Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Spread the word

I’ve got to say, I was pretty psyched when I received my Maker’s Mark barrel dedication certificate. Barrel No. 804410. And get this: it already has a personality—Well-rounded with a distinct character. Sound like anyone you know? It all comes with the territory of being an ambassador for Maker’s Mark.

And in our endless plight to spread the bounty of a good horse race, the game we either love or indifferently follow, seeks ways to recruit new fans. Always. Night racing? Good idea. Kegasus? Awesome idea. Cameras on the ground? Terrible use of pixels.

The game tries to be its own ambassador and in its inability to empower its electorate it falls somewhere less-than-tall. The sport should consider it a victory if it loses zero fans over the course of a year. Breaking even is a win. So what if it reached out to its die-hards? Its gamblers? Its horse lovers, and give them a big hug? Even give them a sweet barrel dedication certificate and business cards.

I tell you, all I want to do is spread the gospel of good bourbon and all it took was a good buzz and a cool piece of paper I value more than my high school and both college diplomas (with none of the debt!).

I will happily pass out my Maker’s Mark business cards and tell party goers Maker’s uses walnut bungs. Many other distillers use a soft bung, but no, not Maker’s. Soft bungs can “swell up and when wet can only be removed by cutting them out, making any sampling of the bourbon difficult at best.” Enough about bung.

Horse racing needs to adopt a similar program that empowers its loyal followers. Make them happy and they will spread the word. My friend who got me into racing back in 2002 merely stumbled upon Saratoga. Where would we be had he not found this diamond in a haystack? Had he not we’d likely be successful business tycoons cut from the mold of Barney Stinson. But instead we traveled down less awesome paths … or did we? We’ll explore this in another column.

Ambassadors will get two dozen complimentary past performances and vouchers for each newbie they bring to the track. They will receive honorary diplomas for the preservation of the game they love. They will be honored with exclusive parties. They will be made to feel like the Kings and Queens they are because without ambassadors, without people waving the pride banner, where will the sport be?

The answer is painfully clear: it will continue to lose its base and a sport with its base cannot stand.

Now, where’s that red wax-dipped bottle? It’s about that time for some charred American white oak-colored brownest of the brown. To quote Homer Simpson from when the “Simpsons” was actually funny, “They looked deep within my soul and assigned me a number based on the order in which I joined.”

That’s all from Ambassador 762,589.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga and he totally gets his tweet on.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Let ‘Luck’ Live

"Luck" is about the only thing interesting in the racing biz these days, and sadly, I can't watch it. I don't have HBO … and it airs past my bedtime. The Derby trail is about as interesting as talking about who will win next year's Super Bowl. Too soon to tell.

I love the reaction of the industry insiders to the show. Some spout how great it is, just read Daily Racing Form's Andrew Beyer's review from a few weeks ago. In it he glows that it's "authentic." From what I hear, I agree. His perspective is that of a horse player and that's how he opens his piece, diving headlong into a live Pick 6 ticket. Whatever that's like, I'll never know, but there's a magnet we're all attracted to and the horse player has his Pick 6.

Then there's the other side, the folks who don't like it. The folks would be insulted by the way horse racing is depicted on the screen. Enter the legendary syndicate maven, Dogwood's Cot Campbell. His fear, and looking at the view from his chair, is understandable, but I feel a bit unreasonable. His fear is that the subtext, jargon, and depiction of "Luck's" horse racing culture is far too abrasive to bring in new fans.

"Thoroughbred racing is certainly in need of exposure - other than Derby time - but I cannot drum up any enthusiasm for the material that is being provided by this new Sunday night cable series," he writes. "Heavily reviewed and promoted, it is being seen by a great many people. And, if I were a novice, and got a glimpse of Luck, I would not want to go anywhere near a racetrack. And, also, if I were a novice, I would also not know what the hell the characters were talking about."

The show's creator, David Milch, has loved the racetrack his whole life and sees it for what it is: a cross section of character. It's even a little racy, a little dodgy, a bit unwholesome. Heck, Mount Doom was no picnic for Frodo, but every hamlet needs a shadow.

Mr. Campbell proceeds, “Dogwood Stable through the years has brought about 1,200 new people into racing. But, if these people had been exposed to the HBO series Luck, that number would not have totaled 200.”

Since Dogwood’s founding in 1969—a span of 43 years—it has brought a total of 27.9 new owners to the sport every year. Impressive. But I doubt “Luck” will have any influence over new skin buying into a share of the next big stud. There’s something to be said of the person who has enough scratch to buy a horse: they’ll buy one no matter what. It’s ego, even if it is a transparent cry for attention.

Everybody is always trying to fix the sport. But it needs to embrace its menial place in the landscape of American popularity. The people who already like it will pass it on. They are your ambassadors. Embrace them and the sport will float on inches above the ground.

In life there are winners and there are losers. Losing is okay; it's the only way to measure winning. Horse racing puts food on the tables of a few very wealthy folks, but for everyone else it’s as seedy as “Luck” presumably makes it out to be.

Still, doesn’t the bad boy always get the girl?

Just sayin’.

Brendan O'Meara tweets.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Horses and the Screen

I’m heading to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania today to write a story for Mountain Home Magazine about a horse, a horse bought by a Civil War general, Wellsboro’s own war horse. Naturally, I had to go see “War Horse,” before Regal Cinemas sent it out to pasture.

One showing, 9:20, Friday night. That’s 20 minutes past my bed time. Oh, boy.

Alex Brown wrote a great review through the eyes of a horseman. Also, he did some classic reporting, finding out the real name of Joey, the leading horse of the movie, and what his racing career was like.

All I can do is write a review through the eyes of a story teller. A couple things struck me: why doesn’t the popularity of a racehorse or war horse on the big screen translate to the racetrack or literature? With the exception of “Seabiscuit” (because of Laura Hillenbrand’s talent) and “Secretariat” (because it was Secretariat), no book on racing has had any type of success. My feeling is that the horse is a visual creature.

Words, no matter the ability of Hillenbrand or William Nack, never measure up to seeing these animals in motion.

Another was the movie’s superb illustration of how horses are the universal tongue of man. For the purposes of viewer-accessibility the Germans and the French all speak English, but even if they were forced to speak their native languages, any time Joey bound them, they spoke the same language. This horse changed hands more times than a nickel claimer.

Add to that director Steven Spielberg sure knows how to make you shake your head at the travesty of war. When the British, using the antiquated bayonet charge across no-man’s land, while the Germans sat tight in forts with Gatling guns, mowed the British down like grass. It was, as history books say, a war of attrition.

Just about any scene when Joey breaks free and hits his stride, the movie picks up pace. His tack hung off him like shackles as he ran riderless, avoiding the bullets that claimed his jockey. His maniacal run across no-man’s land and into a web of tangled barbed wire symbolized how torn Joey was, that he could only be freed by a truce, that his bleeding caused a cease fire.

At about the time of this movie’s nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, HBO launches “Luck,” a racetrack drama created by famed television producer and writer David Milch. Listen to what he had to tell NPR’s Dave Davies about the show here.

Milch told Davies about his trip to Saratoga Race Course with his father, “The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler ... but it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet. On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me, and, therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off."

What this tells us is that racetrack is an immensely valuable story telling platform with different shades of people with different motives and motivations, as I tried to illustrate in “Six Weeks in Saratoga.” (Shameless plug? Yes, but I feel awesome right now.)

Normally I don’t care that I don’t have cable, but I’ll actually miss the idea of not watching “Luck,” because it will have all the elements that drive narrative: gray characters played by world-class actors, conflict, and perhaps the greatest engine in all of story telling—thoroughbred race horses.

Brendan O'Meara uses his 140 characters to his advantage on Twitter.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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