Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Changing Seasons

(CHICAGO, IL – January 17, 2011) Tonight the Eclipse Award Speculation Season will end and the Eclipse Award Complaint Season will begin. The upcoming season could persist anywhere from one week to one month depending on which horse is named Horse of the Year. Such a run would take horse racing fans right up to the Triple Crown Trail Season. Some people, who have tired of the Blame vs. Zenyatta debate, have turned the page on the calendar already. A handful of sophomore hopefuls broke from starting gates in races this past Saturday and Sunday.

Major League Baseball manages its seasons better than any sport. But, under the weight of unusual circumstances, horse racing does almost as well. Except for its wildly popular player draft in April, NFL football disappears once the Super Bowl is over. Likewise, NBA basketball and NHL hockey are, at best, three-season sports. Horse racing finds ways to engage its enthusiasts in stretches when its grind isn’t worth watching. It’s a credit to the NTRA, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and The Jockey Club that the sport is able to make something of little when the action is boring, drawn-out and irrelevant. The Eclipse Awards is an excellent example.

Baseball is played in six months for most teams and seven for those that excel. But the manner in which the National Pastime entertains its fans is the model of constant engagement. Once the sting from champagne is no longer felt in the eyes of the World Series winners, baseball rolls out its MVPs, Cy Young Award winners and Rookies of the Year. Then the MLB owners hold their always eventful Winter Meetings, and, a bit later, the fire is lighted in what’s known as the Hot Stove League. Ultimately, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

Tens of thousands of Cubs fans paid $60 each to attend the Cubs Convention at the Hilton Chicago Hotel on S. Michigan Avenue this weekend. Less than a week from now, a like number of Chicago White Sox fans will jam the Hyatt Regency Chicago for SoxFest. Meanwhile, about 550 black tie-attired horse racing people will gather in tribute to the stars of 2010 at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Wouldn’t it be grand if that number was many times greater?

“Fans should have a chance to be a bigger part of the evening,” answered NTRA vice-president of communications Keith Chamblin in email, when asked if there was thought to making the announcement of Eclipse Awards more accessible to the public. But he also inferred that discussions relating to moving the presentation to a theater where thousands of the sport’s faithful could join in, as they can and do at the Academy Awards or the NFL player draft, were not under “serious consideration.”

The player draft has become so popular with fans that the League has moved it to prime-time and is thinking of taking it around from one NFL city to another and perhaps even to cities where the League has no team. “It’s on the table,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told NFL Network host Rich Eisen on Wednesday’s NFL Total Access. The NFL’s main source of revenue comes from television, but Goodell knows his product has value only if people are consumed by it.

“Should we ever move to a theater-like venue with greater fan involvement, then I think the accent will be on securing the very best location, which could eventually mean a more permanent home for the Eclipse Awards,” Chamblin noted, taking the side of efficiency. Understandably, the two businesses are at different points in their growth curve. One is zooming upward with $8 billion in revenues and the other, once the biggest sport in the country, has many empty grandstands and has faced double-digit declines in this decade. Nevertheless, horse racing’s away-from-the-racetrack activities might be the key to its renaissance.

Away from the track, the fans speculate from January to April on what horse will win the Kentucky Derby, wonder about whether or not the winner can move on to capture the Triple Crown as soon as the race is over and what predicaments are in store for the two-year-old mid-summer stars that emerge from the unknown at Saratoga and Del Mar. Once the “Win and You’re In” concept develops, it, too, will grace autumn with a topic of considerable observation. In the two most recent Novembers through Januaries, the Eclipse Awards has enhanced the prospect of beguiling verbal intercourse among horse racing’s audiences to the same extent that Cialis has introduced bathtub soaking as a form of sex for jaded spouses.

“Much of the drama and intrigue surrounding the Eclipse Awards the past two years has been created organically,” Chamblin correctly observed. “Such scenarios are very hard to manufacture,” he said. But true as that may be, there are steps that the organizers can take which would secure that the show had a bona fide permanence in the game’s chronology, rendering it a time of year when we think back to all that is good about horse racing and not what is wrong.

At least four nominated Eclipse Award horses, two of which have won Breeders’ Cup races, ran within a week of tonight’s presentation. Bringing horses of this ilk to a racecourse in the ceremony’s neighborhood by writing races that reward them extraordinarily, for example, might be one thing to think about. There are numerous ideas for developing the Eclipse Awards – adding Special Eclipse Awards or using the program for feting handicappers, writers, photographers and television producers aren’t among them.

In the last couple years, the Eclipse Awards and Breeders’ Cup World Championships have connected synergistically like they’ve never before. “It will be up to the presenters of the awards to try to capitalize on the increased interest going forward,” Chamblin said. What he should have said is, “If we don’t leverage the increased interest in the Eclipse Awards into a sustainable property, we’re not serving the sport properly.”

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