Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Racing has a fickle partner in TV
The Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports should be a boon to racing. Any TV exposure is. But racing's movers and shakers should be aware that history teaches that TV, especially fledgling networks, drops niche programming as soon as it has enough shows with mainstream appeal.
MIAMI, Jan. 29, 2014--Getting into bed with a TV network is like being George Clooneyâs latest flame. Great while it lasts. Just donât fantasize about happily ever after.
Racing should keep this in mind as it justifiably celebrates the launch of the Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports. When you donât have an abundance of suitors, you canât fret over âWill you still love me tomorrow?â
A story from my 30 years as a TV critic illustrates what racing can expect. The best handicapping I ever did wasnât at a racetrack. It was predicting the impact Miami Vice would have on South Florida.
The town fathers were apoplectic when NBC announced the new series starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas. They were terrified the tourism industry would be irreparably harmed by ripped-from-the-headlines plots.
Drug wars had made the area resemble the Wild West, only with better weapons. Dadeland, an upscale showplace mall, had recently been the site of a ferocious gun battle waged with military assault rifles.
The Miami Vice pilot was screened for TV critics during a Los Angeles press tour. It was brilliant. The lead on my column for the Miami News was, ââMiami Viceâ will be the greatest thing ever to happen to Miami.â The paper put it on Page 1.
âMiami Viceâ didnât become an instant nationwide hit. It was scheduled against âFalcon Crest,â a popular prime-time soap bolstered by the extraordinary lead-in it inherited from still white hot âDallas.â
But âViceâ was huge in Miami. There was no such thing as too much Miami Vice in the paper. I wrote about the episodes, the music, the fashions and profiled every actor in the ensemble. My stories were available on several wire services, so they were being seen beyond Miami.
I became as popular on the set as pastels. The night the pilot aired for America, there was a lavish screening party at a Miami Beach hotel. I got to sit behind the ropes with the cast. When I temporarily ran out of story ideas and didnât show up on the set for more than a week, I got a call asking if I was mad about something.
Don Johnson sent me a message that I didnât have to have a story in mind to come out to the set. He said it was OK to come over and just hang out. He also invited me to his Star Island mansion some Saturday night to watch movies with his friends.
America finally discovered âMiami Viceâ during summer rerun season when the CBS soap operas went on hiatus. Millions of faithful fans, who had been hearing about âMiami Viceââvideo recorders were still fairly rareâtuned in to see what they were missing. Miami Vice was on its way.
A frenzy erupted in the publishing business to get Johnson and company on the covers of national news and entertainment magazines.
As Season Two approached, my paper naturally wanted a major takeout on what to expect. I called over to the people who had treated me the previous year as if I were âThe Bachelorâ and they were in the harem hoping to gain favor.
Numerous calls went unreturned. Eventually I got aggressive, leaving Johnson and others a sharp message reminding them that I was there when nobody else was and how it was bad form on their part to not even return my calls.
I finally got a pithy message from Johnsonâs rep. âThat was last year. Weâre hot now.â
To bring this full circle, Fox Sports 1 needs help now. It is the new kid on the national cable sports network block. The major broadcast networks, ESPN and the Turner empire cleverly tied up the professional sports leagues and major college conferences to long-term deals. So Fox Sports has to scramble to fill 168 hours a week without resorting to miniature golf and curling from Canada. Enter the relationship with racing.
However, the major sports deals will eventually expire and Fox, out of necessity, will probably overpay to grab some of them. As these sports begin to show up on the network, horse racing will be pushed aside. In effect, it will get the âThat was then. Weâre hot nowâ brush off. Pretty much what happened with ESPN.
This is not a phenomena restricted to sports, although it has manifested itself in a slightly different way on broadcast networks. When Fox arrived in the early â90s, it relied to a large extent on series geared toward African-American audiences: True Colors, Roc, Martin and In Living Color, to name a few.
Simple explanation: The black audience was being egregiously underserved by ABC, CBS and NBC. So Fox prudently went after that segment of America.
However, once the network created a few hits and was accepted by mainstream America on even footing with the then Big Three (snagging the NFL was a major coup), the shows with predominantly black casts began to diminish. Try finding one now.
The lesser UPN and WB networks, which came along in the mid-â90s, adhered to an identical strategy. UPN got off the ground with black-targeted series such as Moesha, The Parkers, All of Us, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris.
The first series on WB was The Wayans Brothers. Parent âHood and Sister, Sister followed.
The two newbies eventually merged into the CW and the shows with African-American casts were jettisoned one by one until there were none, as the new entity discovered greater success targeting the 18-and-under crowd, also underserved in prime time.
TV critics get to meet with network executives in Los Angeles twice each year. At every one of these sessions while I was still on the beat, the CW executive in charge said the networkâs primary goal was to break out beyond teens by creating series with appeal to a more general audience. Thus far, success in this area has been limited. If and when it happens, it will be adios teens.
So racing and its fans should enjoy the honeymoon with Fox Sports while it lasts. It is hoped that this time the future of niche programming will last, not disappear.
Written by Tom Jicha
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Two Series Enhance Racing’s TV Profile
Without TV, it's impossible for a sport to be taken seriously by the masses. The Jockey Club Tour on Fox and the new documentary-style series 'Horseplayers' are steps in the right direction even if they are works in progress.
MIAMI, Jan. 22-2014--First impressions might be lasting but they should be open to reconsideration and revision.
When Gulfstream announced it was relocating the Donn Handicap, the premier event of the winter season for older horses, to Sunday, Feb. 9, from its original position the day before in order to help launch a new racing series on the Fox Sports Network, the kneejerk reaction was, here we go again with a sport showing little regard for its fans in order to accommodate television.
Indeed, Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo acknowledges that he has heard from customers, who say they had made travel plans to attend the Donn, then get on a plane for home Sunday.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I came around to the old expression, âYou canât make an omelet without cracking some eggs.â
Baseball and football. with their resources, tradition and vast fan bases, can afford to alienate fans with customers-be-damned schedule changes. Racing isnât in this position. It has to tread carefully and weigh risk against reward. This is why Gulfstream deserves a pat on the back for shuffling its deck to get the series off to a strong start.
The Donn would have done more for Gulfstream on Saturday than it will on Sunday. Nevertheless, Ritvo said, âWeâre hoping the exposure on TV outweighs anything we might lose because of the change.â Oh that more racetrack executives had that attitude.
Sportsâall entertainment, or that matterâis driven by star power. The series launch couldnât ask for more. The Donn has the makings of a hum-dinger. New Eclipse winner Will Take Charge is definitely pointing to the race. The joke last weekend was, getting the race on TV cinched that D. Wayne Lukas would be there.
Revolutionary, third in last yearâs Kentucky Derby and a smashing winner of his recent 2014 debut, is also probable. So is River Seven, who set a track record in winning the Haranâs Holiday. Word from the West Coast is Doug OâNeill is planning to ship in Private Zone.
Whatâs more, Groupie Dollâs people announced last week that she will make one final start in the Hurricane Bertie, which is now on the Donn undercard. Each telecast of the Jockey Club Tour will include at least two big races. The co-feature for the Feb. 9 launch is listed to be the Gulfstream Turf Handicap but rest assured Groupie Dollâs finale will find its way onto the show.
Most of the other telecasts have only the major attraction penciled in right now. The Dubai World Cup is on deck for March 29, followed by the Blue Grass on April 12, the Man OâWar May 11, the United Nations July 6, the Eddie Read and Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20, the Saratoga Special (the most curious selection) on Aug. 10, the Sword Dancer on Aug. 17 and the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 14.
A glaring absence is the lack of any races from a Churchill Downs-owned track. (The Kentucky Derby and Oaks have separate TV deals).
'Horseplayers' too busy
âHorseplayersâ is harder to find than the winner of a bottom level maiden claimer at Beulah. The new series on the characters who frequent handicapping contests is on the Esquire Network, which used to be called the Style Network. Look up in the hundreds on your cable dial.
The premiere was busier than a groom in the morning, to the detriment of the show. Itâs a challenge to every TV pilot to introduce characters, explain relationships and lay the groundwork for what is to come while maintaining a compelling narrative. âHorseplayersâ came up short in these areas.
The protagonists are people who have had success or are striving to achieve it in big money handicapping contests. New York based Team RotondoâPeter Sr., his son Peter Jr. and their pal Lee Davisâdominated opening night. However, other than the fact that they like to play horses and think they are the best around we didnât get to know them very well. They seem to have some interesting personal stories, not the least of which is how Peter Sr. met and married a 22-year-old. In the showâs defense, this is a series, so maybe that is to come.
Christian Helmers, the West Coast element, is more of a mystery. We found out heâs a young guy with a beautiful girlfriend but little more. Itâs said some gamblers have ice water in their veins. Helmers appears to have Freon. He was seen making two huge scores at the 2012 Breedersâ Cup without even cracking a smile. Again, maybe weâll learn more about him down the road, too.
The fact that the girlfriends of Rotondo and Helmers were the only women given prominent screen time and were treated as accessories won't endear "Horseplayers" to 52% of the population.
The frequent jumps from coast to coast also were jarring. If this is an attempt to bring in viewers who are not avid racing fans, which it obviously is, the documentary-style show could benefit greatly from a narrator to smooth over the many transitions.
A lesson I learned during my three decades as a TV critic is just as you donât judge a book by its cover, you donât judge a series by its pilot. Iâll reserve judgment until I get to see a few more episodes. But for now, I fear âHorseplayersâ will have a difficult challenge sustaining an audience beyond avid fans of the sport.
Written by Tom Jicha
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Eclipse Awards another indictment of Keeneland’s Polytrack
Keeneland used to be a home of champions. Since an artificial surface was installed in 2006, it has become home to oddball results. The winners of its most important main track stakes are nowhere to be found among the Eclipse finalists, which has become the norm. In the past seven-plus years, not one of the winners of the Grade 1 Blue Grass, Alcibiades, Ashland, Breeders' Futurity and Spinster has doubled on Eclipse night.
MIAMI, Jan. 15, 2014--The annual presentation of the Eclipse Awards Saturday brings still another reminder of racingâs dirty little secret.
Itâs the sacred cow status of Keeneland since it installed a synthetic track. Nine Eclipse categories have no surface restrictions. Of the 24 finalists (three have double nominations; Wise Dan has a third for turf), only three competed on Keenelandâs Polytrack. One was Wise Dan, when the Shadwell Mile was taken off the grass. None won. Wise Dan suffered his only defeat when he ran second, Groupie Doll was third in the TCA and Palace Malice was second in the Blue Grass.
Keenelandâs Polytrack has become the home of results out of synch with the rest of racing.
There is far more evidence that Keeneland has become an outlier among American racetracks since putting down fake dirt for the 2006 fall meeting.
Fourteen graded stakes were run on the kitty litter in 2013, including the relocated Shadwell Mile. Not one of the winners is among the final three in any Eclipse category.
As they say in the TV infomercials, but wait, thereâs more. Keeneland annually presents six Grade 1âs, three in the spring, three in the fall. Groupie Doll last year and Informed Decision in 2009 both won the Madison en route to a female sprint Eclipse. The winners of the other fiveâthe Alcibiades, Ashland, Blue Grass, Breeders Futurity and Spinsterâhave produced zero Eclipse champions since Godâs brown dirt was abandoned.
Since the fall of 2006, 38 thoroughbreds have won these five nominally top tier events. Not one has been voted an Eclipse. Over the past three years, only Groupie Doll and Stephanieâs Kitten, who took the Alcibiades in 2011, have even been Eclipse finalists.
Nevertheless, it is considered heresy to even suggest that any be downgraded to a level more appropriate for the influence they have had on the sport. After all, this is Keeneland.
I have a better idea than downgrading the stakes. To bastardize some of the most famous words to come out of an American President's mouth, âMr. Thomason, tear up that track.â
Eclipse categories lack clarity
As long as weâre on the subject of Eclipse Awards, a familiar debate has been reignited.
Gary West, one of Americaâs most respected turf writers, wrote a column arguing that Wise Dan would be a poor choice for Best Older Horse, because his successes were all on turf, which has a category of its own. In his view, Mucho Macho Man or Game or Dude must be awarded the prize.
Since Wise Dan won this award last year, West is in the minority. Moreover, Mizdirection, who never set foot on dirt, is a finalist among female sprinters, a category many consider a main track prize. Obviously, the majority viewpoint is turf counts.
This doesnât make West wrong, as anyone who has supported a losing political candidate will attest. West is doing the right thing, passionately arguing his position in the hope it will become the majority stance in the future. Alas, he went over the top, making it personal. He labeled others who donât see things his way "narcissists." Heâs better than that.
Nick Kling, whose opinions are frequently expressed in Horse Race Insider, presented a cogent response to West in the Troy (NY) Record. Kling opined that as long as there are no specific rules, it is up to each voter to make a decision.
I have to come down on Klingâs side. I voted for Wise Dan for best older horse last year and I did it again this year. He was 6-for-7, all stakes, four of his wins in Grade 1âs, including the Breedersâ Cup Mile.
But if Game on Dude had won the Breedersâ Cup Classic, which would have given him a comparable record, I would have voted for him for Horse of the Year and Older Horse, because all things being equal, dirt is still Americaâs primary surface. But as it is, no one had a year close to the equal of Wise Danâs.
This underlines the subjectivity of the Eclipse voting. Is an Eclipse champion the horse with the most stakes wins; the best winning percentages in graded stakes; the most Grade 1 wins; a Breedersâ Cup champion?
When this yearâs winners are announced, there will be some who fit into each of those categories. But there also will be non-winners (no horse outstanding enough be an Eclipse finalist should ever be called a loser), who fit within those parameters.
Racing is not alone in having debates of this kind. Every few years, when a pitcher has an extraordinary season, there are factions in baseball who argue that since pitchers have the Cy Young Award, they should not be considered for MVP. Occasionally they are over-ruled by the majority.
The Baseball Writers of America Association has had plenty of opportunities to clarify the standards. Instead, voters have been instructed to follow the same guidelines that also should be the rule for the Eclipse Awards. Use your own best judgment.
And donât denigrate those who have a different opinion.
Written by Tom Jicha