NTRA Stables

By Victor E. Zast -- We've been doing a lot of thinking lately about how difficult it's been to get people interested in horse racing, and about how little my friends who are glued to their television sets for football cared about the Breeders' Cup.

Meanwhile, organizers of the World Thoroughbred Championships are patting themselves on the backs for putting on a good show that few outside the Bluegrass Beltway even noticed. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is justifying its subsidies on the boat that interest is up and attendance at special events is strong. Yet, the crowd at Santa Anita was smaller than the other two times the event was held there. The blame for so-so television ratings was placed on the lack of quality competition.

Despite peering through the brushfires stoked by the Santa Anas, it's easy to see that we've ridden Seabiscuit into the sunset, and there's no other hero in sight. Any horse worth an investment in emotional attachment is being set on the sidelines with a cough or put out to stud with a thud. In the absence of drawing cards, the NTRA has chosen to bluff.

Breeders' Cup officials understandably downplayed the paucity of star power by emphasizing the positive. Turf writers shilled for the sport by writing that the day was a monumental success. "Spin" is so 20 minutes ago, as is the expression. The retirement of horses before their due has the effect of a drive-by shooting, with one party making the killing and the other being measured for a pine box. It's time for the NTRA to create a product that people will care about.

Every penny spent by the NTRA on advertising, and then some, should be spent buying horses.

Yes, you heard right. The NTRA should purchase a stable of horses that will be worthy of public attention, that will be the "stuff" of what effective advertising is made, that will race in the races it puts on TV, that will campaign for as long as their legs have some run in them--a dynasty of horses that will become as accomplished over time as the New York Yankees or as familiar to the man in the street as Funny Cide was this spring.

The benefactors of the Breeders' Cup have the bloodstock to kick-start the initiative.

There are several astute horsemen who have taken upstart owners to the pinnacle in a flash with the use of an open pocketbook. Owning horses is right in line with the organization's strategy to focus the excitement of racing on special events.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas once said that he was in the business of marketing stallions. Why then can't horses run for a different purpose? Why can't they be purchased, owned, trained, and spotted to market the sport in the service of heroes? If a horse's greatest value was his charisma, he wouldn't be rushed off the track the minute he earned a credential or placed on the sidelines with a sniffle. A horse such as Point Given might be given the chance to be a John Henry. Candy Ride might run in the Breeders' Cup. Everything changes when the owners are into the game for the marketing, instead of the money.

Preposterous, you say? Maybe you're not watching what's happening. Reactionary? Maybe you've got the patience to wait out the inevitable before you fix it. That's the way change comes to racing--at the end of a rope, when every grain of sand has been squeezed out of the executioner's hourglass.

Let's not waste time and imagination thinking of reasons why this idea wouldn't work. There are precedents in several sports in which the league office has owned troubled franchises, and even a situation in which racehorses owned by a queen are purchased with taxpayers' money she takes from her competition. Right now, the NTRA is acting as brand manager without a brand! Businesses without brands lose their customer base.

This idea requires the attention of visionaries, not emissaries, and it goes beyond the Breeders' Cup. Its implementation would nurture the concept of continuity, making victory more precious and change more meaningful. More importantly, it would put the brand managers in control of a brand, which is what they require if they are ready to be truly effective.

When Thoroughbred racing becomes a dependable brand, instead of a disappearing act, then we'll see the spin of the turnstiles. And isn't that the kind of spin we want?

Victor E. Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.