Is Horse Racing Actually Making a Comeback?

It was a really, really big weekend for horse racing. But you’re forgiven if you didn’t notice.

To say horse racing has lost its grip on the mainstream is akin to saying Howard Beale has lost his grip on reality – it’s true but a massive understatement.

donn handicap 2014
Horse racing barely, if ever, registers with the masses. There are three guaranteed days when the sport matters in this country – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Saturday of Breeders Cup weekend. There is potentially a fourth, but only when the Belmont Stakes features a Triple Crown contender.

I know all about the Belmont Stakes – I’ve been every year since 1999 and had so much fun last year winning money on Palace Malice I wrote about how much I love horse racing. There are few things as enjoyable as sitting outside, soaking up the sun, drinking a cold one and letting it ride on a horse because it shares a name with a character from The Godfather.

But the sport’s reach has been undermined greatly in the past 20 years, most of it self-inflicted harm. While Smarty Jones in 2004 and the accompanying hoopla marked the sport’s recent highpoint, 2006 marked the crippling end of that brief renaissance. That was the year Barbaro got hurt, the Triple Crown races were split between two networks and the Breeders Cup mindlessly decided to spread itself out over 2 days.

The past 8 years have been a brutal, steady, slow decline – culminating this past fall when one of the best days of horse racing in recent memory at Belmont Park went largely unnoticed up against college football and, well, literally anything else in the world.

So two events that occurred this past weekend are more important you could possibly imagine. There are the first steps in the industry’s brutal, steady, slow return to the mainstream. It may never happen – but at least there is now hope.

On Friday, the New York Racing Association made the stunning announcement that it was creating its own version of the Breeders Cup on Belmont Stakes day. NYRA will be moving historic races, such as the Grade I Met Mile, Ogden Phipps and Acorn Stakes. These races will be added to a Belmont Stakes day card that already included the Belmont, the Grade I Manhattan on the turf and 2 other sprint stakes for 3-year olds and older horses.

In total, there will be 10 graded stakes, 5 of them Grade I races, and a total purse of nearly $8 million, making it the second-richest day of racing in North America.

The news is massive. The horse racing calendar went from having three guaranteed days of mainstream attention to four – effectively eliminating the apathy that would accompany a Belmont Stakes with no Triple Crown at stake. And if there is a Triple Crown at stake with that lineup? I can’t even imagine.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this and not merely for the racing-related reasons. Yes, it will be nice to have a halfway-point championship day, even if it won’t carry the weight of a Breeders’ Cup for deciding Horse of the Year. It will still be an event. And it’s new. It’s different. It’s a change.

Horse racing has essentially been stuck in the past for 40 years. As Rick Pitino would say, Secretariat and Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones aren’t walking through that door. The sport has done almost nothing in the past decade to turn back a rising tide of irrelevance.

So when NYRA – and if you know anything about the corrupt, incompetent history of NYRA, this is saying something – made a bold move, it was mind-blowing.

Of course there were those who cover the sport, notably Steve Haskin on Twitter, who lambasted the move, claiming that the Met Mile – one of the sport’s crown jewels – deserved a day of its own. Last year, the Met Mile was run on Memorial Day in front of about 5,000 people at Belmont Park and a tiny TV crowd thanks to TVG.

In 2014, the Met Mile will be run in front of at least 50,000 – possibly double that depending on a Triple Crown and the weather – people in attendance and a large, national television audience on NBCSN or NBC proper.

In short, more was written about the Met Mile this past Friday than had been devoted to the race in the past decade combined.

It was a historic day for horse racing. The television landscape for sports is now marked by events – no one watches tennis, but everyone watched Wimbledon. College basketball is sort of there during the regular season, but we all tune in for March Madness. Just look at the mega-ratings for the Olympics.

It’s why baseball is a perfect sport but fails to rate – there are simply too many games. It’s why NASCAR used to be a ratings monster and is now a dying sport – because the big event feel has dissipated.

Horse racing needs fans, period. While the sport’s lifeblood is the Monday card at Aqueduct, it needs to appeal to more than horseplayers to sustain it. It needs fans under the age of 60. It needs mainstream coverage. It needs to market better. It needs to make events like the new Belmont Stakes day to attract new viewers.

The big weekend for horse racing concluded Sunday afternoon when Fox Sports 1 aired its first horse racing telecast, a double-bill from Gulfstream Park featuring the Donn Handicap.

The telecast marked a step forward and an acceptance of past mistakes. In 2013, that card featured one of the best horse races of the year, when turf superstar Point of Entry and 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom dueled down the stretch.

The card on Sunday wasn’t that great, though Will Take Charge featured a valiant second in the Donn and is an early contender for horse of the year. The results almost didn’t matter.

A new network – one desperately aiming for its own acceptance – televised horse racing nationwide. The coverage was good, though did feature a bit too much of the beginner’s view* that hampered soccer coverage on ESPN in the 2000’s. But it was the first of 10 Fox Sports 1 telecasts. It is important that it even happened. The television audience was likely miniscule, but still better than zero coverage it received last year.

*The low point was the only female on the crew making a show bet and explaining that it was easy for her, as if women are incapable of figuring out how to bet on a horse race.

No one knows how these grand experiments for horse racing will turn out. Maybe Fox will be one and done with the sport. Maybe the pseudo-Breeders Cup at Belmont won’t provide a boost.

But maybe success will breed more success. Maybe Fox will air more races in 2014. Maybe the new Belmont Stakes Day brings in record handle and more viewers. Maybe the sport’s revival would return ESPN to the fold.

We will find out soon enough. But 2014 is already a successful year for horse racing. Yes, it was a low bar to clear but the sport has done it.

With older horses like Wise Dan, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man still in training and another crop of three-year-old stars preparing to descend on Churchill Downs, the sky is the limit.

And for the first time in ages, people are talking about horse racing in February.

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