05/21/2006 11:00PM

Breakdown's visibility called business setback


The good news is that a record crowd of 118,402 jammed Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday in anticipation of the Preakness Stakes. The bad news is that a record crowd of 118,402 was on hand to watch Barbaro pull up with a catastrophic injury shortly after the start.

Barbaro's injury, on one of the most popular racing days of the year, and in full view of the ontrack crowd and millions more on television, has once again underscored racing's fragile footing among sports fans and the companies that pay to broadcast and sponsor the sport. In short, the more that people are exposed to racing, the greater the chance that they will be exposed to a catastrophic breakdown and turned off by the sport's sometimes cruel outcomes.

"The impact, unfortunately, is enormous," said Ed Seigenfeld, the executive director of Triple Crown Productions, which markets the television and sponsorship rights to the Triple Crown races. "Here you have a beautiful day, a huge crowd, a horse that people are excited about, and then it all goes to hell in a handbasket."

Chip Tuttle, a communications consultant to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association who has assisted in the public relations effort surrounding Barbaro's injury, said on Monday that the injury will have an effect, but he also noted that racing has vastly improved its ability to handle such an incident since Go for Wand broke down at Belmont Park in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"Any highly visible catastrophic breakdown has an effect," said Tuttle. "But the turning point really was 1990. That's when people in the industry realized that the key is to emphasize the extraordinary veterinary care these animals get on a regular basis, so that people know that this type of thing is tragic to everyone involved, and that this is not a regular phenomenon."

For now, a substantial number of casual racing fans appear to be closely following Barbaro's progress: Monday articles about the surgery to repair his injured right hind ankle made the front pages of the New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times's coverage also included a short essay by Jane Schwartz, the author of "Ruffian: Burning From the Start," a book about the ill-fated racehorse who suffered a similar, highly publicized fracture that some have pointed to as the beginning of the sport's long, slow slide.

The significance of Ruffian's breakdown, during a 1975 match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in New York, on the sport's health is debatable. Certainly, the breakdown had an impact among casual horse racing fans who were drawn to the filly's undefeated record and symbolic importance to the feminist movement. Still, many of those casual fans do very little to support the sport through the mutuel windows.

For that reason, breakdowns are most disheartening, in a business sense, to television and marketing officials, who rely on raw numbers of viewers to measure success or failure. In fact, in the wake of Barbaro's injury, officials have been discussing the impact of the injury on the Belmont Stakes broadcast because of what one official called the "mom factor."

That official, who requested anonymity so as not to appear insensitive to Barbaro's fate, said, "It's the fact that you have a lot of moms out there who are interested in this. I talked to my mom yesterday, and I talked to my wife's mom.

"The television viewer for racing skews female" compared with other sports broadcasts, the official said. "So it's a big concern that any time this happens you're going to lose those people."

Bill Nader, the senior vice president of the New York Racing Association, which owns Belmont Park, said that, given the injury and the fact that a Triple Crown is not on the line, it will be impossible to attract record crowds and viewers to the third leg of the Triple Crown on June 10. Beyond those numbers, however, is a more subtle effect: Many of the people who won't come this year are people the racing industry is desperately trying to attract, Nader said.

"It's something that the entire racing industry is going to have to recover from," Nader said. "We've been working on capturing that type of audience that watches the Triple Crown races, because those are the casual fans that are easiest to convert into regular horse racing fans. We'll have much less of an opportunity to do that this year, and maybe for much longer."

Belmont's marketing strategy this year, Nader said, will revolve around the big-event status of the Belmont Stakes and its undercard, a strategy that NYRA has employed recently when no Triple Crown is on the line. In the meantime, Nader said, he hopes, just like everyone else, that Barbaro recovers, and not for any business reasons.

"I've talked to my mother seven times in the last 24 hours," Nader said. "All she wants to know is if the horse is all right. It's heartbreaking."