JC / Railbird


Media Notes

No big horse, no big storylines, and still NBC pulled in 16.5 million viewers for the Kentucky Derby. That’s the most since 1989, and seven million more than watched in 2000, the last year the Derby was broadcast on ABC. Year-round fans might find the show unwatchable (and the repellent Bravo Oaks coverage even more so), but the network must be doing something right — mixing horses with human interest stories, Al Roker, fashion, and giddy Glen Fullerton added up to excitement for a sizable audience. “You know, every single minute of it was entertaining,” wrote one TV critic, praising the network for making the Derby “accessible.” The network’s contract for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is up this year, as is the ESPN/ABC contract for the Belmont Stakes. After five years on separate networks, will the Triple Crown return to one?

Dan Liebman has filed his last Blood-Horse column. According to the Paulick Report, the editor, a 15-year veteran of the magazine, was dismissed this week, his exit announced to staff with a cold email. Evan Hammonds, who was named digital editor last November, is now the executive editor for both print and web Blood-Horse products. Speculating from afar, merely as a reader and interested observer, the move seems a strong hint that Blood-Horse — which already leads the Thoroughbred Times and Daily Racing Form in such areas as web design and the use of RSS and the Twitter API — will be putting more emphasis on developing their online presence and digital products.

I only ever exchanged a few emails with Liebman, whom I wish well, and almost all were related to the National Turf Writers Association, which I expressed an interest in joining (and did apply for membership to) several years ago. The group wasn’t quite ready for bloggers back then, but it’s gratifying to see things change, and so swiftly. Over the past six years, the racing blogosphere has exploded, growing from a handful in 2004 (this little site was one of the first) to at least 130 active independent and media-affiliated blogs*, covering every angle of the game, in 2010. With that growth has come an acceptance of blogging as a legitimate medium and bloggers as legitimate turf writers, an acceptance that reached a new high last week, when — for the first time — an officer of the NTWA announced on Twitter that the group had accepted a new member, and that new member was an independent blogger. Congratulations to the NTWA on opening up to turf journalists working in new media, and to Brooklyn Backstretch on joining their ranks.

*And it’s not only blogs. As a friend emailed earlier today, referring to the recently launched Stride and ZATT, “I can’t believe there are TWO horse racing magazines. Magazines!” There may be fewer full-time turf writers and industry publications might be struggling, but we really are living in an era of plentiful racing content from an incredible range of sources.

On Voters, Politicking, and What Ifs

An interesting comment thread developed on the post “Odd Voter Out,” about broadening the pool of eligible Eclipse Award voters and the propriety and prevalence of voters politicking via their ballots. Regarding the pool, Jennie Rees suggests on her blog opening up voting to broadcasters, an idea current NTWA officer Ed DeRosa supports here, as he does the possibility of including players who wager significant money through US-based outlets. Either or both would freshen up the awards, which, with fewer than 300 voters and many of those attached to legacy media, are in danger of seeming increasingly irrelevant to fans such as the Turk.

As for politicking, it’s part of the process. Commenter tvnewsbadge makes the reasonable assumption that for voters with strong feelings about synthetic surfaces, “personal considerations did influence at least SOME” in this year’s Eclipse voting, an assumption shared by Nick Kling, who wrote of the Horse of the Year tally, “There is no doubt part of the 130-99 vote favoring Rachel Alexandra was tied to the surface issue.” Close readers of the vote totals released last Monday could clearly see an anti-synthetic contingent within several divisions, and it wasn’t outlandish for knowledgeable observers to speculate that the vote for Icon Project as champion older female was no mistake. Jay Hovdey’s take on that little post-Eclipse flap gets it right:

Who cares if someone might have voted for Icon Project anyway? To my mind, given the climate of controvery surrounding synthetic surfaces, there very easily could have been a voter out there who refused to consider any horse without traditional dirt form for one of the traditional main track awards, and Icon Project, a runaway winner of good races at Belmont and Saratoga, was a viable alternative once past Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet.

Exactly, who cares? If voters can’t put forth a surprising selection, politick, or register a protest as a handicapper against a disliked surface or some other issue — all on principle, I would hope, and not as a frivolity — with their ballots, then the awards might as well be based on a points system. Rather than discourage such votes, it would be better to embrace transparency across the voting blocs, as the NTWA does by publishing its members’ ballots. There would be little mystery to rogue votes then and any ensuing debate would probably be pretty lively, and almost certainly, more compelling than the name-calling that accompanies a mix of anonymity and unknown reasoning.

Whether the vote for Icon Project as champion older female was legitimate or a mistake caused by tech troubles, it should have remained as it was submitted. To change the ballot sets a lousy precedent and raises not insignificant questions, as DeRosa brings up in a post on his Big Event Blog:

Will you only be allowed to change your vote if you can corroborate your intention with a vote in another category?

Would we be going through this for any other category or for any other horse or for any other situation other than to make a champion unanimous? What if the vote had been 200-32 instead of 231-1? What if Dosik had voted anyone but Zenyatta as Horse of the Year?

There’s also an unfortunate undertone to the correction, hard to ignore, a sense of the voter being brought into line, his errant vote made to conform with the majority. The retabulation making Zenyatta unanimously a champion, as Rachel Alexandra was in her division, seems not merely an effort to set the historical record straight, but a sly means of granting the equality that was impossible in Horse of the Year voting to the two distaffers and an attempt to assuage those who may have felt embarrassed by the mistaken vote. What if Duke Dosik had entered the name of Rachel Alexandra or another for 2009 Horse of the Year? Would his vote for Icon Project still be an error?

Related: Auditors and steering committee members, note — there may be more Eclipse voting mistakes out there. Bill Christine’s commentary certainly suggests so: “Just because turf writers can read a Racing Form doesn’t mean they’re deft with computers. I struggle with my electronic vote every year, hoping I don’t hit the wrong button at the wrong time, and I know a number of colleagues who are just as klutzy. One of them called me on a Sunday this year, the day before the balloting deadline, to have me walk him through the process. It was the blind leading the blind, from flag fall to finish.”