Mid-Atlantic Musings: Racing Needs to Look Beyond the Triple Crown for Stars
by John Piassek
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
It’s safe to say that, among all horses who raced in 2018, Justify has by far the most star power. Go to any track in the country, and you’re bound to see someone wearing a shirt commemorating the Triple Crown champion. When Santa Anita Park held a day in his honor in June, more than 17,000 people showed up. This is not without reason, either: an undefeated Triple Crown winner deserves plenty of accolades.
Yet, if you asked any sports fan to name a *second* racehorse, well, there might be some trouble. In fact, this year’s Triple Crown and the subsequent events lead to a problem with the current structure of racing.
When people in racing talk about building “stars”, they usually mean doing so through the Triple Crown. Of course, this has its benefits: all the races in the series are well-established brands that draw great television ratings. Yet, most people have never heard of any of the horses in the Derby prior to the race, so it’s not like there’s much of a rooting interest for the average sports fan. Even the Derby winner usually does not become a public figure unless they go onto win the Preakness, and unless they can follow that up with a Belmont victory to clinch the Triple Crown, their name usually goes into oblivion.
Justify is an example of another problem: even if a horse goes onto win the Triple Crown, there’s no guarantee he’ll race again. Instead of embarking on a second-half campaign that might have seen him travel to New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Louisville, Justify was retired in late July, off to stand as one of the most valuable stallions in the country. Having the most famous horse in the country retired is, of course, not good for the industry. It brings to mind: is racing looking in the wrong places for its stars?
Consider a horse like Accelerate. After Saturday’s Pacific Classic win, there’s no doubt he’s the top older horse in the country. He swept through the Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic with ease, adding an San Pasqual Stakes win for good measure. He became the first horse to win all three of California’s major older horse races since Game on Dude in 2013. If he wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall, he may not unseat Justify for Horse of the Year, but he’d have a powerful case to do so.
Yet, he has been on national TV this year a grand total of zero times. No one in the mainstream sports press will write about him, outside of perfunctory reports. I doubt you’ll see anyone wearing an Accelerate t-shirt at the track any time soon. Out of the 20,823 people that were at Del Mar on Saturday, how many of them could tell you anything about him right now? If there were Q ratings given out for racehorses, Accelerate might score somewhere in the negatives.
It’s not just Accelerate, either. Good Magic, Monomoy Girl, and Diversify have all put together excellent campaigns so far, but no one outside of racing could tell you who they are. Wonder Gadot has been getting some buzz as a filly tackling the males in the Travers, but even a win there may not resonate with the general sports public. The freewheeling frontrunner Voodoo Song, the brilliant speed of Imperial Hint, the budding rivalry of two-year-olds Instagrand and Roadster, all of them aren’t close to being on the sports totem attention pole.
As such, it’s safe to say: if racing’s hope for a star rests on one horse winning three races, and that horse racing a few more times later in the year, the system is very broken.
If racing wants to return to a place of prominence as a mainstream sport, its stars have to receive more and better coverage. As I noted on twitter recently, a two-hour program once a week showcasing some of the top races in the country might go a long way. If Accelerate’s wins in California were shown on NBCSN, perhaps it would have improved his Q rating a bit. What if Del Mar had hyped his bid to win all three of SoCal’s major older horses like the industry hypes up a Triple Crown bid? What if a bunch of Triple Crown-like series for different divisions popped up over the course of the year, with TV coverage attached?
Of course, the rebuttal to these kinds of ideas is that the average person wouldn’t care about the Pacific Classic. Well, who would care about anything unless given a reason to? 100 years ago, no one cared about the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont as a series of races. Now, those three races get tons of press coverage. It may not be an immediate overnight success, but if it helps increase the star power of non Triple Crown winners, it’ll be a benefit. Besides, it’s not like the current model has been all that successful.
For a long time, racing has been looking towards a Triple Crown for its salvation. Perhaps it ought to start looking around the rest of the sport for its heroes.