Once considered as only the Derby’s little sister, the Oaks has grown up into one of the most important American stakes for female runners while Oaks Day has evolved into a major event attracting six figure crowds. The Oaks now outdraws the Belmont Stakes, the Travers Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup, even when the championship races are held at Churchill.
Then there is the matter of the eight figure handles year in and out on Oaks Day.
Last year, a record crowd of 110,122, the third highest of all time, was on track and the handle set a new mark with $12.1 million bet on track with $37.5 coming through the windows from all sources on the 12-race card. The handle was up 4.2% from 2010, which also set Oaks Day on-track and all sources wagering records. By the way, the country is still mired in the economic downturn.
Those numbers indicate there is some serious Girl Power going on.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Churchill Downs Inc., and other industry powerhouses recognize the value in marketing, promoting, publicizing, and televising the Oaks. The race and its build-up will be shown in the mainstream media live on the NBC Sports Network this year when in very recent memory it was relegated to the obscure Bravo Channel.
Just listen to Stephen Panus, the vice president of communications for the NTRA, with whom this space traded emails while he was en route to Louisville on Thursday afternoon.
“NTRA and TJC's (The Jockey Club) joint initiative of America's Best Racing (ABR), via
followhorseracing.com, is committed to promoting the best horses, races, jockeys, tracks, trainers and owners. And, the KY Oaks represents one of America's Best races with top jockeys like Rosie Napravnik (vying to become first woman to win the Oaks), Javier Castellano, and Joe Talamo, among others, competing for the coveted trophy aboard the best fillies,” wrote Panus.
“It will be televised by NBC-SN and we are promoting it on social media as well as traditional media pitches. Both Rosie and Joe blog for ABR and give fans a unique insider/behind the scenes perspective. Whether you are a dedicated fan of horse racing or a new and curious fan looking to learn more about our sport, the KY Oaks is a must-see, tune-in-to-watch race.”
So that leads us to ponder the question again. Since the 1 1/8 mile Kentucky Oaks can stand in her own six-inch stilettos, why not make her the first race in the Fillies Triple Tiara?
I know the answer. Believe me, I know.
Thoroughbred racing in America is steeped in tradition, and the Triple Tiara has consisted of three stakes in New York since it was created in 1957. While it has undergone changes over the years, the trio of races have been run nowhere other than Belmont and Saratoga. Now the three legs are the Acorn at 1 mile, the Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 1/8 mile, and the Alabama at the American Classic distance of 1 ¼ mile.
Doesn’t a Triple Tiara that is hand-fasted with the Triple Crown make more sense? Think Oaks/ Derby, Black-Eyed Susan/Preakness, and Acorn/Belmont. Then fantasize about the national spotlight and buzz it would bring to the Sports of Kings, which incidentally, is no longer one of America’s top three sports (with boxing and baseball) as it was back in the Fifties.
“The Oaks, Black-eyed Susan and Acorn - are all major races that ABR will market and promote. The Girl Power movement in horse racing has produced 3 consecutive Horses of the Year and shows no signs of letting up. At ABR, we embrace and celebrate the best, no matter gender. Here's hoping the fans get to see more fillies race vs. the boys; they've proven they can hold their own,” Panus wrote.
Promoting the Big Three races restricted to 3yo fillies on each day before the Triple Crown races is one thing. Officially weaving them together into a bona fide Triple Crown for Fillies is quite another.
Over time there have been petitions from owners and trainers and proposals from influential media and fans to do exactly that. With no disrespect to New York racing, the Triple Tiara is a lovely set of grade 1 races in the summer but unless you have a horse in one of the legs or work for NYRA, do you genuinely care about it?
Of course you don’t. Hardly anyone else does either.
Granted, the eight fillies- Dark Mirage, Shuvee, Chris Evert, Ruffian, Davona Dale, Mom’s Command, Open Mind and Sky Beauty- who won the Triple Tiara are all deservedly in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. But in the general public’s perception they don’t have anywhere near the name recognition, let alone the cache’, of the 11 male Triple Crown winners.
Now is the time to capitalize on the prestige and power of the Kentucky Oaks and capture the imagination. She’s been around since 1875 and is long overdue for her makeover into the first leg in a legitimate Triple Tiara that can be married- and marketed- to the Triple Crown.
This is a national marketing, publicity and promotional opportunity gift-wrapped and sitting on a silver platter. And it’s one that this sport can no longer afford to miss.
In this year’s Oaks I’m picking Grace Hall, Broadway Alibi and Jemima’s Pearl. Who do you like?