Monday, April 02, 2012
All Hail Lord Kegasus
Awhile back I was having lunch in a sports bar with my old friend Gary O’Neil. For those of you who don’t know, Gary is a long time Ad Man and a genius at that game. When it comes to being a marketing maven (which means “expert” in Yiddish, my ancestral tongue), Don Draper has nothing on this guy.
The ubiquitous TV screens in the bar were all showing the Kia Soul spot; you know, the one with the adorable hamsters driving neon-hued Souls with the windows and moon roofs open as they cruise down the street while bobbing their heads and necks to the beat of the hip-hop music blaring out of the sound system.
Gary stopped in mid-sentence and watched the entire commercial. “I love this spot. It’s terrific,” he said. Then he mentioned that he had been in meetings with stodgy, old corporate executives who hate it and don’t get it.
“That’s why it’s so good,” he said. “They’re not supposed to get it, because it’s not targeted to them. The age group it’s designed to sell Kias to get it, and they love it precisely for the reasons the establishment hates it. Then they buy the cars.”
When I heard that the Maryland Jockey Club recently announced that Kegasus, Lord of the Preakness, will be back as the marketing campaign for the 2012 second jewel in the Triple Crown, I was thinking not so much of the half-man, half-horse mascot. Hip-Hop Hamsters are what popped in to my head.
A lot of us who really love racing in all of its glory, and love the Preakness, hate Kegasus. We prefer that the race sell itself on the magnificence, heart and athleticism of the three-year-olds as they compete to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
We want our Preakness conversation to be about pedigrees, past performances, and the amazing back stories of how each horse in the field came to be here. We can’t wait to learn what makes the connections of each horse so fascinating.
We want people to come out to the track and appreciate what phenomenal professional athletes the jockeys, are and how much the owners, breeders, trainers and their crews have invested not only into each horse but into the game itself. We hope that the race will be an interesting betting affair, resulting in a huge on-track handle.
We need a reality check. Big time.
Kegasus, and the festival around him that is an homage to heavy drinking and rowdy partying, was created last year by the MJC brass because it knew the race had to have a much broader appeal to precisely that younger demographic which buys Kia Souls. There just aren’t enough racing purists around anymore.
After drawing crowds of 112,000 to 121,000 from 2004 to 2008, Preakness attendance dropped to 77,850 in 2009 when the track stopped allowing people to bring beer and other alcoholic beverages into the infield.
In 2010, the track’s advertising campaign was geared to a more youthful demo: “Get Your Preak On” was its mantra. Alcohol was back in the infield and it was a hit, drawing about 95,760 people, Last year, Kegasus helped bring 107,398 people to the track, a 12.1% bump from the previous yea’s bump.
The 2011 attendance was not only the largest in three years but also the sixth-highest in Preakness history. Yes, last year the handle was down 3.6% from the year before but that almost doesn’t matter in the bigger picture.
What matters is that people came to the track, especially the younger crowd that racing can’t seem to attract, not only at the Maryland tracks dealt a blow by competition from shopping-mall slots but all over the continent on a non “Big Race” or “Big Event” days. Moreover, they found out you can have a lot of fun, a really good time, at the races.
Granted that the fun was fueled in part by the Mug Club, where fans get a bottomless mug of suds for a single price all day and watch star acts like Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa, this year’s headliners. Kegasus likely is the most successful infield promotion in the track’s history.
And now, as the big guns at the MJC, the NTRA, and all of the other acronyms recognize, you can’t produce a new crop of racing fans unless you get them out to the track. At first, they may be there more for the beer and the debauchery.
The romance of racing is its glamour, the game as exciting as a sporting event can be, and the wagering a thrill-a-minute challenge. But every fan needs to be home-grown somewhere.
Think about it: That’s how we all started. We went to the track one day, watched a race, cashed a ticket and realized that racing is pretty damn great and we couldn’t wait to come back.
If the Kegasus crowd has a great time, they’ll come back, too. And when they learn a little bit more about the sport, the wagering, and what makes it truly the greatest game, they’ll become true racing fans.
So All Hail to Lord Kegasus and this year’s sidekick, Unicare, the half unicorn, half man. Can’t convince me that they don’t drive Kia Souls.
Written by Lynne Snierson
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
This Lady Shaves
Back in 1988 when Winning Colors, fresh off beating a field of boys in the Santa Anita Derby, was tuning up at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby that she would capture, a reporter asked her trainer, D Wayne Lukas, what made a really good filly, what he looks for when he buys one at auction.
While I don’t remember Wayne’s exact reply, it went something like she needs to have "the head of a princess, the butt of a washerwoman and walks like a whore.”
I’m not sure that Bill Mott would answer in the same way today, but I am convinced that he knows exactly what it is that makes Royal Delta so good. The 2011 Eclipse Award-winning Three-Year-Old Filly and champion of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic is regally bred, but the daughter of Empire Maker out of the A.P. Indy mare Delta Princess has more than her pedigree among her considerable assets.
Exactly what she’s got makes Mott, a Hall of Famer and multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer, believe that she can become the first filly to win the $10 Million Dubai World Cup at Meydan on Saturday. Only six females have ever even tried.
Of course, the rest of the racing world ridicules us Americans for making gender distinctions about racehorses and the girls certainly have beaten the guys in some pretty big races of late.
Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Rachel Alexandra took the Preakness and the Woodward, Rags to Riches became the first filly in 102 years and only the third to win the Belmont, Havre de Grace won the Woodward, Goldikova won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in three consecutive years after Miesque did it twice, and of course Winning Colors is only the third filly to ever win the Kentucky Derby.
Those are triumphs indeed. But if Royal Delta, who has earned almost $1.7 million in purses so far, can beat a truly world class bunch of boys in the world’s richest race on a stage of this magnitude, she would not only be in that class, she would go to the head of it.
Royal Delta and Mott, who won the inaugural World Cup with eventual Horse of the Year Cigar, would take over an esteemed place in Thoroughbred racing lore.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Mott said with a laugh to Michele MacDonald after they watched Royal Delta look fabulous in a 1 3/8 mile gallop on Tuesday morning. In fact she looked so good that Michele reported that when the filly schooled at the gate, the crew admired her size and strength.
Everyone notices that the big bay filly with the star on her forehead is drop dead gorgeous. Still, this isn’t a beauty contest, not with tough guys like Game on Dude and So You Think in the field.
“She’s got many things going for her. The one thing we don’t know is whether she is good enough,” Mott explained to MacDonald. “But the distance doesn’t seem to be a factor; she’s won at a mile and a quarter. She’s won a race on a synthetic track. She’s won under the lights and she doesn’t need any medication to speak of. She’s jumped through a lot of the hoops that you have to clear to win here.”
The story of how and why Royal Delta is even with Mott, let alone in Dubai, this year has been often told.
To recap briefly, after owner Saudi Prince Saud bin Kaled passed away last year, she had to be put into the Keeneland November sale following her Breeders’ Cup win as part of the estate’s dispersal. Benjamin Leon, who races under Besilu Stables, put in the winning bid of $8.5 million and sent her back to Mott’s barn.
But Mott has said that he had this race in mind even before he knew she would be his to train again. That’s how much faith he has in her abilities.
Whether she can reward that faith on Saturday night in Meydan remains to be seen. Keep in mind, as David Grening pointed out in the Daily Racing Form, that Royal Delta has a tendency to turn in a really big effort after a just-okay one and she was beaten by eight lengths by Awesome Maria in her seasonal debut in a grade 3 at Gulfstream.
If form holds, it would be rather nice for Mott to have a pair of the golden whips given to the winners. He could use them as bookends in his trophy case.
“It’s a great challenge to try to be the first filly to win it,” he said. “We had the first colt, now we need the first filly.”
I will be watching on Saturday, after wishing and hoping Royal Delta gets a break when the post positions are drawn on Wednesday, and rooting for her to win the Dubai World Cup. Am I guilty of gender bias? You’re damn straight.
Written by Lynne Snierson
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Havre de Grace is back on stage and at the top of her game. Like most stars in the harsh glare of the brightest spotlight, she’s having some issues with weight.
It’s not her avoirdupois
that causes concern. Rather, it is the weight to be assigned next to the reigning Horse of the Year, who vaulted to the top of the NTRA poll this week after blowing four overmatched fillies and mares off the track in the ungraded New Orleans Ladies Handicap at The Fairgrounds this past weekend.
For the rules of the game still say that the better a horse performs, the more weight she has to carry from then on.
Trainer Larry Jones and owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm know all too well that size does matter, especially when it comes to the impost assigned by racing secretaries for contests run under handicap conditions.
Last year, Havre de Grace suffered a narrow defeat to Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap, a race that Porter said he dearly wanted to win because it was on his home turf, when she had to tote two pounds more than her rival.
You might say it was only two little pounds, but Rhianna or Kate Moss can tell you that carrying an extra 32 ounces can look awfully heavy when you’re strutting on the red carpet or out on the catwalk.
Jones and Porter are convinced those two pounds are what got Havre de Grace beat on the racetrack and they don’t want to see it happen again to the Big Mare as she campaigns for a couple more Eclipse Awards this year. Consequently, the Grade 1 $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park on April 13, a race she was being pointed for, may not be her next start.
“The Apple Blossom is still the most likely option but we’re not going to be stupid about it,” Jones said in a story on Tuesday’s Bloodhorse.com. “We’re not going to be spotting good horses a whole lot of weight. Last year we felt like we were unfairly dealt with in the Delaware Handicap.”
This is where the story takes another twist. Pat Pope was the racing official who assigned Havre de Grace top weight of 124 pounds in the Delaware Handicap. Pope, who’s been around a long time and is well respected in the industry, just happens to also be the guy at Oaklawn who decides which horse gets what weight after the nominations come out.
Not only does the track in Hot Springs, Arkansas host the Apple Blossom, but the $350,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap one day later on April 14 is also part of the track’s prestigious Racing Festival of the South.
Yes, the operative word in the race’s title is “handicap”. Even the allowance for her gender may not make a difference.
“Look we know we’re going to have to carry more weight than most horses in the country. We understand that,” Jones went on to say. “But I’m also not fixing to give a multiple Grade 1 winner a lot of weight just because we have an Eclipse Award that was done off of votes and doesn’t take into account what happened on the racetrack. I’m not going to spot a lot of weight to a horse that has as many grade 1s as we have.”
Speaking of the Oaklawn Handicap, Porter said, “We will have weight issues on a regular basis, so we might as well run against the boys.”
Nonetheless, Havre de Grace, who recently had the City of Havre de Grace, Maryland Arts Commission release a new medal that bears her likeness, does have other options. There isn’t a racetrack in the country that wouldn’t want her (think of the marketing and PR possibilities) and you can bet that every stakes coordinator is trying to hustle Jones to enter her for the signature events.
The Grade 1 $400,000 Odgen Phipps at Belmont on May 28 comes to mind. The race is at 1 1/16 mile, a distance she clearly liked in her last race when she crossed under the wire in 1:42.79 and ran the mile in a sprite 1:36 off a long layoff. Right now, Awesome Maria, last year’s Phipps winner, and Awesome Feather are said to be pointing there as well and they are both fabulously talented.
Havre de Grace, a daughter of Saint Liam who has earned over $2 million in her career, can’t stay in the barn munching on her hay rack and resting on her Eclipse Awards. Porter brought her back this year to race and her one-hell-of-a-comeback in the New Orleans Ladies proved she wants to race.
She’s already scared off from the Apple Blossom Include Me Out, who won the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational last weekend, according to trainer Ron Ellis.
April 7 is the day the weights come out for the Apple Blossom, and then they will be released for the Oaklawn Handicap. Jones, Porter and Pope certainly aren’t the only ones who have the date circled in red on the calendar.
Written by Lynne Snierson