36 p.m. Eastern at Santa Anita.

How in the world can that be completely overlooked by mainstream sports networks?

Racing's cause in this case isn't helped in this case by the early simmering of March Madness. This is conference tournament weekend for many schools in Division 1 college basketball. During the crucial, one-hour window from 6 to 7 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU all will be showing one conference tournament or another. That programming isn't subject to change for horse racing.

On the other hand, ABC in some markets is showing the XTerra World Championship triathlon -- a tape-delayed event being condensed into one hour -- and in my neck of the woods, 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday is reserved for local news. Maybe something could have been worked out with that national network.

And on the widely received ESPN Classic? The 1997 NCAA women's regional final between Connecticut and Tennessee. (Pssssssst. ... Don't tell anybody, but the Lady Vols are gonna win, 91-81. Trust me on this one. Now run off to your local sports book and try to place that bet.)

Surely with a little friendly coercion ESPN could have been convinced to stall the tipoff time of a women's basketball game that has been over for 13 years in order to show some live "classic" television -- two famed female racehorses gearing up to face each other in what promises to be the showdown of the last 25 years in this sport.

As it is, on a weekend that includes Kentucky Derby preps such as the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes, and the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, two of the biggest prep races of 2010 -- Rachel and Zen, sharpening their daggers for April 9 at Oaklawn -- are going to go not just unwatched, but effectively unnoticed, all but invisible, across most of the sports-viewing world.

And since the Oaklawn showdown race is on a Friday, I'm already plenty worried that nobody outside of racing will be paying much attention to that one, either.


P.S. My only (respectful) correction for Bill:

The Dalton Gang never squared off over smoking gun barrels with Wyatt Earp, though that legendary marshal and gunslinger did engage in plenty o' killin' in my home state of Kansas.

The Daltons met their fate on Oct. 5, 1892, at the hands of Marshal C.T. Connelly and the townspeople of my high school haunt, Coffeyville, Kan. Civilians spotted the gang splitting up to enter two banks -- the First National and the C.M. Condon Bank, the latter of which stands to this day as the local Chamber of Commerce office -- and the townsfolk armed themselves with guns secured at Isham's Hardware, a business still open in its same location on Union Street, nearly 120 years hence.

Connelly and three other locals, Lucius Baldwin, Charles Brown and George Cubine, died in the gunfight that erupted. Four gang members -- Bob and Grat Dalton, Bill Power and Dick Broadwell -- also were killed. Young Emmet Dalton was gravely wounded, but survived to do time in prison and then be released, moving to California, where he engaged in the real estate business, wrote tales of his exploits (some of them dubious) and played a role in the early days of motion pictures.


  1. Well put and thanks for the correction I was working off a flawed memory of old West shoot outs.

  2. If you think about it, there's no such thing as "Thoroughbred Horseracing" in the U.S. - and that's the problem. It's all local; it's all small-time.

    Racing, as it is presently marketed (if you can call it marketing) is strictly a local entertainment of which the general public is almost entirely unaware. It's barely covered, even locally (aside from the TC races). It's barely recognized as a sport.

    I live a few miles from one track and about an hour away from another, and I've rarely heard anything about either track on my local news (never seen ANY advertising whatever) except during Preakness week (Pimlico is one of my local tracks). If I hadn't stumbled across racing beyond the Preakness entirely by accident, I wouldn't be a fan myself, because I wouldn't have any way of knowing that such a sport existed.

    As racing is currently structured, no one is selling the sport to a general audience. No one is in charge. There's no Commissioner, no central office, no publicity machine, no NOTHING beyond whatever attention a local track can generate with its local news outlet. Maybe the NTRA might have been expected to whip up some interest in the Rachel Alexandra - Zenyatta contest in the Apple Blossom but - whoops - Oaklawn isn't an NTRA track.

    It's absolutely crazy. Crazy. Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta is a publicist's dream. The copy practically writes itself. Girl power. Champion vs. champion. Mare vs. filly. Etc., etc. An idiot could sell the Apple Blossom. It would be tough on a Friday, but it would also be unprecedented – so it could have been sold that way. “Never before in the history of horseracing….” Yet they’re doing - NOTHING. When the race comes off, if it does, NO ONE will be watching - aside from those of us who are already committed fans.

    Racing needs centralized management as much as it needs uniform rules.

  3. Good points from both Noelle and Glenn.

    I don't think the Friday date is a disadvantage at all. Saturdays are packed with sporting entertainment, and a lot of it has a lock on the TV channels. Fridays are comparatively open, at least outside the Football and College Hoops seasons.

    Also thanks for the history trivia.


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