JC / Railbird


The Contrarian

Steve Wolfson, Sr., son of Louis Wolfson, the owner of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, tells Peter Thomas Fornatale that when it comes to American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes:

“For the sake of racing, I hope he loses,” Wolfson said. “We talked last year about how I root for all of these old streaks in sports to never be equaled — DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, John Wooden’s great run of victories, Rod Laver’s Grand Slams — I believe that the fact it’s been so long since we’ve seen a Triple Crown is why all these people care.”

American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat wants the win, obviously:

“I want it for the fans,” he said. “They’ve been waiting for 37 years. The sport needs it. A sport without a star is not a sport. Imagine having basketball without Michael Jordan or LeBron [James]. I’m excited. I’m pumped.”

Hm … American racing isn’t exactly going without stars. Since 2009, we’ve had Rachel Alexandra (brilliant, and gamely campaigned), Zenyatta (whose mainstream crossover was the best since Barbaro, and without the tragic end), Wise Dan (beloved), and California Chrome (a star big enough that the racing programs of other countries want him). It’s probably better to think of Pharoah as a comet — win or lose on Saturday, he’ll be off the track by the end of the year, and possibly sooner. If he runs for the remainder of the season, he’ll likely have no more than another two or three starts — “limiting the possibility for large-scale marketing opportunities,” or for fans to get attached.

6/3/15 Addendum: Jerry Izenberg shares the sport needs a star perspective. “How can you have a major sport without a superstar?” So much emphasis gets placed on one horse becoming a name outside the game, and what that would mean for marketing and awareness. It’s wishful thinking.

Now, let’s swing back: “It is entirely plausible that a Triple Crown winner is the exact opposite of what horse racing ‘needs.’

6/4/15 Addendum: Well, Zayat found a large-scale marketing opportunity — ESPN reports that Monster (the energy drink) has signed on for American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run, in what is “believed to be one of the largest single-horse sponsorship deals in history.” (“$5-million initial ask,” Ed DeRosa tweeted, noting he didn’t know the final sum.) There’ll be no publicity shots of Pharoah enjoying a Monster — the drink is loaded with caffeine. “A racehorse promoting a stimulant,” wrote Pull the Pocket, “that’s like Amgen sponsoring a long distance bike race.” That’s racing!

The 99 Percent

Johnny Weir hadn’t even been born when the modern Kentucky Derby telecast was conceived. The challenges of 1982 look a lot like 2015:

Many were dubious at the time about the value of an extended telecast, but ABC stood fast. “There are very few sports that the American public follows so little, but becomes so interested in for one race,” host Jim McKay told the Dallas Morning News. “There’s a tremendous amount of familiarization to do on the day of the race. There’s the horse, the owner, the jockey, and the trainer, and it’s important to do as much as possible on who they are and where they came from.”

Sportscaster Howard Cosell summarized ABC’s production strategy a bit more bluntly to the Washington Post: “You have to be willing to alienate — or at least talk at a sophisticated level they’re not at all pleased with — the serious horseplayer,” he explained. “You can’t be concerned with them. You have to worry about the 99 percent who are watching just because it’s the Derby.”

It’s interesting how much the televised approach to the Derby has spilled over into year-round racing marketing (for example: America’s Best Racing).

Gone, Baby, Gone

Ray Paulick interviews a catchphrase:

Did [Go, Baby, Go] make a difference in handle or attendance?

That’s a hard question, Ray. I’d like to think so as U.S. handle increased significantly from 1998 to 2004 when I was living large. There was definitely more racing on national TV and more coordinated national marketing and promotion. But it might have just been good timing. The game had a nice run of almost-Triple Crown winners from ’98-’04 with Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones and the Seabiscuit book and movie definitely helped put us back in front of American public …

“Good timing” is an understatement: 1998-2004 was the rise of the Internet as we now know it. The industry’s various factions simultaneously managed to catch the moment, via ADWs, and squander it.

Zenyatta Connections

Dazzling praise for Zenyatta’s 2-year-old half-sister by Bernardini:

“She has as much presence as any young horse I’ve ever been around,” Robinson said. “It scares me. She’s completely herself, very independent, but in a good way. She’s sweet, but not sugary. Very businesslike. She was definitely the dominant one, but in a kind way, with the other yearlings. I watched Zenyatta at Lane’s End several weeks ago when they first introduced her to the other maidens, and it’s the same thing. It’s not a kick-your-ass kind of dominance, but it’s like they just knew who the boss was. Eblouissante is very much that way.”

Here’s a photo of Eblouissante from last summer, giving a look that’s very like her Horse of the Year sibling. She’ll go to trainer John Shirreffs later this year.

Uncle Mo is on Facebook and Twitter and owner Mike Repole credits Team Zenyatta. “I’ve always connected with products that connected with me.”

3/1/11 Update: Eblouissante now has her own Facebook fan page.

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