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, May 14, 2007

Two Susans

The Preakness Stakes, which is the easiest of the Triple Crown races to win, is also, ironically, the most influential.

It is, in effect, the determinate of whether or not the nation pays attention to horse racing after the third Saturday in May.

If this years Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense, fails to capture the Black-Eyed Susans, you can put horse racing on a Lazy Susan. Itll take a full turn of the year to learn anything about the sport in the general media again.

Moreover, the result of the Preakness represents in economic terms 50,000 fans in the stands, 7 million TV viewers, and $25 million in betting revenue - staggering numbers which constitute the difference between a Belmont Stakes with the Triple Crown on the line and one without a horse that has won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

This being written, theres another effect of the Preakness that bears watching. It is more subtle, and therefore less obvious, but in the exercise of brand building, its a reality that brand managers should wrap their brains around. The guess here, based on past performances, is that they havent.

Undoubtedly, a Kentucky Derby winner deserves the highest accolade. The task of gearing a three-year-old up to be at his very best for one specific day in May is a challenge without parallel. As the only horse race that most Americans know about, the Run for the Roses, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain the most visible prize in the sport. But is it the most treasured?

Winning the Derby these days seems to be the equivalent of capturing a conference championship. The gap between Triple Crown winners has been stretched so long, and the anxiety over ending the drought so high, a race such as Street Sense ran last Saturday iswell, its nice, but not the pinnacle.

American society is conditioned to accept nothing less than ultimate achievements from its heroes. Teams like the Yankees, who win the American League pennant in most years, or the Bills, who played in five straight Super Bowls, are often considered under-achievers, instead of examples of excellence.

Conceptually, in recent years, Smarty Jones, War Emblem and Charismatic are horses that failed at the Triple Crown, not horses that triumphed at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Within this context, their Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, therefore, were playoff games for a championship that was never won. Coincidentally, in some years, that championship is never played.

When Barbaro broke down in the first furlong of last years Preakness, all hope for the first Triple Crown winner in 22 years was dashed. The Belmont, won by Jazil, became a funeral ceremony for the horse expected to be crowned the races winner.

You can imagine, then, the sigh of relief on Tuesday of last week, when Street Senses trainer Carl Nafzger declared, I realized last night that I had focused so hard on the Derby that I hadnt looked past it. It doesnt matter, because the horse will take you to the Preakness. The way he looked this morning, were on the way.

Where theres hope, theres a chance in horse racing. And Street Sense is, at least, in the hunt for the Super Bowl on Saturday. How he fares will determine if horse racing, at last, gets its rightful place on the front page, and on the calendar.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Derby is the Bait when Switch is the Strategy

Con-men call it the bait and switch. The seller shows the buyer a fantastic thing, they agree on a price, and then the fantastic thing becomes something less fantastic.

Theres a sucker born every minute, said P.T. Barnum, a flim-flam man if there ever was one. Having just witnessed the circus in Louisville, fans will be jumping on board the Street Sense express for the next two weeks like commuters on the Long Island railroad.

Horse racing is popular again. Between now and the Preakness Stakes, people will believe that theres a lot about the sport to like. And if Street Sense wins the Triple Crowns second jewel, the rafters of Belmont Park wont contain all the once-a-year fans who demand to sit under them.

It takes the hoopla of a three-ring circus to whip up the latent interest that exists for the sport. The competition each spring is fierce, with the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs to contend with, and this year there was a Mayweather vs. De la Hoya fistfight to distract attention.

Nevertheless, this first Saturday in May, which is always the date for the bait, there was Queen Elizabeth II, a tribute to Barbaro, and a clever rail-hugging ride by Calvin Borel, aka Calvin Bo-rail, to entice 156,635 fans to Churchill Downs and millions more to the NBC telecast.

Now that the first act is over, itll be up to a horse to carry on. And thats when the switch comes.

In recent years, the horse hasnt gone on to become what the publics bargained for. He has appeared like a pigeon in the hand of Houdini, but disappeared as quickly as he burst on the scene, either driven by mega-million dollar economics to the breeding shed or stricken by injury from the grind so that his newly-formed audience didnt have the chance to marvel at him.

So much has been made of the span in years between Triple Crown winners that generations believe that winning the Kentucky Derby is like winning a playoff. The spin doctors can create all the myth possible to make Street Sense another Smarty Jones, Funny Cide or War Emblem the last three charismatic Kentucky Derby winners to raise racing into public consciousness. But if he isnt able to sweep all three Classic races, what is the sport left with?

The bar for greatness has been raised right before our very eyes, with nary a notice. Could it be that society has been desensitized by excess to the point that a brilliant single event no longer has the power to engage our attention beyond what it signifies as a step in a process?

Street Senses dash through the field and Bo-rails tears of joy in the aftermath is the stuff of which legends are made. But outside of Louisville, and beyond tradition-addled minds, the 133rd winner of Americas most famous horse race really hasnt done enough.

Like it or not, the Run for the Roses, to a certain extent, has been reduced to a minor prize in the same way that a conference championship is a prelude to the Super Bowl. By design, or simply poor brand management, horse racings chosen path to bait fans by giving them special events may be backfiring by the kind of switch nobody expected.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Barbaro-mania, the Sequel

Last night, NBC-TV ran a one-hour documentary named Barbaro: A Nations Horse. Earlier in the day, at Delaware Park, where Barbaro won his maiden race on Oct. 4, 2005, more than 500 FOBs thats Internet-speak for Friends of Barbaro - participated in A Celebration of Barbaros Life.

Barbaro-mania, the sequel it would have been the horses fourth birthday Sunday is just launching, and already the box office is boffo.

Next Saturday, Queen Elizabeth II will bite down on sugar cookies cut in the shape of silks that will be decorated in Barbaros colors and with the number eight that he wore while winning last years Kentucky Derby. The Queens cookie feasting comes at about the same hour that Roy and Gretchen Jackson will be exalted from the Churchill Downs winners circle in a tribute that should be every bit as saccharine. The ceremony follows a book signing outside the tracks souvenir shop. These are busy, and tricky, times for the Barbaro team, keepers of the Barbaro brand.
America is beset with an addiction to sensationalism, and exploiting our nations personality disorder can be easy game for the crafty and the overzealous. Sympathy for Anna Nicole Smith, the womens basketball team at Rutgers, Alec Baldwins 11-year-old daughter Ireland and American would be Idol Sanjaya gets more play in the press than the loss of life in Iraq and Darfur.

A horse died, and the circumstances surrounding his death were tragic. But beating the drum for a stricken animal to promote thoroughbred racing is a practice that is fraught with dubious results. Take note, Barbaros connections are entrusting the standard of sensitivity to the same cut of people who once named a Grade 2 stakes after an Internet mattress company in return for a sponsorship.

Barbaros role is not to be Jerry Lewis or Pat Tillman, but to survive as the embodiment of a brilliant and brave champion that engaged fans with unprecedented compassion during his days on the racetrack and in convalescence. That his circumstances were thrust onto a stage that plays to a ready-made audience makes them all the more powerful.

Critics of horse racing believe its cruel to require animals to perform at a level thats dangerous to their well-being. Lovers of the sport believe its in the nature of horses to run, and when a horse like Barbaro goes down, the only way to make his loss serve a purpose is to use the triumph of his life and the sadness of his death to make certain the fewest tragedies possible occur in the future.

In the role of rainmaker, Barbaro may be a greater force than as racehorse. The Derby day ceremony involves a Churchill Downs donation of $25,000 to the Barbaro Memorial Fund, which was established to raise money for equine health and safety research. Blue rubber bracelets featuring the phrase Riding with Barbaro will be sold to the fans in the stands for $2 apiece to further fill the coffers.

Nevertheless, which of the books, the movies, the stories in the press and on the Internet, and the gatherings at the racetrack to light candles, sing songs and recite eulogies are emotionally and financially extortive? And which are merely easy marks in the quest for much needed attention?

No doubt, this column is exploitive of Barbaro. The topics easiest to publish are those that appeal to the biggest audiences. Just as racetrack operators see opportunity when it confronts them, so do the talking heads on television and editors of newspapers and magazines and Internet sites who pass on straightforward stories about racing because their audiences lack interest.

Mea culpa, mea culpa. A headline with the name Barbaro, a lead that titillates with sarcasm, an ornery take on a fractured tale what doesnt scream look at me in these 600 words?

Written by Vic Zast

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