Updated on 09/17/2011 11:47AM

Time to build upon racing's popularity


Leaders of the Thoroughbred industry, long frustrated by public indifference to their sport, hardly know what to do with their sudden good fortune. Horse racing is on America's radar screen - and its television screens.

Funny Cide's bid to win the Triple Crown drew widespread media coverage and lured 101,864 people to Belmont Park in the rain. But the most remarkable aspect of the Belmont Stakes was its television audience. NBC's coverage of the event did not merely produce the best ratings for a horse race since 1990; it was the top-rated network program of any type during the first week of June.

The excitement generated by the Funny Cide saga coincided with the continued presence of Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" on the best-seller lists. With advertisements now promoting the Seabiscuit movie, which opens in July, most Americans are getting some exposure to horse racing.

"This is a nice hand to be dealt," said Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "Everybody [in racing] is attuned to the fact that this is a special opportunity."

What can the sport do with this opportunity? Can it use this increased exposure to expand its fan base?

The industry has learned a lesson from the success of major events such as the Triple Crown races. In the past, the sport's marketers looked at these big crowds and tried to devise ways to lure people back to the track for ordinary racing days - efforts that almost never worked. In a recent Daily Racing Form column, Steven Crist recalled working as a New York Racing Association executive when people attending the Belmont Stakes were given coupons good for free admission on any other Saturday of the meet: "Half of the coupons ended up on the floor, the other half in the clutches of wily regulars who now had free admission for the rest of the year (and a tidy concession selling the coupons for 50 cents apiece)."

Horse racing isn't going to turn those 101,864 people at the Belmont into everyday customers. Instead, Smith said, the industry has learned this: "We shouldn't fight the preference of fans for big events. Our job is to create more of them."

And this is what many tracks are striving to do. Churchill Downs developed the Stephen Foster Handicap into a major event for older horses, ran it Saturday on a card with three other stakes races and offered a special pick four wager compromising the stakes. The whole day of racing generated more than $14 million in betting. Churchill Downs president Tom Meeker, exasperated by racing's past attempts to market itself with sundry giveaways, said: "We are now marketing our primary product - the sport - instead of bobbleheads."

The New York Racing Association is promoting a filly version of the Triple Crown, the Triple Tiara, with a bonus of $2 million to a 3-year-old who sweeps it. Magna Entertainment Corp. created and heavily promoted the Sunshine Millions, a bi-coastal event for horses from Florida and California. Pimlico is trying to build the day before the Preakness into a special one featuring the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and the Pimlico Special. Monmouth Park has made the Haskell Invitational its centerpiece, as Saratoga has done with the Travers, and both should benefit this summer from the presence of Funny Cide. "We're going to leverage the Travers for everything it's worth," NYRA vice president Bill Nader said.

Tracks' efforts to build their own race days are likely to be boosted by the recent surge of publicity for the sport. "With people more aware of racing," Smith said, "they're going to be much more prone to accept the marketing efforts to try a day at the track."

The interest generated by Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid gives horse racing another boost: it has become a more desirable television product. Corey Johnsen, president of Lone Star Park, observed, "The more hours our sport has on television, the more people come to the races. We need to take this momentum and ratings and tell our story to networks and advertisers."

The NTRA has already been doing this; it secured extra hours of programming on ESPN before the Belmont and will undoubtedly try to get a Funny Cide-Empire Maker rematch in the Travers onto network television. But the industry needs to do more - by creating more television-worthy events.

The Belmont was a smashing success because even the most casual viewer understood its significance. "People get turned on to the Triple Crown," said Churchill Downs's Meeker, "because there is a beginning and an end and a challenge. But we don't have that in any other series of races."

Some of the country's most prominent Thoroughbred owners are working to remedy that problem by creating a Thoroughbred Championship Tour, a series of races that would fill the void between the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup. Horse would earn points for high finishes (as in NASCAR's Winston Cup), and the financial rewards would be large enough to spur trainers to run top horses against each other instead of ducking tough spots. The idea is to create a series that television will embrace and that the public will understand.

Similar efforts have failed in the past. With the sport in decline, its various factions have sought to preserve their share of a dwindling pie rather than working together for the common good. But since the Belmont Stakes, the entire industry has been infused with optimism. It senses that horse racing is on the upswing and that it must capitalize on this opportunity. Even though Funny Cide missed sweeping the Triple Crown, he may have helped accomplish something even more remarkable.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post