Updated on 09/17/2011 12:28PM

Racing's marketing of its stars a failure


WASHINGTON - As Funny Cide pursued the Triple Crown this spring, he generated extraordinary public interest. His quest drew more than 100,000 people to Belmont Park on a rainy day and produced record television ratings. People with little previous interest in the sport were talking about Funny Cide. This phenomenon understandably heartened people in the Thoroughbred industry, proving that the game can still captivate a broad audience - particularly if it has the right horse to showcase.

If that premise is true, the sport should still be attracting plenty of attention this fall. So why isn't it doing so?

This is a banner season for American horse racing. After a succession of dreary years devoid of outstanding performers, high-class runners abound in 2003. The competition is so deep that neither Funny Cide nor Empire Maker, the headline-makers in the Triple Crown series, belongs on the list of the country's top five horses. At least one of these top five might merit the designation "superhorse." And most of them are on course for a confrontation in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Yet the general public is barely aware of the existence of such exceptional horses as Candy Ride and Mineshaft. Their relative obscurity underscores some of the sport's persistent problems: its inability to attract attention beyond the Triple Crown races and to create a proper vehicle for showcasing the best older horses.

The 4-year-old Mineshaft misspent his youth running in England on grass, where he was ineffective, but since he came to the United States last fall he has shown that he was cut out to be a champion on dirt. He has recorded 7 wins in 9 starts on dirt, and he is a paragon of consistency, running Beyer Speed Figures of 118, 115, 117, 118, 116, and 116. Such credentials would have made him a runaway winner of the Horse of the Year title in any of the last four years, but he is not a standout now because of the presence of Candy Ride.

Undefeated in six career starts, the Argentine import Candy Ride possesses both speed and stamina and formidable talent on both dirt and grass. In his definitive test, he faced the highly regarded Medaglia d'Oro in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar last month, and toyed with him, earning a 123 Beyer that suggests he might be the best American racehorse in a decade. But the majority of sports fans will not see Candy Ride until they tune into the telecast of the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 25.

The reason that Funny Cide can became a national hero while Candy Ride remains little known is, of course, the visibility and popularity of the Triple Crown series. Most Americans understand that the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes constitute a definitive test; a horse who sweeps them wins $5 million and a place in history.

Older horses have no such structured competition. They had one in 1991, the American Championship Racing Series (ACRS), but it didn't last, partly because racing has no central authority to coordinate a schedule of important stakes. Barry Weisbord, the creator of the ACRS, says the problem hasn't changed. "The racing calendar developed in a haphazard fashion that makes it difficult to understand or to promote. Except for the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup, there are no defined places where a good horse needs to be."

Accordingly, the competition for older horses is diluted. Mineshaft won the Woodward Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 6 against four overmatched opponents. Last Saturday's Kentucky Cup Classic also drew a field of five, with Perfect Drift beating Congaree. Candy Ride is skipping all of the fall stakes to await the Breeders' Cup. Because the Breeders' Cup Classic is so overwhelmingly important, with its $4 million and its ability to determine Eclipse Award winners, it makes sense for trainers to focus solely on that objective and ignore everything else.

The sport needs, in Weisbord's words, to define the places where its top competitors are supposed to be. Though other attempts to do so have failed in the past, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association hopes to change the game by launching a Thoroughbred Championship Tour in 2004. Existing stakes will be packaged into series of races for older horses in various categories (including sprinters, females, and turf runners) that will begin in July and lead to the Breeders' Cup. In the classic division, the races will be worth at least $1 million each, with a significant bonus going to the top performers in the series. The composition of stakes races this fall has been a convincing argument that racing needs this change. "Five-horse fields in big races are a turnoff," said Dan Metzger, president of TOBA. "This is a move we need to market our sport."

In the last few years, racing has suffered because it didn't have stars to market. There hasn't been a worthy winner of the Horse of the Year title since 1999. But when the sport has bright stars such as Mineshaft and Candy Ride, it needs to make the public aware of their existence.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post