January 29, 2010

Primetime … Primetime … Primetime

Back when television was first becoming a necessity for the American family, horse racing was big. Stars like Native Dancer, Tom Fool, Swaps, Nashua, Round Table, and Bold Ruler, were well represented on TV, and they were well known in households across the nation. Horse racing was a natural for television. It is one of the rare sports where it is great to watch in person or on TV. Many sports are clearly better in person, and some are much better on the boob tube. Sure, I would rather be at the racetrack and see these beautiful animals in person, but watching a good horse race translates quite well on the television. There are simply facets of the race that can be seen better through the camera coverage that television provides. Additionally, races generally last two minutes or less, so the viewing audience is left with pure excitement over a short period of time. Unfortunately, for the sport of horse racing, quality television exposure has been on the decline ever since, thus rendering the Sport of Kings a second class citizen in America’s sporting landscape.

Whether we like it or not, television makes a sport big, or it makes a sport small, in the consciousness of the nation. For years now, the trend has been for TV to downgrade the importance of our beloved sport. Who is to blame? An easy answer would be television, for networks have continuously lessened the amount of quality racing that can be seen by a national audience. A more accurate answer however, would be horse racing. Television does not need to bend to the will of horse racing. It is clearly the other way around. TV is the thing that the American public can not do without, therefore racing needs to bend to the will of television. Currently horse racing is one of the absolute worst examples of a sport willing to make changes to fit into the needs of the mighty TV. This may sound harsh to some, but if we truly want our sport to become more healthy again, we have to start thinking outside the box, or should I say inside the box, the idiot box.

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta offer horse racing a huge opportunity, but also a major responsibility. Possibly the two greatest female race horses ever to step on an American racetrack are contemporaries. All indications from their respective camps indicate that a match up will happen at least once. Forget about this race or that race, forget about Saturday afternoon. My humble advice for this sport, is to go to the television executives and tell them we have the biggest and best match-up in our sport in more than 30 years. Tell them that this race, or better yet, races, could appeal to sports fans and non-sports fans, it could appeal to viewers of all ages, it could appeal to women every bit as much as men, it could be the most exciting two minutes in sports. And most importantly tell them that we, as a sport, will do whatever necessary to make it the watched event that it should be. Be prepared to bend. Primetime on a Thursday night…do it. Each horse's preliminary races are shown during halftime of the NBA playoffs…do it. The big show will only last half an hour…do it. The race will be run immediately following NCIS…do it. You get the idea. Horse racing, let go of the old and embrace the new. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta offer our sport an incredible opportunity to shine, the question is whether we will grab it or not.


Ciarán said...

cant argue with that!

Steve Munday said...

I agree! RA vs Z would would be the biggest race in decades. So why not get it on a major network during primetime rather than on ESPN news, or worse, TVG or HRTV, Saturday afternoon.

I'm sure someone over at the NTRA is working hard on this right now.

LDP said...

Love love love the post. Great topic and you are so spot on, on everything you just wrote.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Mr. Zipse - I would caution putting all the eggs in one basket. A Rachel-Zenyatta matchup will not cure all that ails thee in the sport and business of horse racing.

If one wants more television coverage by CBS-NBC-FOX-ABC then a track should be willing to give the network a cut of the parimutuel pie, say 3 percent of the national handle for each televised race.

I'm sure that would get Russell Dalyrmple's attention. As it stands no network is going to make money solely off commercials featuring Budweiser Clydesdales.

Again.... have a cut of the pie.

Making an offer to the networks is out-of-the-box thinking and with lots of positives to build on, I do believe. What do you think ?

Brian Zipse said...

Mr. Sky,

What I am advocating here is not an all the eggs in one basket, but rather a time to take a plunge into a whole new way of thinking as far as racing on television. Rachel and Zenyatta would create a mighty hot iron.

Your idea to lure Russell Dalrymple is interesting, but...wasn't he lost at sea???

Anonymous said...

OBVIOUSLY MR SKY WAS PAID TO LOBBY ON BEHALF OF THE NETWORKS....NICE TRY....so much for that,i'm in a hurry but ihave to say just a little piece here.....MR ZIPSE,this is one of the best pieses you have written in your life,its to the heart and soul;you have your fingers on the PULSE....I WILL VENTURE TO SAY THAT IN ANNALS OF HORSE RACING THIS WILL BE THE BIGGEST RACE EVER,MOST ANTICIPATED,MOST EVENLY MATCHED(pre-race),winner will be the national HEROINE AT A TIME WHEN THE COUNTRY NEEDS ONE....this is a bigger plan than anyone could ever envision....outside the box...great vision zipster and it all comes from your burning PASSION and wellbeing for the sort of kings.....his royal majesty...truth and its perspective.....thank you.....

Marti said...

Summed up in one word...ratings. I live with a producer for ESPN...and I hear all this on a near daily basis; and the bottom line is, the reason horse racing is disappearing off our networks (10 broadcasts dropped this year alone, imagine his unhappiness), and local cable channels..is ratings. Period.

And Brian, I'm sorry, but I'll have to respectfully disagree that placing racing on between other sporting events, halftimes, etc, isn 't going to convert anyone.

Someone else I knew several years ago insisted the same thing. I sure wouldn't be drawn to watch football/baseball/basketball, et al, because they aired a great play in the middle of a racing broadcast. Besides, you'd never get a clear reading on ...wait for it...the ratings...if there was sudden boost during the second half of some play off game somewhere. Race people will tune in, and likely change the channel in 2 minutes or less.

Horse racing simply doesn't make any money for the TV people. Thus why bass fishing and poker tournaments and other such crap take precadent over our sport. Sad, but true. WAY too much has to be done within the industry to get back racing's glory, before we can realistically expect to convert anyone , or convince the TV networks it's going to be good for the bottom line to air it.

Anyway, that's my longggg winded .02, and as always, JMO

Anonymous said...

Zipse- Its time to stop thinking that horse racing can ever return to its hey day. First thing is first, get Zenyatta and Rachel to face each other which I see as a "Big Fat Zero" of ever happening. You have two owners that reside on different coasts with egos the size of tonights full moon. Neither wants to see there precious horses rather lose to a 5 claimer at Penn National than lose to one another. With the advances in technology and Off Track Betting racing popularity is determined in handle. Lets look at the attendance at Aqueduct today, a whopping 1917 people. That is pathetic. Racing needs to focus on what works for it "The Triple Crown" Once in a blue moon does a horse like Smarty Jones comes around and completely takes over the sporting world.

Brian Zipse said...

I am glad that I do not feel like some people here...I sure hope racing is not gone before we know it. There is a reason ratings are low, and it is not because of what happens in the two minutes the horses are racing. Think about it, is poker a better sport than horse racing? Poker has learned to make itself a good watch for a large audience...TV friendly. The fact that a potential Triple Crown winner becomes so popular outside of the regular fan base, is all the more reason to believe in the potential for horse racing. A potential that will be only tapped, if it is willing to become more adaptable to the needs of TV...the way we have been doing it for years is not working.

Marti said...

One of the things *I* see as being a huge problem in marketing horse racing, is ironically, the "product" (the horse) itself.

It should be a built-in, but it comes equipped with it's own set of problems. First, it's impossible for Joe Public to get behind a horse for any lasting amount of time past May through June. That is the ONLY time horse racing goes "mainstream". A lot of people ONLY watch the Kentucky Derby. So they get all excited over a Smarty, a Big Brown, an Afleet Alex...and faster than you can say "down the stretch they come", that colt is one his way to the breeding shed, entirely too valuable to race. Racing has become, where it pertains to colts, nothing more than a showcase of very near future breeding stock.

Back to the "product". Most people like horses. Little girls LOVE them (speaking as a former little girl myself, lol)...however, when that warm and fuzzy bit of marketing genius falls down and dies on national TV...to say that's a serious problem is the understatement of all time. When Go For Wand went down, and NBC in it's supreme stupidity aired it over and over and over...it was shocking. Now, it's more commonplace to hold your breath through a race. The phrase "safe trip to all!" has become the first thing out of a race fan's mouth.

Eight Belles brought some added attention to that year's Derby...and she died on the racetrack. This is simply NOT what people sign on to see.

Mind you, I, as well as every other race fan, understand that the absolute worst happens. We can't predict it, or shield ourselves from it. But try and explain that to the very casual once a year viewer. Think they're going to see that, and want to tune in for MORE races, or add TVG or HRTV to their cable packages?

There is also a stigma within horse racing that's been around since the first two people said "My horse can beat your horse". Questionable practices. I know a lot of non-horse race people who believe it's all fixed, and the drugs run rampant. Well, the latter is certainly true.

Big Brown hits the spotlight on the TC trail, and all we get is his blow hard assh**e of a trainer discussing his steroid injections. GREAT for the sport. Pletcher received an Eclipse award WHILE ON SUSPENSION for a drug infraction.

How can we possibly justify that? (rhetorical). It's one thing to know the human athletes out there who are doping. They electively do that to themselves. But most people take great affront when it's BEING done to an animal, who has no say in the matter.

Brian, I do not think the sport is dead. Every time I think it is, something comes along and renews it. Last year, it was Zenyatta and Rachel. They never even had to meet, and they created a whirlwind. However...they were preaching to the choir (established fans). The number of my non-horse racing friends who have heard of them? Zero. Now MAYBE if they had been Derby trail/TC horses, a name may have caught their attention. But they weren't, so it didn't...and Rachel won the freakin Preakness!

I have no answers as to how to 'save' racing. I tend to agree it will never have it's heydey resurrected. Not for the mainstream general public. I think the best we (the fans) can do, right now, is find the good, hope our passion for it doesn't waver...and drag our kids to the track, LOL, and hope it rubs off.

Brian Zipse said...

Where did our passion come from? Where did more than a hundred million dollars bet on the derby come from? Where did more than 30,000 people showing up for a night racing card at Churchill come from? Why does racing enjoy so much more popularity in many other nations? The product is good...you know that. Sticking our heads in the sand and saying c'est la vie, is not my idea of what this sport deserves. Some are content to have racing as a secondary sport...I am not.

Marti said...

I'm not either, Brian.

But, there are no clear cut answers on how to fix it. You can't just make something popular. We can all point to ALL the things that are wrong in the sport (it's also burying one's head in the sand to not admit that's a substantial list), and I have heard some exceptional ideas over the past 10-15 or more years on ways to fix them.

Know how many have come to pass? None.

Interest has to be there first, OUTSIDE the industry, and I'm afraid it's just not.

Anonymous said...

Zipse- stop being delusional here. What does it matter if horse racing is like it used to be back in the 40 and 50’s? Do I really need my neighbor to appreciate horse racing for me to appreciate it anymore than I already do? I'm from Jersey and one of my favorite days is Haskell day where the best horses come to compete in Jersey. What I despise are the drunks, traffic, little kids running around, and long betting lines. The day equates to a complete nightmare. Can you imagine if Churchill ever shut off the infield, the Derby attendance would be cut in half. When Rachel was going for the Preakness as the morning line favorite attendance went way down compared to other years. Why you ask? Oh, because Pimlico decided that people could not bring their own alcohol to the infield and because of that attendance was at 77,000 compared to the 112,000 the year before. Those 30,000 people who came to Churchill for night racing did not come for the racing, let’s be honest here. They came because it was an event with drinking and racing happened to be taken place that night. I respect your enthusiasm you have for the sport but there are many more things that plague racing and need to be cleaned up. For starters, the banning of all drugs, just like other countries. Making sure that the adage of “Stable to Table” becomes a thing of the past. Every former racehorse should have a home not to be slaughtered. Holding trainers accountable for there actions. What does giving Steve Assmussen a 30 day ban for drug positives do? Absolutely nothing, the horses are just placed in assistant Scott Blasi’s name and Stevie can still run his operation. I am all for absolutely no racing on any network unless it’s a Triple Crown Race or Breeders Cup. Every network has tried, they honestly have but the public does not care and nothing the industry says or does is gonna change that.

Nancy said...

IMO the sport is in decline because it's too watered down with too many races, drugs are used to run horses that shouldn't be run, and breeders have made a more fragile product. All of this was done in a chase for the almighty dollar, not for the love of the sport.

In other sports, when someone uses drugs or violates the sports policies, penalties and fines are levied. Why does racing not do this instead of turning a blind eye and pretend the violation didn't happen? We've got trainers on probation due to drug violations and racing allows them to continue racing as long as they have no violations during the probation. What should happen is the trainer shouldn't be allowed to run its string at all. Period. Drug violations should result in suspension on the spot, not a year later; and fines need to be stiffer. Track vets need to do a better job of pre-race soundness checks. The 5-second trot past a couple of stalls just doesn't cut it.

There are way too many races and the number of entrants per race is down. Every track should cut some races, the sport is way too watered down. I'm a fairly new fan to racing and it's mind boggling to keep track of the various tracks where any one horse can run, let alone the number of races the horse can enter. It takes too much effort to track when and where a horse is racing, let alone where all my favorites are racing.

Racing needs a commissioner or an agreed upon oversight committee. There's no consistency at all, and this has allowed people to participate in the sport that are no good for the sport.

If these things are cleaned up, racing can regain its integrity and start to regain a fan base. Until then, I fail to see how televising RA v Z will pull in more fans regardless of what network carries the race(s) and at what time. My friends don't think the sport is barbaric, but they certainly think the people involved in racing do not have the horses well-being first and foremost.

Steve Munday said...

Anyone have an idea how much bullcrap is on TV? And people are watching it by the boatload. All these dumbass housewives shows on Bravo, Jon & Kate + who gives a sh*t, anything on VH1 or MTV. Ever catch that show about the skanks of Aspen? YGBSM!

You mean to tell me it's impossible to put together a quality show on horse racing that will get good ratings? It's entirely possible and I know how exactly how. And this ain't "Jockeys" either. But there's no way in hell i'm going to anyone in the racing "industry" because they'll just find a way to screw the pooch, believe me. Instead I'll raise the cash & do it myself.

Okay, sorry for the crazy rant. There's a fine line between being highly perceptive and slightly delusional. I know, because when I bet a horse at 20-1 and he wins, I'm perceptive; when he loses, I'm delusional.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, I completely agree with you and am frankly surprised at how negative some comments are here. If you look for the negative you're going to find it in horse racing, we all know there's plenty of that. While it obviously shouldn't be ignored it's high time we start focusing on the positive. I agree with Brian that racing still is the sport it was years ago. When I watch big races today I get the same thrill I get watching replays of Citation, Phar Lap or Secretariat. There is still plenty of life left in this great sport and it's only fallen out of major national prominence due to horrible marketing, advertising and a lack of industry "drive".
Sure a lot of things have been tried before, and even recently, to get some prominence back, but when it doesn't work as well as we want that doesn't mean we should stop and give up to what some people call "reality". Have some faith and dream big. Risk little, gain little. Risk big and you've got a fighting chance. I personally believe in racing and consider it the #1 sport in the world!

Michael said...

Wheeew. There is so much here.

My first thought is that racing maintained popularity in the 70's and Secretariat never raced at 4 years old.

My second thought is a more personal experience. I assist Premiere Sports Travel in a tour of Lexington during Derby week which ends with obviously the Oaks and the Derby. As part of the package, we like to have a speaker from the industry for one evening. Caton Bredar is SPECTACULAR and a wonderful ambassador for the sport and had appeared for 3 consecutive years. Steve Haskin also appeared one year as did the owner and trainer for Twin Lanterns LLC out of Louisville. Blogger Justin Dew also spoke at Louisville last year assisting people with the race program. They appear out of LOVE for the sport. Others do not.

My attempt to get speakers was met with a lot of resistance from trainers and ex-jockeys who wanted up to $5000 to appear for the evening. Yes, $5000!!! These are people who have made millions from the sport who have no inclination to promote the sport that made them millionaires (unless they are compensated). Yes, Derby week is a big week. It also has thousand who have never been to a race track but have the Derby on their Bucket List. We should be recruiting these people so that when they return home, they can identify with the sport and continue supporting it. Once people can identify with the stars, they will watch to see "who they met".

But racing people stay secluded. They claim to want to do anything for the sport but to me, it is all talk.

The audience cannot identify with anyone and thus there is no interest when it is on TV.

My 2 cents of frustration.

Marti said...

My last thoughts on this...as it's been being debated for years, and unfortunately, not much comes from it.

People here who are...skeptical...or perceptive or delusional as one poster put it (very amusing last line, btw!) are not negative.

Realistic and negative aren't the same thing.

As someone else here also said, you can't MAKE the public care. A way could be found to fix EVERY last problem in this sport--drugs, fragile breeding, syndication and breeding being the FAR more lucrative prospect, OTBs (etc) culling the on-track handles, the list goes on and on--and that will absolutely not mean the general public will suddenly sit up and become race fans. Or that racing will be back on TV each and every Saturday.

This fact used to make me crazy. I'd get just as incensed, and stay as optimistic as you and others Brian, that a change was gonna come.

It isn't. 9 broadcasts went off the air last year. 11 this year. I've already seen the cuts for
2011, it gets worse.

The TV network(s) in question are using the current economy as the latest scapegoat. These are things I KNOW, residing in the house with someone who has worked horse racing broadcasts since the 1980s, for both networks and cable, and has watched it fall. Slowly at first, and now it's barreling down hill. He hung on too, it's his INCOME, and he loves the sport... but has finally had to branch out to other sports that actually get ratings, get air time, and PAY.

Horse racing isn't going anywhere. It's simply not generating new fans on a regular, long-term basis. Because a relative handful leapt on the bandwagon with Barbaro (as one example)...doesn't mean it's enough to boost ratings. And in TV--guess what??--the rating rule ALL. Hell, I can't even get my KID to stay interested anymore, and he used to love it.

I agree with the poster who said why do I have to care if my neighbor likes horse racing? It isn't going to stop me from watching, it isn't going to keep me from the Donn next weekend, it's not going to keep me from traveling all year to go see the races and the horses I want to see.

Over the past 10 years, I've accepted that that's ok. If anything, horse racing has gotten bigger, due to too many horses, too many meets, too MUCH racing. So it's not dying. Dilluted yes, but not dying. With or without Joe Public, it soldiers on.

Yes, that means we don't get a lot of races on TV, and for race fans who can't get TVG and/or HRTV, that BLOWS. But the fans aren't going to change it by wringing their hands over it, and the industry doesn't want to change much...and the TV suits don't care.

Speaking only for myself, I find it more negative and draining on myself to get worked up over it anymore (not that I don't have my days where the whole thing pisses me off, because I do), than if I just let MYSELF enjoy something that's been part of my life since 1978.

I have found, for me, that makes it that much more enjoyable, instead of worrying whether or not my neighbor, my friends, or the stranger at the stop light is enjoying racing, too.

But don't mistake my acceptance or tolerance of the current state of things as a lack or loss of passion, or sense of negativity. I had that from 1990 to 1996, it's QUITE different.

With that, I am out. For those who need racing to be as popular as football, or baseball, or whatever, I cheer you on, appreciate your love for the sport, and for ALL of us, I can always hope that one day, one day...

Until then, I am off to the races...and if that means some days I go alone, that's ok with me. Doesn't take away one iota of the love I have for it ;-)

Anonymous said...

You have a bevy of great points, most of which I agree with and understand. I'm 21 and have only been following horse racing since early 2007/late 2006 so I don't have nearly as much experience observing the changing with the times. I do know that I had a really hard time getting friends and even family to watch the races with me at first, but once I got them to either watch or attend the races at least half of them were hooked and follow racing on a regular basis now. I guess I'm just the type of person who loves Horse Racing with such a passion that I can't stand it when others aren't at least seeing why I love it so much.
I go to the races alone most of the time and also agree with you there, it takes none of the enjoyment out of the experience. Although one of my favorite memories is when I got my parents to go to the 2007 Belmont and my Mom was rooting against Curlin with Rags To Riches (of course). You don’t get many “sanctioned” chances at public shouting matches with your mother!! (: She still won I might add!
I don't agree however that Horse Racing is going nowhere. Think of Regean and the economy in 1980 that looked impossible to fix when he entered office, but was fixed and turned around by 1986. Horse racing probably looks a little worse than our economy even did back then, but I still believe we can bounce it back. We've got to disagree on something right? (:
I appreciate your cool, level-headed replies, always makes it easier to respond when it's not an attack.
Our of curiousity, what got you into racing in '78?

Anonymous said...

There is absolutely nothing that would draw audiences in to watch a show about horse racing. Maybe if you based a show around the track or a track setting but no one really cares how Corey Nakatani or Summer Bird is doing. Where racing has really flourished is in the movies. Most movies made about racing have been really good ones and have fared well at the Box Office. That is where racing needs to capitalize but guess what, it can’t. There is no governing authority in racing and the NTRA is a complete joke that is laughed at by track executives behind closed doors. Now, the Disney made film “Secretariat” will be released in October 2010, let’s see how the “industry” and its “fans” back this movie. And by the way Steve Munday audiences want to see people making fools of themselves on TV; they do not care about 5”2 jockeys nor the horses that run around in a circle. And why would you go to the racing industry about a TV show? They have zero bearing on what goes on in TV, you need to go to the networks. Tracks are lucky they can afford to have tellers still on the lines to take bets.

Steve Munday said...

Anon - 12:52,
I couldn't agree more w/ you that people love watching others make fools of themselves and could care less about how Corey or SB is doing.

I'm pretty sure "Seabiscuit" didn't create very many horseplayers and I doubt "Secretariat" will either.

You gotta do something that people will latch on to & then want to get more involved w/ racing. It's not easy, but not impossible.

gib. said...

I enjoyed reading your post Zipse.

It has me thinking. Probably not clearly, but here goes . . .

What makes horse racing a natural for television? The contest only lasts a couple minutes.

I am OK with the amount of horse racing on TV, but for the sake of arguement, it is difficult for me to agree to blame "racing" for number of races televised, because I don't know who "racing" is.

As I understand it, American horse racing does't have a czar that has the power to bend it to fit TV.

Horse racing seems to be a very loose confederation of privately owned tracks that, except for some inept state commission rules, operate as individual businesses. Tracks run specific races when they want to. Nobody controls a national schedule of races or which horses will run in them.

Owners have no contracts with these tracks or a national controlling body, so they send their horses to the races of their choice. After declaring their intentions, a horse's connections might not run the horse, as is expected, if the track is damp (scratch).

As for television, it is hard to sell a product (i.e. Rachael vs. Zenyatta) that may, or may not happen at sometime to be determined whenever.

If we discover who "racing" is, will it do any good to beg to be on the tube more often, if not enough potential viewers are begging to watch?

Why all the fuss about racing on TV? Put me in Anonymous' corner on this one. He said, "Do I really need my neighbor to appreciate horse racing for me to appreciate it anymore than I already do?" I say, "Nope."

If Rachael and Zenyatta ever square off, everyone who has commented on this tread will find a way to see it. It will probably be on national TV.

Of course the event will be followed by complaints about the coverage . . .

Horse racing is about placing bets, not TV.

For me a good afternoon includes: going to the track, lighting up a cheap cigar, soaking in the unique atmosphere, cashing a few tickets, more likely losing a few bucks, but most of all - enjoying the best kept secret in sports and/or gambling.

Playing the ponies is a way to escape television.