Promoting the Sport

By Tim Smith -- As a general rule, financial incentives for athletes to compete should be confined to prize money. Ancillary fees are at best a slippery slope. Other sports face these sometimes complex issues, with varying degrees of success. Tennis is plagued by rumors of appearance fees coupled with first-round upsets and "tanking" stories. Conversely, the financial success of the PGA Tour is built around a mostly observed "no appearance fee" rule. The logic is that purses would be a fraction of their current very robust levels if the open market could just bid up fees for tournament appearances (of, oh say, Tiger Woods).

Not surprisingly perhaps, I'm basically a "league office" guy on these matters, worrying more about purse levels than almost anything else. Prize money, I believe, is the single most important "leading economic indicator" for horse racing and breeding. If it is heading north, everyone is doing better.

Having said this, there is a Paul Harvey-like "rest of the story" that needs to be told, specifically as it regards the recent controversy surrounding Bob Baffert's acceptance of an appearance fee in connection with the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

I'm not really speaking about the specific ethical circumstances of War Emblem and the Haskell. Baffert flatly denies that the decision to run the Kentucky Derby winner there was based on the fee, half of which was donated to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. A relatively easy grade I win, with $600,000 in prize money, supports the Baffert view that this was a good spot, regardless.

What's been overlooked in the current debate is what "we"--from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to the Visa Triple Crown to TV networks and the media--demand and expect from horse racing's most recognizable personality. If we are ready to judge him for the times he is paid for his PR services, then in fairness we should recognize the innumerable times he puts in extra hours to promote the sport for free.

In the week before the Belmont Stakes, with a Visa Triple Crown on the line, we expected him to be at every official function, and also accommodate dozens of additional media appearances from "Imus in the Morning" to the "Today Show" to Fox's "Best Damned Sports Show Period" to numerous others that directly linked--and, indeed, conditioned--their willingness to cover and promote our sport to the availability of Baffert. Like a country music star who can get Top 40 station play, he is our crossover artist, someone the general sports fan can relate to even if he or she doesn't know a furlong from a fetlock, as evidenced by the Belmont Stakes television ratings and record crowd.

By late in Belmont week, Baffert was telling industry publicists that he was "toast," and just "wanted Saturday night to come, whatever the result." So what did we do? Right, we went to the whip. Just one or two more, Bob. Then, after history slipped away, Baffert handled the media with patience and class, ducking no question and no questioner. Naturally, we expected that, too.

Triple Crown season is far from the only time the industry asks Baffert to play his assigned role. To give just one example, NTRA Communications staffers have asked him to work "Radio Row" at the Super Bowl, in order to get sports talk show hosts to include horse racing in their mix of coverage and chatter. He ended up overbooked and worked overtime to accommodate everyone.

Baffert is not alone in helping when asked. D. Wayne Lukas routinely handles with great skill public duties like the recent Hall of Fame induction of Serena's Song, and had his own star turn on "Imus" this spring. Leading jockeys are the most cooperative athletes in professional sports. Owners like Bob and Beverly Lewis and Bob and Janice McNair add positive energy and imagery to media coverage of big days.

But Baffert is uniquely in demand, and surely has a special connection with fans, the public, and mass media. A balanced view of recent events is in order. Like the one in the recent Sports Illustrated. See my point? b

Tiim Smith is commissioner and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.