Seeing Red

Hands down, the most creative and interesting motion picture of the year so far is Moulin Rouge. In the first half-hour of the film about Paris' famous nightclub at the turn of the 20th century, director Baz Luhrmann takes chance upon chance with the audience. A zooming camera leads moviegoers through a joyride of the sleazy Parisian underbelly. The viewer is then subjected to a bombardment of dizzying and dazzling cuts as he is introduced to the colorful cast and the Moulin Rouge itself--all set to a music score of '70s and '80s pop songs that are decades out of place. The pace and wit of the film are quick...and it works.

While there is little original about the storyline--boy meets unattainable girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end--or the musical selections, it's the editing, texture, and presentation of the film that keep the viewer's attention. It's the freshest and most unique approach to mainstream cinema I have seen in years.

What does this have to do with horse racing? At a time when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Breeders' Cup are expending sizable amounts of time, effort, and cash to raise racing's profile among sports fans--plenty. It's about risk...and reward.

Executives at 20th Century Fox flew in the face of Hollywood's penchant for "minimal risk for maximum return" on the Moulin Rouge project. They gambled millions up front on the making, promotion, and distribution of the film. The stars of the movie, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, had to be willing to stake their careers on a musical--what was the last big musical?--about a Parisian "courtesan" and an absinthe-induced writer. The ultimate reward comes in box office receipts, which have so far totaled more than $53 million.

How often have you been asked to explain what the Breeders' Cup is to a person outside of racing? At the risk of having their eyes roll to the back of their heads from a long-winded explanation that includes stallion nominations, nominator and supplemental fees, more than likely your answer boiled down to buzz words like "Super Bowl," "World Series," or "national championships." These are very real terms that are easily identifiable to the lay person. It's these powerful words that might actually entice a casual sports fan to stop clicking the remote on a fall Saturday afternoon.

NTRA and Breeders' Cup executives clearly had this in mind when they announced North America's most important day at the races would now be called the World Thoroughbred Championships. The very thought of changing or "re-branding" the Breeders' Cup had to raise the hair on the back of the necks of some board members, but it is a "low risk, high reward" decision. The move is vital if the Breeders' Cup, er, World Thoroughbred Championships, is to evolve and have a shot at branching outside our small world of Thoroughbred racing.

The NTRA and ESPN have also recently joined forces to launch a new wave of "Road to the World Thoroughbred Championship" ads featuring sportscaster Kenny Mayne and jockeys Jorge Chavez, Aaron Gryder, and Joe Bravo. Those spots will be creeping into the subconscious of ESPN viewers from now until racing's big day. Irreverant to horse racing, the spots are sure to be held in the same esteem as the early Lori Petty ads by racing's decision-makers. Despite what insiders may think, the spots are quirky, catchy, and creative enough to hold a "casual" or "lapsed" fan's attention span for 30 seconds, which is the whole idea behind the campaign. Again, it is a "low risk" proposition.

This kind of fresh approach is exactly what is needed--the "pomp and pageantry" of past racing advertising doesn't cut it anymore with today's attention deficit syndrome audience.

Anyway you slice it, the Breeders' Cup has been successful since its inaugural running in 1984 and is a standing-room-only event among hard-core horse racing fans. Yet in the cluttered landscape that is today's modern, professional sports world, the Breeders' Cup's television ratings up to now make it a strictly straight-to-video production. As it approaches its 18th running, and on the heels of record television numbers from this year's Triple Crown, now is the best time to risk taking the World Thoroughbred Championships out of the art house and into the neighborhood multiplex.

Now if only Toulouse-Lautrec were still around to paint some posters....