Monday, December 30, 2013

The Triple Crown Strikes Back

The new year is fast approaching, as they always do, faster with every year. We are riding a turbulent ascent toward May 3rd. This is the second year of the Kentucky Derby Points System. Hard to believe it’s only the second year of this system, controversial as it was and is.

Add to that the New York Racing Association bumped the purse to the Belmont Stakes 50 percent to $1.5 million. An argument can be made that the Triple Crown races are so prestigious that they need no purse increase. Twenty horses will start the Kentucky Derby if they were running for nothing more than two free movie passes.

As it stands, the Derby sits at $2 million, the Preakness at $1.5 million and the Belmont at $1.5 million. That’s all well and good. These three races in five weeks are an ideal narrative building window, or the continuation thereof.

The Triple Crown, in essence, is the middle movie in a blockbuster trilogy. It leaves us with the most uncertainty and, by the end, leaves us gripping the couch cushions saying, “Darth Vadar was once capable of intercourse!”

The first movie is the run up to the Derby, a five-month slow burn where 20 teenagers slowly begin to rise from their foal crops like Oklahoma Training Track fog. They rise from all corners of the country, a true national championship. A win in Kentucky almost assures the colt championship honors. It literally took months for Orb to shake his Derby sheen.

They race in Kentucky, Florida, California, Arkansas, Louisiana, New York and New Mexico for a shot to be the only horse alive to be the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Largely we’re lucky to see big fields in all the Triple Crown races. The money’s nice—there’s only so many $1 million races on a calendar—but the prestige is priceless. What we lack is a continuity between all races, something we actually had an abundance of in 2013, something that fed the greater part of the racing calendar.

In 2013, Orb, Will Take Charge and Oxbow ran in all three Triple Crown races when, as recent precedent has indicated, they had no incentive to run in more than two. So many trainers—at the behest of clients, mind you—throw all their eggs into the porous Derby basket.

It’s no coincidence that the handlers of these three horses—Shug McGaughey and D. Wayne Lukas—are old timers who like to see their racehorses, I don’t know, race. More so with the latter of this pair, for sure.

The Derby got 16.2 million viewers. The Preakness, with a Triple Crown contender on the rise, got 9.7 million sets of eyes. The Belmont, even without a Triple Crown hopeful, got 7.0 million people tuning in. That doesn’t include the 200,000 or so who attended the races. So 32.9 million watched the three-year-olds over that five-week span. Nearly 33 million people saw Orb, Oxbow and Will Take Charge run 31.5 furlongs.

That only made them more interesting as they went about their summer campaigns. Orb would take most of the summer off, but Oxbow made it as far as the Haskell before retiring with an injury. Will Take Charge just got better and better and should be Horse of the Year.

While it’s nice to see the Belmont’s purse jump in value, the real incentive should be on getting more Derby entrants to run in the Preakness, then the more Derby and Preakness entrants to run in the Belmont. That can be a purse incentive like NYRA has for field size with grass races, or two-turn dirt races. To apply it here would mean the more Derby runners in the Preakness, the more dough gets doled out. And with the VLTs subsidizing much of the purse structure in New York, the Belmont’s purse incentives could be—and should be—substantial to a sound horse running in all three legs.

Derby runners get preference to starting spots in the Preakness. Derby and Preakness runners get preference for the Belmont.

With 33 million eyes watched three colts run in all three legs in 2013, that builds an interest in the athlete that makes for a profitable viewing experience as the season heads into Saratoga, fall Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup.

Story lines don’t necessarily pay out at the window, but they get people off their butts and to the track (and, let’s face it, don’t you want some of that “dumb” money pumping dough into underlays?). It’s win win!

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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