Archives for June 2010

REVIEW OF THE TRIPLE CROWN BUSINESS PERFORMANCE

The weeks leading up to the 2010 Kentucky Derby fostered some reasonable expectations for Eskendereya to win the race and possibly to become the twelfth colt to win the Triple Crown. As racing fans know all too well, in this sport, there is many a slip between cup and lip. Eskendereya incurred an injury days before the Kentucky Derby and was eventually retired.

With no dominant 3-year-old, the Triple Crown races were not only won by three different colts, but not a single colt raced in all of the races. The lack of a rooting interest for the vast majority of the public had a predictable effect on the business performance of the Triple Crown. While the Kentucky Derby is eagerly anticipated by racing fans, the Preakness and Belmont suffer if fans sense that a Triple Crown accomplishment is highly improbable or know that it is out of the question. In the case of the 2010 Belmont, a Triple Crown sweep was impossible. As a result, even racing fans were largely unfamiliar with the field.

The Kentucky Derby did extremely well in attendance, in spite of rainy weather, with an official count of 155,804, as compared to 153,563 in 2009. The 2010 gathering was the fifth largest in the 136 runnings. The Preakness had a huge increase of people in attendance; the 2010 crowd was 95,760 in contrast to 77,850 the previous year. However, this was accounted for by the relaxation of alcohol restrictions in the infield; the 2009 infield crowd was sparse because of a Pimlico alcoholic beverage policy that caused a boycott, primarily by college-age students. The 2010 Belmont attracted 45,243 people. The last year that there was no chance for a Triple Crown winner was 2009, when 52,681 was the official crowd at Belmont Park. Using this as a benchmark, the 2010 Belmont did poorly with respect to attendance, with a 14.1% decrease.

The television ratings were 9.8 for the Kentucky Derby, which is the same number as in 2009. The Preakness had a rating of 6.4, down from 7.9 in 2009. The Belmont garnered a rating of 2.7, in comparison to a 4.3 in 2009 (click here to see a graph of Belmont Nielsen television ratings in previous years–from 2001-2008).

By contrast to the Belmont TV ratings, the Indianapolis 500–run on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend–had a rating of 3.68, down from 3.96 in 2009; Game 1 of the NBA finals, played on Thursday night or two days before the Belmont, had a 10.4 rating, up by 17% from 2009, mainly because of the classic matchup of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Without a “big horse” to generate buzz, the decline in ratings as the Triple Crown progressed is unsurprising.

The Kentucky Derby racked up $112.7 million in all-sources handle on the Derby-day card, up from $104.8 million in 2009. The comparable Preakness handle was $79.2 million in 2010, down from $86.7 million a year earlier. The 2010 Belmont had all-sources handle for the card of $74.6 million, down by 16.8% from $89.9 million in 2009.

In a year with no colt or filly to generate interest–such as the matchup between Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and the filly Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Preakness—the 2010 Triple Crown did as well as could be expected, especially considering  the relatively stagnant American economy with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate and so many people having given up on finding a job.

Anytime there is a possible Triple Crown champion with a Big Brown or a Smarty Jones to capture people’s attention, the performance metrics will be more satisfactory. Otherwise, as in 2010, the Triple Crown will have to depend on its tradition to bring people to the track, entice them to watch on television, and provoke wagering.

This writer does not as a rule make statements on Horse Racing Business unless they are based on facts and analysis, but here is an opinion based on perception. The quality of the NBC telecasts of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness seemed to me to be superior to the ABC coverage of the Belmont. Not only was the NBC programming smoother and more interesting, but NBC’s on-air personalities were, as a group, more compelling. NBC also did a far better job of creating awareness and interest among potential viewers about the Kentucky Derby and Preakness programs, particularly on its cable channel CNBC. The attractiveness of a telecast is, of course, in the eye of the beholder and others may not share my viewpoint.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

NO PROGRESS IN SPEED AT CLASSIC DISTANCES

On Belmont Stakes Day 2010, the Wall Street Journal published a short but highly informative article by Michael Salfino titled “Did Belmont Stakes Peak with ‘Big Red’?” It presented a scatter plot of the times in miles per hour for every winner of the Belmont Stakes since the race was lengthened to 1-1/2 miles in 1926.

Between 1926 and 1973, there was a positive correlation between year and speed: as the years advanced from 1926, speed of the Belmont winner also tended to increase. The correlation ended with Secretariat’s record-setting win in 1973.

According to research by Dr. Mark Denny, a Professor of Marine Sciences and Biomechanics at Stanford University, the Thoroughbred breed’s speed has topped out for races of 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 miles. His paper (“Limits to running speed in dogs, horses, and humans”) estimates “a maximum possible thoroughbred speed just 0.52% faster than Secretariat’s average of 37.5 mph” in the Belmont.

Dr. Denny states that the Thoroughbred breed essentially has a “closed lineage” and DNA testing has revealed that 95% of all contemporary Thoroughbreds are descended from the foundation sire the Darley Arabian. Dr. Denny says that “this results in less genetic diversity, increasing the risk of debilitating ailments.” The situation is exacerbated by the declining pool of registered Thoroughbreds. Certainly, modern-day statistics from American racetracks on breakdowns and data on number of starts corroborate Dr. Denny’s conclusions about “debilitating ailments.”  

Professor Denny offers a possible solution to increasing Thoroughbred speed: “Selective breeding with a different equine stock could yield faster horses.” This course of action would be controversial but merits close consideration. However, I don’t see it being given serious thought, much less implementation, because of strong resistance from within the racing and breeding industry.

I would add to Dr. Denny’s observations that a very restrictive and uniform racing medication policy in the United States is absolutely necessary to improve the Thoroughbred breed, as it would favor sound stallions and mares and penalize the rest. Some of the popular stallions standing at stud today would not have been able to achieve what they did on the racetrack sans raceday medication and therefore would not be so important in propagating the breed. The view here is that enhanced soundness is far more important than incremental advancements in speed.

For the full text of the Wall Street Journal article and the aforementioned scatter plot, click here.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF THE WOODWARD DYNASTY

The 2010 Belmont Stakes marks the 80th anniversary and the 75th anniversary, respectively, of the Triple Crown achievements of Gallant Fox and Omaha. In a remarkable feat, the colts were father and son and were bred by the same farm, the Belair Stud of banking tycoon William Woodward Sr. (located in Prince Georges County, Maryland near Washington, DC), and had the same trainer, the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Both colts were foaled in Kentucky at the famous Hancock family Claiborne Farm.

Gallant Fox came into the Preakness, which was the first leg of the Triple Crown in 1930, with eight starts and a record of three wins, two places, two shows, and one out of the money. In the first outing of his 3-year-old campaign, the Wood Memorial at Jamaica racetrack, Fitzsimmons changed jockeys and retained Hall of Famer Earle Sande to ride. Sande and Gallant Fox won the Wood and Sande was up in all of Gallant Fox’s races thereafter.

Gallant Fox won the Preakness on May 9 by 1 ¾ lengths. Eight days later, on May 17, he won the Kentucky Derby by two lengths. He completed the Triple Crown on June 7, becoming the second colt to do so, by leading the Belmont virtually the entire 1 ½ miles and drawing away by 3 lengths. The Daily Racing Form described Gallant Fox’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont efforts in an identical manner: “Speed in reserve.”

Gallant Fox would race six more times in 1930 and then be retired to stud. He won five of these stakes, losing only to Jim Dandy in the Travers by eight lengths while conceding six pounds to the winner. His lifetime record was 17 starts with 11 wins, three seconds, and two thirds and earnings of $328,165.

From Gallant Fox’s first crop of 18 foals came Omaha. Trainer Fitzsimmons sent Omaha to the Kentucky Derby on May 4, 1935, with 11 previous starts. He won under jockey Willie “Smokey” Saunders by 1 ½ lengths in what the Daily Racing Form described as “easily,” which was the same description the Form used to describe his six-length win in the Preakness exactly one week later. Two weeks after that, Omaha ran second in the Withers at Belmont Park. On June 8, he became the third Triple Crown winner by stalking the pace to take the Belmont by 1 ½ lengths. In 1936, Omaha was sent to Great Britain, where his record was two wins and two close seconds in top flight stakes under the tutelage of trainer Cecil Boyd-Rochfort.

Omaha was retired on July 2, 1936 after getting beat a neck in the Princess of Wale’s Stake at Newmarket. His lifetime record was 22 starts with nine wins, seven seconds, and two thirds and earnings of $154,755.

The Blood-Horse ranked Gallant Fox as the 28th best American Thoroughbred of the 20th century and Omaha as the 61st best. Both father and son were elected to the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, New York. Omaha is the only Triple Crown winner not to be named Horse of the Year; he lost that honor in 1935 to the 4-year-old Discovery, who beat Omaha in the Brooklyn Handicap.

Gallant Fox stood at stud for 22 years and was a very productive stallion, siring not only Omaha but 1936 Horse of the Year Granville. Gallant Fox died in 1957 at the age of 30.

Omaha was a disappointment at stud, starting out in Kentucky and dying in Nebraska in 1959 at age 27. He was buried at the now-defunct Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha on what is today part of the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus. A grave marker is next to a classroom, although the exact location of Omaha’s burial on the old Ak-Sar-Ben site is in dispute.

William Woodward Sr. died in 1953 and Belair Stud passed on to his son William Woodward Jr., known as Billy. He inherited a yearling by the name of Nashua. In 1955, with 80-year-old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons training, Nashua won the Preakness and Belmont (after losing to the brilliant Swaps in the Kentucky Derby). Billy Woodward’s luck changed fast and took a turn for the worst.

On the night of October 30, 1955, Billy and his wife Ann attended a party for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the tony Oyster bay neighborhood on Long Island. After apparently arguing at the get-together, they returned after midnight to their nearby mansion and retired to their separate bedrooms. What transpired about two hours later, Life magazine referred to as the “Shooting of the Century” and three novels were subsequently based on it, including one by Truman Capote.

The mansions in the area had been plagued with burglaries and the Woodwards armed themselves for protection. Ann, awakened by her barking dog, got out of bed and ventured into the hallway, where she said she saw a “shadowy figure” near the door to Billy’s room. She fired both barrels of her 12-gauge shotgun and instantly killed her 35-year-old husband.

The aftermath was full of accusations and acrimony about whether the shooting was really an accident, albeit Ann was never charged (click here to read more). Nashua was put up for sale and became the first horse ever to be auctioned off for more than a million dollars, to a syndicate headed by Leslie Combs of Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. The storied Woodward racing dynasty was over.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business