It’s hard to quantify a feeling. It’s easy to quantify cold, hard cash.
This February, the money bet on horse racing nationwide increased 6.4% compared to 2015 despite a reduction in the number of race days and races. In March, total money bet rose only slightly, but overcame dramatic decreases of 9% in race days and 8.5% in races.
Instead, all the hard work performed by the thoroughbred industry over the past decade formed the foundation for a springboard in 2016. As Nyquist blistered down the stretch at Churchill Downs, the sport was actually prepared to take advantage.
It’s been a remarkable decade for the sport, which reached its nadir in 2006 following the death of Barbaro and a string of high-profile injuries and drug controversies.
The depths horse racing had plummeted were revealed this past Friday afternoon, as NBCSN replayed the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. That race, won by Rachel Alexandra in breathtaking fashion, aired on Bravo. Yes, that Bravo. And no, I don’t think they’ve aired a horse race since. It was almost an after-thought; a hastily scheduled show that likely produced a viewership measured in five digits.
The irony of the Oaks replay was when it was aired – during six hours of live NBCSN coverage of the 2016 Kentucky Oaks, featuring Rachel Alexandra’s daughter Rachel’s Valentina.
Horse racing had been steadily preparing for a return to the mainstream, driven by the confluence of cable television and online gambling. In particular, online betting is the future of the sport. While many states once had restrictions, those are slowly being reduced. On XpressBet.com, a popular site that gets wide promotion during nationally televised horse races, only 11 states completely restrict wagering.
But online gambling is only good if people can watch the races. While TVG exists to serve the railbird handicapper, the casual fan is not tuning in. For them, horse racing needs to be brought to them.
This is where cable television swoops in to further aid the sport. In recent years, Fox Sports 1 aired select races that helped. Most importantly, NBC has made a significant investment in the sport. This past Friday and Saturday, they aired more than 13 hours of live horse racing coverage. Even more importantly, they actually showed other horse races.
For years, it had been frustrating to watch NBC profile Derby hats as Grade 1 races went on, untelevised, in the background. This year, NBC showed every undercard race in its entirety and handicapped each race. Finally, NBC was treating the audience smartly – it was a welcome change from past years and the “Horse Racing 101” approach.
Still, the sport needed a catalyst and American Pharoah was that and then some. If you were brought to horse racing in 2015 because of the Triple Crown winner, you were exposed to the absolute best that the sport had to offer.
Not only did you follow the exploits of a legendary star, you were exposed to the grand sport of horse racing. You were introduced to Monmouth Park, Saratoga and Keeneland. You learned about the Haskell, the Travers and the Breeders. You met Bob Baffert and Victor Esponiza.
The biggest obstacle for horse racing in attracting casual, mainstream fans is that the “big horse” doesn’t always win. For all of 2015, American Pharoah flipped that script, producing jaw-dropping performances. Even his loss only enhanced Saratoga’s reputation as the Graveyard of Favorites and added a layer of intrigue to his Breeders Cup coronation, which was a smashing ratings success.
American Pharoah didn’t just introduce horse racing to millions that used to ignore the sport after the Belmont Stakes ended, he introduced the very best version of horse racing to millions. That’s why the number of foals increased. That’s why yearling sales are up.
The sport of horse racing never died. In fact, it was improving. The problem was no one noticed. American Pharoah shone a bright spotlight at the perfect time because it was finally ready for a close up.
The possibilities for 2016 are unlimited. Beholder returned on Sunday and is the best mare in training since Zenyatta. California Chrome dominated the Dubai World Cup in March and is the best older horse in training since Curlin. Nyquist blew away the Kentucky Derby field and is the best Derby winner since, well, okay that wait hasn’t been as long.
The Breeders Cup Classic is very, very far away, but we already have three superstars identified for that race before the Preakness. In some years, there were no stars at all.
Conventional wisdom said a Triple Crown winner wouldn’t instantly thrust the sport back into the mainstream. Conventional wisdom was wrong.