Only a decade or so ago, the people who run Nascar were held up as sports-marketing geniuses.  At sports-business conferences and seminars there were almost always presentations on how to copy the wildly successful business model.  Horse racing insiders were told that Nascar business practices were to be emulated in order to reverse negative industry trends in racetrack attendance, pari-mutuel handle, and television viewership.

How quickly things have changed!

The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article (February 22, 2017) titled “Long a Cultural Icon, Nascar Hits the Skids.”  Besides infighting in the France family, who controls the sport, Nascar has a host of problems.  One expert observer said that “Nascar’s problems seem to have spun out of control.”

  • Nascar tracks have removed one-fourth of their seats to make them look full of fans on race-day.
  • Since 2008, admission and event-related revenues have plummeted and television-rights revenue has deteriorated since 2014.
  • Television viewership is down 45%, which is twice as large as the decline in ratings, from their apex, for the National Basketball Association.
  • Nascar is having trouble lining up race title sponsors and the going rates for sponsorship have fallen sharply.
  • The sport has a dearth of star drivers to attract fans.

A former race-team owner and onetime head of McDonald’s U. S. operations said that Nascar’s issues flow from “economics and demographics.”  Nascar has an aging fan base of white, working class individuals who were hardest hit by the recession of 2008-2009 and who have been most hurt by an increasingly skills-based economy.

Almost the same rationale could be cited for why pari-mutuel handle has declined.  When secular trends are creating headwinds against a business or a sport, even the most creative solutions won’t be enough to reverse the situation.  That does not mean that improvements can’t or shouldn’t be made, only that a return to the halcyon days of yesteryear is unlikely.

Some people think that the National Football League is immune to such negative trends, but don’t be too sure.  Television viewership for the NFL is off 8% from its peak and the inherent concussion dilemma looms large.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business


The 1957 Kentucky Derby field included three of the best-ever American racehorses and an astonishing finish prophesied in a dream.

This ’57 Derby is considered to have had the best field in the history of the race.  More remarkable is that the race-week favorite, Calumet Farm’s General Duke, was scratched the morning of the race with a bruised foot that he suffered four days earlier in the Derby Trial.

The Derby entrants included Hall of Fame horses Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, and Round Table, plus seven other entries, one of which was Calumet Farm’s backup to General Duke, Iron Liege.  Nine of the ten entries had equaled or set at least one track record.

Another distinction for the 1957 Kentucky Derby is that it had one of the most bizarre endings.  Bill Shoemaker, riding Gallant Man, caught front-running Iron Liege at about the sixteenth pole but misjudged the finish line and briefly stood up in the stirrups.  Shoemaker’s error allowed Bill Hartack and Iron Liege to win the race.

The race chart comment was:

“Iron Liege…took command during the (stretch) drive and, responding to strong handling, held Gallant Man safe but with little left.  Gallant Man…moved up determinedly in the early stretch, reached the lead between calls, and was going stoutly when the rider misjudged the finish and could not overtake Iron Liege when back on stride.”

Round Table was third and Bold Ruler fourth.

Several nights prior to Derby Day, Gallant Man’s owner, Ralph Lowe, had a dream that Shoemaker stood up in the stirrups…a premonition he personally conveyed to Shoemaker, who dismissed it.

Fourteen of the twenty-seven horses, jockeys, and trainers in the 1957 Kentucky Derby are in the Hall of Fame.  The book Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century lists Round Table at 17, Bold Ruler at 19, and Gallant Man at 36.  General Duke, arguably the most talented 3-year-old racehorse of 1957, never raced again and was euthanized with a neurological disorder in 1958.  Iron Liege won 11 of 33 races, had a modest career at stud, and died in Japan in 1972.  Bold Ruler sired Secretariat.

I’ve always wondered whether Ralph Lowe’s telling Bill Shoemaker of his nightmare programmed the jockey’s mind, subliminally at least, to misjudge the finish line.  Not even Shoemaker could have answered that question.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

I’ll be posting a series of Kentucky Derby history stories (every Monday) from now through the first week in May.


The last three winners of the Kentucky Derby were trained in California and four of the last five winners came to Kentucky from the Golden State:  Nyquist, American Pharoah, California Chrome, and I’ll Have Another.  Is this a sign of dominance from the West Coast?


Prior to I’ll Have Another winning the Kentucky Derby in 2012, horses trained in the eastern United States won the race from 2001 through 2011.  War Emblem, winner in 2002, was sold shortly before the Kentucky Derby and his new trainer was California-based Bob Baffert, but the colt prepped for the Kentucky Derby in the Illinois Derby.

Before 2001, California horses won the Kentucky Derby for four straight years, from 1997-2000.

So, in recent history, there has been no dominant trend in western U. S. or eastern U. S. horses winning the Kentucky Derby, although there have been mini-trends wherein horses from one or the other geographical location won the race for several years in a row.

NTRA, the Blood-Horse magazine, and other racing organizations periodically publish their list of leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby.  NTRA, for example, polls members of the horse-racing media.

I have always been more attentive to what people do than what they say.  Accordingly, I consult the betting action, whether it is a sporting event or a political campaign.  Following are the current twelve top contenders for the 2017 Kentucky Derby, as determined by betting odds in Las Vegas.

Irish War Cry 2/1
Classic Empire 3/1
Uncontested 7/2
McCracken 4/1
El Areeb 5/1
Mastery 5/1
Unique Bella 6/1
Gunnevera 7/1
Running Mate 7/1
Squadron 7/1
Fact Finding 10/1
Gormley 11/1

Uncontested (the current third betting favorite), Running Mate, Squadron, and Fact Finding are not on the current NTRA list of top contenders.  NTRA has Mo Town, Practical Jute, and Royal Mo on its list, but none of them are in the top-12 betting interests in Las Vegas.

I’ll be posting occasionally on the Kentucky Derby as the big event approaches on the first Saturday in May.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business