05/27/2008 12:00AM

Rare opportunity


At this time of year, many newcomers are drawn to racing for a peek at the stars of the Triple Crown. Most of this is due, of course, to the enormous popularity of the Kentucky Derby. But, when a horse such as Big Brown wins the Derby and also takes the Preakness, interest in a possible Triple Crown bid intensifies, exponentially.

Big Brown's every move is being chronicled in dozens of newspapers from coast to coast. ESPN's SportsCenter is doing daily updates on his quarter crack. Fox Sports News is getting into the act with background pieces, even though that network does not broadcast any major horse race at any time during the year, save for the duplicate, daily coverage it gives to TVG programming for a special hour on some Fox stations.

TVG in fact, along with HRTV, are all over the Big Brown story, and as part of their regular coverage they have telecast numerous prep races leading up to the Triple Crown. At the bottom line, this is prime time for horse racing and yet it is disappointing to see the limited collateral effort given by the racing industry to explain the nuances of the game to the population at large.

Consider how little imagination is given to promotions linked to the Triple Crown, as well as the lack of sophistication we see in network television coverage.

Sure, every racetrack and legal betting outlet is ready to advertise some special this or that for the Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes. Las Vegas race books will have parties, offer free T-shirts and a free hot dog or two. Tracks may do something similar and/or take out ads extolling the historic moment, pending their marketing budget. But you could go back 10 years and look at the promotions that were in place for Real Quiet's Triple Crown bid and see the same approaches.


How come there is no million-dollar handicapping contest linked to the Triple Crown races?

How come there is no coast-to-coast, coordinated effort by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to promote fan education during the Triple Crown races?

On Derby Day, would it be so hard to provide every racetrack patron with a free wagering voucher for the Preakness and on Preakness Day a free wager for the Belmont Stakes? On Belmont Day, would it take a marketing genius to suggest a free wagering voucher for the Travers, or the Breeders' Cup Classic?

Would it be so difficult for racing on a regional or national basis to provide a packet of racing materials that could be linked to a sign-up credit card campaign, such as we see every day at airports and malls throughout the country?

Wouldn't a giveaway of a handicapping primer, or a DVD of Secretariat's Triple Crown races, or Big Brown's Derby or Preakness, or a seminar from the 2007 Horsplayer's Expo be a far better promotional link to racing than a T-shirt that is likely to be sold on eBay?

The reluctance to accent “betting information” in racetrack advertising still amazes in an era when there are hundreds of casinos outside Nevada offering games that require little or no skill. Likewise, many state and regional lotteries spend millions advertising their mindless games with a takeout as much as 50 cents from every dollar wagered.

Network television also suffers from a lack of reality-based coverage of horse racing. While TV has no trouble explaining the nuances of no limit hold 'em poker and pointing out the size of bets being made and why they are being made, it seems that flashing possible exacta payoffs for a Triple Crown race is too heavy for the audience to grasp. This despite the fact that television networks have been broadcasting Triple Crown races since the the wagers began. Ironically, many of network TV's most prominent announcers have spent considerable time handicapping, placing their share of bets.

While Hall of Fame jockeys Gary Stevens on NBC and Jerry Bailey on ESPN, as well as experienced handicapper Randy Moss, have been a recent upgrade, network executives still refuse to provide in-depth handicapping ideas, as in what really goes into handicapping a horse race.

Rarely do we see a complete video replay of a prep race incorporated into any of the network telecasts. Likewise, when the networks show a workout for a key contender, all we will ever see is a brief glimpse of the horse passing by the camera for four or five seconds.

I dare say more insightful material is provided the Sunday football fan about the inner workings of offensive line play than the dynamics of what goes into winning and losing a horse race. As a relatively new horseplayer astutely complained during the Derby telecast: “Do they really need so many feature stories that resemble each other? Why don't they give me more about the horses and what they've really done? I just want to know which horses are really good and which ones aren't?”

Despite a dozen or more cameras for a major race, the networks seem bent on finding a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most cutaways and most different angles presented in a two-minute sporting event.

The overhead camera angle was a great new addition in Giacomo's 2005 Kentucky Derby and provides an extremely intriguing perspective, but it is far better used as a central part of the race replay segment, not as part of the live camera coverage.

Of equal import, it seems to me, is the way the racing industry fails to create a special handicapping promotion for these network telecasts, a promotion that should be at least as appealing as the dial-in promos we see for “American Idol” and “Deal or No Deal.” Audience participation, isn't that the essence of horse racing? Isn't it time for the game to take the initiative to help the networks promote how horse racing is not a pure game of chance, but a game of skill for all who watch and are involved in it?

Handicapping is and always has been the one big edge horse racing has on any other form of gambling. Yet, here we are in the 21st century and the game's leaders, the executives who fret in public about declining attendance, the segments of the industry that fight pitched battles amongst themselves for every tenth of a point in simulcast revenue, seem to lack confidence in the one thing they have to promote: Horse racing is a game for adults, for smart people, for people who want to do more than push a button on a slot machine.

It is for people who enjoy the challenge of figuring out who may beat whom; it is a game where good handicapping and sound betting can yield payoffs that make the effort thoroughly worthwhile.

It is Triple Crown time, 2008; time for the game to bet on itself.