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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Sunday, March 14, 2010

“Take Back Saturday” Saturdays Are Daunting, But Do-able

(SCOTTSDALE, AZ – March 15, 2010) “Not Invented Here” ideas are not allowed in the out-of-reach minds of the kings of the “Sport of Kings.” Suggestions which arise from the great unwashed are humored occasionally, but usually avoided. They’re like germs that if permitted to promulgate might turn into a serious condition. That condition, in turn, could be progress or a threat to someone’s job or embarrassment.

Nevertheless, Kevin Stafford, a 31-year-old provocateur with a Web site who takes credit for proposing the “Take Back Saturday” marketing strategy, must be pleased that this past Saturday captured the excitement that a steady diet of graded stakes races on the same day each weekend could generate. Yet, it’s doubtful that the sport will wake up and make his grand idea a habit. Too bad.

This past Saturday produced six different events that if stacked one on top of the other would have made up a dream card. Five of the six events were graded stakes races. Four racecourses were represented. Kentucky Derby hopefuls ran in three different races at three different tracks, and Kentucky Oaks hopefuls in another. Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, the Breeders’ Cup Classic champion, tuned up for their proposed April 9th showdown in separate preps. For horse racing fans, the action was all that a man with a jones for the gee-gees could ask for.

Unfortunately, aside from a live streaming video of the New Orleans Ladies from the Fair Grounds and the Grade 1 Santa Margarita from Santa Anita on, there was little chance for citizens of the outside universe to witness the bounteous activity. Horse racing’s network of choice – ESPN - was engaged in the telecasting of college basketball. Other options for taking the action public weren’t contacted or, at least, not pursued energetically.

What this should teach everyone is that horse racing’s irrelevance is a major impediment to presenting the sport widely. Aside from the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup, horse racing has no programming that’s capable of producing acceptable ratings to offer the networks. It is fun to dream that fans can prosyletized, but introducing them to the sport via TV wouldn’t be easy. If that’s the case, then, what is wrong with giving those who remain loyal followers with better products?

For Stafford’s “Take Back Saturday” plan to work the racecourses must agree to promote horse racing first and their own interests secondly. With the racecourses is where his proposal should begin and end, not with the NTRA. This past weekend, Tampa Bay Downs would have had to run the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Oaks 15 minutes before the Fair Grounds ran the New Orleans Ladies and its Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby 15 minutes after it finished. Oaklawn Park would have to squeeze the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes in between the Grade 1 Santa Margarita and Grade 2 San Felipe from Santa Anita. This could mean scheduling some feature races in unorthodox spots like the fourth, fifth or seventh places in the order instead of the traditional ninth or tenth.

A two-hour horse racing program with fast pacing, insightful analysis and events that produced consequence, like the Derby preps and Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra races had, would certainly engage fans and might even lure an outsider in, too. In any case, here’s what those with access to computer video saw anyhow.

For starters, the viewers witnessed the unraveling of the $5 million Apple Blossom Invitational. Rachel Alexandra was short of breath in the stretch in New Orleans and obviously not herself – at least as compared to last summer. In the meantime, Zenyatta was dominating against a sacrificial field in California. She won impressively despite jockey Mike Smith’s attempts to challenge her incessantly.

As for the Derby preps, selecting the best of the three depends on what you prefer in the form of intrigue. Tampa Bay Derby winner Odysseus, whose name was mispronounced by the track announcer more often than mine before mine was shortened, produced a halcyon performance by charging forward, dropping back and then getting its nose in front of Schoolyard Dreams and Super Saver at the wire.

Once-beaten Lookin at Lucky beat Noble’s Promise again, the third time he has, in the Rebel Stakes, portending that Oaklawn Park has the best 3-year-olds racing once more. On the West Coast, Sidney’s Candy went pillar to post against Interactif and Caracortado in the San Felipe, proving that he can run awfully fast on rubber bands at a minimum.

Finally, Diva Delite, a former $32,000 claimer that has now won five starts in a row, took the Tampa Bay Oaks as the morning line favorite She Be Wild shunned her status. Trainer David Vance says that his handy daughter of Repent won’t travel to Kentucky to run in that Oaks – it’s a pity. Following 2009 - the Year of the Girl, 2010 is turning out also to be mighty special for fillies. Diva Delite and She Be Wild, as well as Blind Luck, Amen Hallelujah and Christine Daae, all look dandy.

Another “Take Back Saturday” Saturday, at least in theory, is only five days away. In addition to five graded stakes at Gulfstream Park including the Grade 1 Florida Derby and the Grade 2 Swale and the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss, there will be the Grade 3 Cicada at Aqueduct and the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita on March 20 – all attractions.

Even if the networks aren’t willing to carry “Take Back Saturday” nationally, there’s a way to reach most of the country via television. A telecast of the first Jim Beam-sponsored Spiral Stakes in 1982 was syndicated to 15 cities, covering 60 percent of the population, on a market-to-market basis. Although your proposal is daunting, Mr. Stafford, it’s entirely do-able.

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Written by Vic Zast

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