Remember the NTRA Champions on FOX televised series of races? Don't worry, nobody else does either. This well-intentioned plan to drum up interest in a succession of handicap races died a well-deserved death in 2000 after just two years. FOX is moving on to sports that have actually been able to build popularity: NASCAR racing and baseball. Whether the series is relegated to FOX's regional sports networks or finds a new home on CBS, as has been rumored--the basic problem remains--racing is flunking its TV test.
When FOX Sports signed on to televise the major races for older horses, its executive producer, Ed Goren, stated FOX would bring its expertise to the party, and all it asked of racing was to give it the competitors to put on a good show. Viewers, after all, relate to and respond to star power. The racing industry failed to uphold its end.
Sure, business is great. Auction prices are through the barn roof. Purses are bountiful. Handle, for the most part, climbs. Stallion fees are reaching the ridiculous levels that are in line with athletes' salaries in the major sports. So where are the stars? Where are the handicap horses to inspire fans and create new ones?
The few that have managed to slip through the cracks and distinguish themselves are retired early, either due to injury or economics. Injuries are part of the game. A quick list of up-and-comers retired due to injury the past couple of years includes Event of the Year, Pulpit, Old Trieste, Charismatic, Dubai Millennium, Flanders, Capetown, Exploit, and Indian Charlie. There are too many more.
But even more noisome are the economic retirements. Sure, there is big money to be made standing a stallion, but where is the sportsmanship in this? Wasn't horse racing built on sportsmanship? On running mine against yours?
How can you build a fan base for a sport whose athletes retire before their prime. Imagine Tiger Woods calling it quits after his first major. Michael Jordan going home after one championship. Ali finished after the first Liston fight. It's absurd, yet that is the plight of Thoroughbred racing.
Take Fusaichi Pegasus. Coolmore did, for $70 million, and therein lies the problem. Here was a 3-year-old that captured the imagination of the racing world, and had the name, the charisma, the looks, the wild, unpredictable streak to broaden the sport's appeal to the 99% of Americans who know little or nothing about it. Owner Fusao Sekiguchi, caught full-blush in the thrill of victory the first Saturday in May, proclaimed the horse "an American treasure. He will stay and race in this country." About 12 minutes later, he sold the stallion rights for an amount that guaranteed the horse's premature retirement.
The fate of the FOX series was likely sealed in 1999, its first season, when the point system was weighted heavily on the last race, the Pacific Classic (gr. I). Behrens was leading the standings. His connections chose not to send him to California for purse money and bonuses that would have hit $950,000 if he'd won. They shipped him to Dubai this year, but couldn't send him to Del Mar. Where is the sportsmanship?
The two biggest stars of the '90s, Cigar and Silver Charm, at least danced the dances. Sure, the former had races written for him, but they traveled the country and gave people the opportunity to see them live; gave fans the time to develop a loyalty. Give their connections credit. Others, who already have bank accounts in the seven, eight, and nine figures, would do well to go to school on that.
Let's not get drunk on the sales numbers that show how healthy horse racing is. The television numbers stink, and losing FOX isn't going to help. The fact nobody is watching is a pretty good indication few new fans are being developed.
It takes star power to do it. Baseball, in the doldrums after a strike that canceled the World Series, rode Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Cal Ripken Jr. to renewed popularity. Hardcore fans never left, but marginal and new fans were brought back into the fold. Racing has yet to attract those people into its world. And unless it develops, and keeps, some stars around to hitch itself to, the industry will go merrily along whistling past the graveyard.