Raising the Cup” originally appeared in the October 24, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse (pp. 3818-3820) and is reproduced here by permission. Copyright © 2009 Blood-Horse Publications.

By William L. Shanklin

Nearly two decades ago, D. G. Van Clief Jr., then the executive director of the Breeders’ Cup, spoke candidly with Stan Isaacs of Newsday about the disappointing television ratings for the year-end Breeders’ Cup card: “We have come to accept the lower ratings as a fact of life…[the Breeders’ Cup] is a championship event like the big golf and tennis tournaments, which have prestige but which do not command high ratings.”

Since then, the television ratings have deteriorated sharply. If the Breeders’ Cup persists with its present format, low ratings will indeed continue to be a fact of life. Yet flimsy television ratings in the future are not a fait accompli, provided that the event is revamped.

The Saturday edition of the 2008 Breeders’ Cup World Championships was telecast by ABC from 1:00-3:30 p.m. ET.  Thereafter, the telecast switched to ABC’s sister network ESPN from 3:30-7:00 p.m.  The ABC segment drew a rating of 1.0 (each rating point equates to 1.145 million television households) and an audience share of 3%. The ESPN broadcast earned a rating of .9. In contrast, a Saturday afternoon regional telecast of college football was on opposite the Breeders’ Cup and had an average rating of 5.1 and an audience share of 12%.

The 2008 Friday afternoon telecast of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships was on ESPN2 from 3:30-6:30 p.m. ET. It registered a rating of .3, or approximately 343,500 television households nationwide.

Declines in television ratings per se are unsurprising because the burgeoning number of cable TV channels have had the effect of dramatically fragmenting audiences. In addition, computers for the masses, progressively sophisticated mobile communications devices, and wi-fi have allowed people to conveniently access exponentially growing Internet content in place of watching conventional television. Communications technologies have also blurred the line between work and private lives and, in so doing, have curtailed leisure time.

In spite of this sea change, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships has unfailingly adhered to the lengthy Saturday format devised for the 1984 inaugural. This six-hour TV program has the dubious distinction of filling more air time than almost all telecasts of any genre, including playoff games in the major team sports. Paradoxically, in 2008, the Breeders’ Cup doubled down on its 25-year-old design by televising fourteen races in nine hours of coverage over two days. The consequence was predictably weak television ratings, as benchmarked against even the worst of the ratings for the 2008 and 2009 Triple Crown telecasts, which was a 5.0 for the 2009 Belmont Stakes.


Following is an executive summary of specific initiatives for transforming the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in order to enhance television ratings, which should have a salutary effect on wagering revenues. The proposals are intended to: capitalize on empirically documented societal trends and consumer behavior; encourage more fan involvement; move the nationally televised racing program away from the competitive juggernaut that it heretofore has been up against; appeal to a younger demographic; hone name recognition; and assist prominent racetracks, besides the host track, to stimulate interest in Breeders’ Cup races and boost their own on-track attendance and all-sources handle.

  • Segue to Friday Night Lights

Football is by virtually all performance measures the most popular sport in the United States–the true “national pastime”–and the overwhelming majority of collegiate and professional games are concentrated on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and nights in the fall. Consider this: On August 9, 2009, a Sunday, NBC-TV broadcast the opening exhibition game of the National Football League, the Hall Of Fame classic from Canton, Ohio, that pitted the Buffalo Bills against the Tennessee Titans. Meanwhile, ESPN telecast the Major League Baseball contest between the New York Yankees and their bitter rivals the Boston Red Sox in the conclusion of a four-game series that had repercussions for leadership in the American League East. The meaningless football exhibition, with substitutes and free agents playing much of the game, drew 61% more viewers than the baseball faceoff. USA Today’s aside: “The NFL doesn’t need to resort to trickery to outdraw baseball. Any game will do…”

Saturdays in the fall belong to the 120 universities that compete at the NCAA Division I level in football, plus the many more colleges and universities that choose to field teams in the lower NCAA echelons. Students, alumni, and other spectators tune in on television, radio, and the Internet and congregate in stadiums large and small across the land.

Thus the Saturday Breeders’ Cup telecast is butting heads, so to speak, in a losing battle with the likes of Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Ohio State, Florida, and Slippery Rock. A huge slice of avid-to-casual sports fans is preoccupied with football at precisely the same time that the Breeders’ Cup World Championships is trying to draw television viewers to its yearly showcase. In effect, through scheduling, the horse-racing telecast relinquishes or concedes prospective access to millions and millions of sports-oriented people and then attempts to harvest or salvage a respectable television rating from among those who are left to watch.

Shifting the Breeders’ Cup to Sunday would offer no relief, as the National Football League dominates. If a pennant-influencing baseball game between legendary franchises cannot cope with America’s fascination for professional football, horse racing has no chance.

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships should steer clear of the vast majority of college football games and benefit from a reasonable chance to penetrate a prime-time audience by moving to an October Friday night with a start time of around 9 p.m. ET. Another advantage of Friday night is that the majority of people do not have to report to work the following morning. Scheduling the event no later than the third or fourth Friday in October would diminish the threat of cold weather at a host track in Kentucky, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, or Ontario.

While a Friday night program would lose many European viewers, owing to the time differential, it would gain exposure to a massive television universe in Asia and Australia, where the time would be mid-to-late morning on Saturday. This would cater to horse racing’s currency in Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia.

  • Condense the Presentation

 The protracted manner in which the Breeders’ Cup World Championships program has been offered for the past quarter century is a throwback to how people spent a day at the racetrack before full-card simulcasting and off-track betting. It is decidedly not in keeping with the brisk velocity of the prevalent contemporary lifestyle. Though that may be agreeable with the most ardent horse-racing enthusiast, it does nothing to entice everyone else; in fact, quite the opposite is true.

To accommodate this cultural reality instead of working against the grain, the telecast of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships should be presented in an action-packed two-hour (or less) program with four Grade 1 races. This duration would allow 30 minutes per race instead of the 40 minutes in the existing set up.

Most of the customary human-interest vignettes interspersed into the current telecast would be moved online so as to keep the program content dynamic and the spotlight on the horses. The rationale is to highlight the on-track competition, while having extensive background on horses and humans readily available at a website, along with detailed past performance information and in-depth handicapping by experts.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s eminently successful Turf World Championships has established a precedent for such an offering. This annual telecast of four Grade 1 races, worth some $8 million, in about 2 ½ hours is the premier day of horse racing in Asia and is beamed around the globe.

  • Headline Equine Star Power and Integrate Fan Input

The Breeders’ Cup races featured on the Friday night telecast would be those most attractive to U. S. and world viewers—the Classic (gr. I), the Turf (gr. IT), arguably the Sprint (gr. I), plus a wild-card race. The latter would be selected a couple of months in advance and would vary from year to year depending on which division happened to have the most intrigue. For instance, this year it would likely be the Ladies’ Classic (gr. I). In an effort to engage fans in a substantive manner, the wild-card race should be selected by a public vote, similar to how the All-Star team is chosen in both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

The Pick Six would remain an integral part of the Breeders’ Cup wagering menu, as there are several options that would work. One possibility would be to have the Pick Six consist of the four featured Breeders’ Cup races, plus two Breeders’ Cup races run the same day or night at other racetracks. A Pick 4 would be heavily publicized for the Friday-night extravaganza.

  • Spread the Cachet

The ten Breeders’ Cup races that are not included on the main-event Friday night telecast would be contested weekly in late September and early-to-mid October at racetracks holding meets across the United States, notably, Belmont Park, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Santa Anita, and Woodbine. The Breeders’ Cup mile could periodically be run at a European or an Asian racetrack and telecast globally. This “sharing of the prestige” would allow a handful of geographically-dispersed racetracks to promote a world-class race and concurrently build up awareness, interest, and handle preceding the Friday night finale.

  • Infuse Panache

The presentation of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships needs more élan. At least a couple of the on-air personalities should connect with an all-encompassing audience of younger sports fans and also project the image that horse racing is not a vestige of a bygone time. To illustrate, two trendy announcers with a personal history in racing are Jim Rome and Christina Olivares. Rome, a California Thoroughbred racehorse owner, conducts a weekday syndicated radio talk show (“The Jim Rome Show,” aka “The Jungle”) and a daily ESPN television program (“Jim Rome is Burning”) that draw mostly male sports junkies dubbed “the clones.” The unconventional and witty Rome reaches two million radio listeners. Olivares, the stylish daughter of former jockey and trainer Frank Olivares, is a TVG host with a confirmed ability to draw viewers, and in particular she should relate to those in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties. Rome and Olivares chat about horse racing when she intermittently appears on his radio show. The banter sometimes turns to Olivares evaluating for Rome the chances of one of his horses in an upcoming race.

  • Sharpen Name Recognition

The title Breeders’ Cup World Championships does not inherently convey what the occasion is about. What is a Breeders’ Cup and what world championships are being decided? For the purpose of strengthening the lexical and promotional value of the name, Breeders’ Cup World Championships needs some tinkering. The modestly modified Horse Racing World Championships presented by the Breeders’ Cup or the World Championships of Horse Racing are upgrades in signaling to an individual perusing a scrolling television guide what the program is about.


The Breeders’ Cup World Championships programming, as delivered in its traditional mode, has time and again shown that it is not a robust television platform for the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing; it demonstrably does not reach enough viewers. The event’s unhurried marathon telecast in an age of short attention spans, shrinking leisure time, mobile communications devices, and proliferation of entertainment content, coupled with its placement opposite the prime time for collegiate football, ensures this outcome. Doing the same thing over and over and hoping for an improved result is unduly optimistic. Conversely, accepting the inevitability of low ratings is defeatist; unlike tennis and golf, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships can be reconfigured into an abbreviated, fast-paced, audience-friendly telecast. Horse racing has the further built-in advantage of legal wagering to create a vested fan interest.

How significantly the preceding proposals would invigorate the Breeders’ Cup World Championships can only be estimated. Yet the television ratings and degree of fan participation would almost surely exceed the status quo–and plausibly by a lot–because the suggestions for change go with the flow of consumer and societal currents rather than against them. Likewise, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships would no longer tilt at windmills by challenging America’s unwavering passion for football on Autumn Saturday afternoons. In view of the event’s perennially dismal television ratings, the upside potential far exceeds the downside risk; the incumbent ratings do not have much room to fall.

Warren Buffett once proffered this sage metaphor about his approach to life and investing: “I don’t look to jump over seven-foot bars: I look around for one-foot bars that I can step over.”

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships telecast, since its inception, has been trying to vault an impossibly lofty cultural/competitor bar. The imperative in energizing an underperforming business venture is to reposition it into the best possible competitive situation…where it can begin to step forward.

William L. Shanklin is a longtime contributor to The Blood-Horse. His website is HorseRacingBusiness.com.

Copyright © 2009 Blood-Horse Publications


  1. sydney nignog says

    some extremely good insight Bill ! I don’t think that claiming races on the BC card is intelligent.
    Certainly sports legends and TV/film celebs would help the image. it is interesting that you did not address the surface changes to synthetics and back to main track status. this nullified any chance that the races can be determined as world class or championship events.

  2. Sissy Fisher says

    Since this was the BReeders Cup how about the sire and dam of these horses being mentioned at least once. And also the Breeders instead of those commentators and their bets.


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