Those of us who already believe horse racing is one of the top five sports viewed yesterday's Fox Network broadcast of the Donn Handicap differently from the vast majority of sports fans.
Why, we wondered, would Fox cut short a perfectly fine afternoon of racing for a Super Bowl preview show?
OK, we acknowledge, football is more popular than horse racing. But as Bob Dylan sang about issues far more important than sports: "The loser now will be later to win, for the times, they are a-changin'."
As every racing fan knows by now, the goal of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is to transform horse racing into one of the top five sports in the country. The NTRA debuted last April as the sports "league office," and last year the sport experienced hints of a resurgence.
The NTRA and all factions backing it deserve credit -- how much credit no one can say. But the facts speak for themselves.
Attendance and handle increased at most tracks. Awareness of the sport rose because of the NTRA's national advertising campaign with the jarring Lori Petty character and her "Go, baby, go!" Sales of horses, especially young ones, remained strong.
Yesterday, the inaugural "NTRA Champions on Fox" series for older horses began as part of the Fox networks' Super Bowl coverage -- an incredibly fortunate occurrence for racing, the above tongue-in-cheek comments aside. And viewers will see more races for 3-year-olds on television, as ABC and ESPN expand coverage leading to the Kentucky Derby. Today, ESPN broadcasts the Hutcheson Stakes from Gulfstream Park beginning at 1: 30 p.m.
What's more, the NTRA's new advertising campaign, featuring Rip Torn (no more Lori Petty) in eight humorous commercials, is under way. By late summer, if the most recent projection holds, the Television Games Network will have unveiled its 24-hour cable and satellite horse-racing channel in states where telephone-account wagering is legal, including Maryland.
One of the goals of the NTRA was to get more racing on TV.
"If you're going to compete with the NBA, the NFL and other sports, you need to improve and enhance your presence on television," said Alan Foreman, an NTRA director and racing activist in Maryland. "That's where racing missed the boat."
Foreman said he senses "an excitement in the industry that something is happening," which could be the NTRA, the result of usually disparate segments pulling together for the advancement of the sport or simply the cyclical nature of the popularity of things.
"Clearly we've been at the bottom," Foreman said. "We're working our way back up."
"NTRA Champions on Fox" could play a significant role in any resurgence. Despite the popularity in recent years of Cigar and Skip Away, the sport had no mechanism for showcasing its older stars other than individual races that, for the casual fan, popped up randomly on TV.
The NTRA-Fox venture assembled 11 existing stakes into a seven-month series. No one expects the same horses to run in all the races. But to encourage owners to keep their horses running, the series offers incentives for competing, especially for the five races designated as the "Super Series."
All will be broadcast on the national Fox network. They are: Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Handicap March 6 at Santa Anita Park, Hollywood Gold Cup June 27 at Hollywood Park, Whitney Handicap Aug. 1 at Saratoga and Pacific Classic Aug. 29 at Del Mar.
A horse winning all five "Super Series" races will earn a $5 million bonus. A horse winning four, including the Pacific Classic, will earn a $1 million bonus. And a horse winning three, including the Pacific Classic, will earn a $500,000 bonus. In addition, horses earn bonus points worth $5,000 apiece for finishing first, second or third in any of the 11 races.
But for horses to collect any bonus money, they must not only compete in the Pacific Classic but also finish in the top five. This made-for-TV concept is to ensure a quality field and perhaps even create high drama for the series finale.
Fortunately for Fox, the NTRA and the sport in general, racing's first couple, Beverly and Bob Lewis, decided to keep 5-year-old Silver Charm in training and ship him from California for the Donn.
"NTRA Champions on Fox" can create stars, but at its inception Silver Charm is the lone ranger. According to The Blood-Horse magazine, at least 34 horses retired last year that had won Grade I or Group I stakes, earned $1 million or received an Eclipse award. Among them are Awesome Again, Coronado's Quest, Gentlemen, Indian Charlie, Skip Away, Swain and Touch Gold.
We'll wait to see who lights up racing's firmament between now and August.
The six races of the series on Fox Sports Net regional channels are the Oaklawn Handicap April 3 at Oaklawn Park, Metropolitan Mile May 29 at Belmont Park, Massachusetts Handicap May 29 at Suffolk Downs, Stephen Foster Handicap June 12 at Churchill Downs, Suburban Handicap July 5 at Belmont Park and Iselin Handicap July 5 (taped from the day before) at Monmouth Park.
'Special' left out
There's just one thing missing, isn't there? Nowhere among the 11 races is the Pimlico Special, Maryland's premier race for older horses.
The NTRA and Fox wanted it. But since ABC holds the contract to air the Special on May 8, the Saturday between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Fox rejected it.
"That's not good for the Pimlico Special, I'm afraid," said Lenny Hale, Maryland Jockey Club's vice president of racing.
He has slashed the purse to $500,000 -- from $750,000 last year -- because "we're going to get who we get this year regardless of the purse," he said. By contrast, the tony Dubai World Cup on March 28 has increased its purse.
The Dubai race, now worth $5 million instead of $4 million, has already hurt the Special. Beset in recent years by short fields, the Special could suffer even more from its exclusion from the Fox series. Hale said he hopes the Pimlico Special can be folded into the Fox series in the future.
"So this year's a pass," Hale said. "But if all those top horses go elsewhere, we might get a full field of Grade IIs. We might back into a blessing."
Rosecroft Raceway has started 1999 where it concluded 1998 -- with increases in handle, attendance and smiles all around. After the first seven nights of live and simulcast racing at the Prince George's County harness track, attendance was up 41 percent over the same period last year. For the first five nights of live racing, on-track handle was up 19 percent. Total handle on Rosecroft's races was up 16 percent.
Russell Baze, the northern California-based jockey, won his fourth consecutive Isaac Murphy Award for the highest win percentage among North American jockeys in 1998: 27.6 percent, 404 winners from 1,465 mounts. Jerry Bailey was second with 25.2 percent and Edgar Prado third with 23.9 percent.
As tracks on the East Coast canceled numerous cards because of ice, snow and rain, Laurel Park canceled only one. Credit track guru John Passero and crew.
"The man's a genius," said trainer Donald Barr.
"I've ridden all over," said jockey Rick Wilson, "and he's the best I've ever seen."
Pub Date: 1/31/99