Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Good News Flash: Racing’s Popular Again

The notion that racing may be undergoing a resurgence in the eyes of the sporting public comes as a surprise to me and, yes, the asterisk appearing in the headline is recognition for the fact that when it comes to sports we have become a big event society.

The daily fare, apparently, is regarded as simply the SOS regardless of the sport. Still, the 2017 Triple Crown series has been, to date, an immensely popular happening.

Whether it is in person or on TV, people seem to be warming up to horse racing again, however brief the episode may be.

World class events that feature attractions at the highest levels of performance that draws national over-the-air coverage sends a message that somehow resonates most favorably:

There’s something happening here that’s worthwhile. Sports fans seem to be saying something here, even if the overall message ain’t exactly clear.

Nearly a half-million people went to the races on Kentucky Derby and Preakness weekends, resulting in through-the-roof attendance for the first two jewels in racing’s crowning event. Of course, the Derby, “America’s Race” is the linchpin for all of it.

Between the Derby and Preakness, over 307,000 people either drove, bussed, walked or limo’ed their way into racetrack clubhouses, grandstands and infields of Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course.

The Derby’s 167,000-plus was the second highest attendance of all time, just 3,000 short of the record in spite of a washed-out weekend. Preakness attendance of 140,000-plus was a record-breaker, eclipsing last year’s all-time standard of 135,000.

Oaks Day, meanwhile, was the shortfall in four mega-days of racing yet still attracted 105,000-plus on a rain-filled, 51-degree Friday. You have to go back to 1940 to find an afternoon that was colder.

Pimlico started their record-breaking weekend when 50,000 people plunked down their cash to see all the stakes action, including the nominal feature, the Black-Eyed Susan, a number that topped 2016’s record mark of 47,000. By any measure, these numbers are startling.

When you follow the money, the happy story continues. Total handle on Derby day was more than $192 million, where racing conditions were a lot worse than the intelligence insulting, historically inaccurate and sophomoric “wet-fast” designation.

On Preakness day, a record $97 million was wagered, or 3 percent higher than 2016’s record total, which had eclipsed the previous year by an eye-opening 14%.

More notable perhaps is the resurgence of racing’s popularity in Maryland, in part due to the positive strides taken by The Stronach Group’s $22 million-and-climbing investment in Laurel Park, where the racing is successfully following the Gulfstream Park playbook.

The newly polished image of racing in the Free State resulted in a Preakness weekend handle increase of 7 percent year over year, an improvement of 3 percent 2015’s numbers. And this is at old ‘Old Hilltop’, badly in need of refurbishing if not replacing.

What appears inescapable--even if handle is not the be-all, end-all metric it once was--is that the sporting public, and not just racing fans and horseplayers, is becoming engaged.

The giant publicity boost provided by the Kentucky Derby and the positive, resurgent status currently enjoyed by The Maryland Jockey Club, has been very good for the sport in the overall.

It will be interesting to see what trends portend for New York, compared to other non-Triple Crown years. On balance, given the spacing of the three events and the positive nature of the first two, the orgiastic Belmont Day stakes fest should produce a positive apples-to-apples comparison. Anything less would be a disappointing momentum killer.

To be honest, we’re not certain that New Yorkers have the same passion for racing that it once had. We would love nothing better than a sun-shiny day on which we could be proven dead wrong about that notion. It’s up to you, New York, New York.

CLASSIC EMPIRE #1? Yes, that’s the ranking the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner and Preakness runnerup enjoys today, supplanting the dual G1-winning Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming atop of the NTRA national three-year-old poll.

I was one of 21 members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters to vote Classic Empire #1 and Always Dreaming, who was ranked first on 15 of the ballots, at #2. I’ve been getting trolled ever since, expecting the same from some of the HRI Faithful.

For the record, I voted Cloud Computing third. The Preakness winner garnered three first-place votes.

Understand that I struggled mightily before casting my ballot for the Top 10 Three-Year-Olds, a separate category for a second poll that ranks the best of the older “handicap divisions,” an inclusive category that does not delineate male from female, dirt from turf.

When the NTRA Poll was first created, I asked for guidelines and was told that the poll is an amalgam. Like the “rules” governing Horse of the Year Eclipse voting, there are no rules. I was informed that votes are based on accomplishment an opinion, the object being to project end-of-year championships.

Most times I err on the side of accomplishment and even then it’s tough, especially in the open category where no delineations are made, as explained above. Conversely, I admit that, this week, considerations other than “the record” were at play.

I’m no math whiz but have no difficulty counting to two, as in two Grade 1s, including the prestigious Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby for Always Dreaming to one Grade 1 for Classic Empire.

Pardon my parsing but the judgment is based on the fact that Classic Empire is a defending champion, which may not be applicable by definition but a strong consideration given that it is a measure of the same generation.

Always Dreaming and Classic Empire have gone head to head twice, with each taking a turn finishing ahead of the other. Parenthetically, I get that Always Dreaming actually won his race by a wide margin while the other suffered a final-strides runnerup loss.

Qualitatively, I believe their performances were relatively equivalent; a perfect-trip bias aided blowout Derby victory vs. a got slammed so hard that he could have given up the ghost right there, and justifiably so.

But Classic Empire didn’t, of course. Instead, he spotted Always Dreaming about eight or nine lengths of ground (75 feet wider trip), raced on the slower portion of the CD surface, and finished fourth of 20, beaten by 8-3/4 lengths.

Making his third start in five weeks, it was no contest between the two as Always Dreaming reacted, bouncing badly from two consecutive huge lifetime bests, which was to be expected.

Always Dreaming ran a lifetime top in the Derby on the Thoro-Graph scale, which is a first for us, likely due to relatively short rest for all and the mile and a quarter trip.

But he gave no signs of regression in his training for the Preakness. To the contrary, he was doing so well that trainer Todd Pletcher made an out-of-character knocking-on-wood gesture when interviewed 25 hours before the Preakness.

In my view, Classic Empire appears to be the tougher and likely better of the two horses. The only way anyone will know for sure is for them to meet again on a fast surface when they are both fresh and given good no-excuses trips.

Until then, we voted for the colt we think is the “better horse.” Let the debating begin.

Written by John Pricci

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