The proposition advanced in this discussion is that the winner of each race in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships should automatically earn the Eclipse Award for his or her division. This procedure would remove the voting–and therefore the politics and subjectivity–from the Eclipse Awards, except for Horse of the Year, which would continue to be elected.  The end result would be to elevate the overall quality of the horses in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships because an owner of a top horse would not be able to skip the event and still count on his or her horse winning in the Eclipse voting what was not earned on the racetrack against the best competition.


Jess Jackson, co-owner with his wife of Rachel Alexandra, has stated that the sensational filly will not run in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup World Championships because the host track, Santa Anita, has an artificial surface. Jerry Moss, co-owner of the brilliant filly Zenyatta, is of a different mind.

Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report commented on the situation:

“Jackson doesn’t owe the fans anything. He’s put up his money and can do whatever he chooses with his horses. But for him to boycott the 2009 Breeders’ Cup with the sport’s biggest star, despite evidence that Rachel Alexandra has performed well on synthetics over Keeneland’s Polytrack, reminds me of the spoiled kid who didn’t like the way a game was going and decided to take his ball and go home.”

Jay Privman on quoted Moss, as follows, on the Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta debate:

“The Breeders’ Cup was created for this kind of circumstance… I’m not sure where else to have this meeting. The national press usually centers around the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. I’m conditioned to respect the Breeders’ Cup…  I didn’t pick the place where the Breeders’ Cup is run. We’ve run in the Breeders’ Cup in all types of weather all over the place. If the Breeders’ Cup was run in New York or Churchill Downs, we’d be all over the country.”

This Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta “calling out” raises questions about the importance or clout of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in deciding who has the best horse in a particular division.

Assume for sake of discussion that the Breeders’ Cup World Championships really are the world championships. Now, say, an American-campaigned 2-year-old colt wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and is acclaimed to be a world champion. Should he not also, ipso facto, be the Eclipse Award winner based on what he did on the racetrack in the world championships?

Jess Jackson’s Curlin won two Eclipse Awards in 2008–for Horse of the Year and Older Male–even though he finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Curlin’s recognition makes sense because the two horses that beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic were foreign-owned and raced. But what about American-based longshot Volponi in 2002? He won the Breeders’ Cup Classic but Left Bank was awarded the Eclipse for Older Male and the mare Azeri was voted the Eclipse for Horse of the Year. If Volponi was truly the world champion how could he not be the best in his own country in his division and therefore worthy of the Eclipse Award, regardless of his record prior to the Breeders’ Cup?

If a real-life Rocky Balboa (a human version of Volponi) lands a lucky punch and wins the World Heavyweight Championship, then he is the world champion in spite of the fact that he has always been a journeyman fighter. Buster Douglas’ shocking knockout of Mike Tyson in his prime is an example.

Suppose that Rachel Alexandra does not contest the 2009 Breeders’ Cup. Whoever wins the Breeders’ Cup Distaff is putatively the world champion in this division. Ergo, if the winner is an American filly or mare, most likely Zenyatta, how could Rachel Alexandra be awarded an Eclipse for being the best in this division and perhaps Horse of the Year in 2009?

Switch sports for the moment and consider a hypothetical. A speedy and quick finesse team like the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League is built for competition in its domed stadium, whereas a muscular “grind-it-out” team like the New York Giants is tailored to outdoor competition, especially in inclement weather late in the NFL season. Further, consider that these teams win their respective conferences and are slated to meet in the Super Bowl, which will be contested in a domed stadium, Ford Field in Detroit. The powers that be with the Giants decline to participate, in spite of the fact that they have the best record in pro football, because the deck is stacked against them, so to speak, as the Colts have a decided advantage indoors. The Colts win the Super Bowl by default since the Giants don’t show up. Later, sportswriters vote the Giants rather than the Colts as the NFL Team of the Year, cutting them slack for their actions.

Ludicrous, you say, and could not happen. Agreed, not in the NFL, but very possibly in horse racing. Yes, indeed, this kind of bizarre and incongruous outcome could eventuate: The owners of Rachel Alexandra bypass the Breeders’ Cup and then she is subsequently voted the Eclipse Award as best filly/mare for 2009 and maybe Horse of the Year to boot.

If this were to happen, one could reasonably surmise that either the Breeders’ Cup races are world championships in name only or the Eclipse Awards voters are in a world of their own. How can a racehorse be a world champion and not the champion of his or her own country, including Volponi in 2002?

The view here is that legitimate championships in any sport can only be won and lost in head-to-head competition, on the playing field, in the arena, in the pool, on the tennis court–or on the racetrack. College football has no playoff system and there is usually controversy over what teams deserve to be in the title game, which is determined by an arcane computer ranking.

If American racing and its year-end showcase the Breeders’ Cup World Championships are to be taken seriously in crowning champions, the racetrack, in lieu of  Eclipse voting, is the place to decide who is best. An owner can race his or her horse anywhere and anytime, but to be a champion the horse has to show up and win when it counts most, irrespective of previous conquests, no matter how impressive.

If this were only true. In reality, a Rachel Alexander can be a no show and still have a high probability of winning an Eclipse Award or two, and in particular if the chief competitor, in this case Zenyatta, were to lose her Breeders’ Cup race. So a horse that does not compete wins the Eclipse Award over a horse that does compete and loses. Something is badly wrong with this picture. 

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships are prestigious but hardly world championships, as evidenced by the disconnect between the Eclipse Awards results and the Breeders’ Cup outcomes and the fact that some of the best horses in the United States and Europe are not entered. For instance, the arguably best turf horse in the world, Sea the Stars, will likely not be brought to the United States for the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Tacking on the nomenclature World Championships to Breeders’ Cup is an advertising/public relations attempt to communicate to the general public that the Breeders’ Cup is an important event. However, those in the know know that world championships is a bit of puffery, to say the least. Jess Jackson, unless he has a change of mind, may be counting on this when it comes time for Eclipse Awards voters to be asked to confirm or reject what actually transpired on a plastic racetrack surface in California.

A way to strengthen the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and take most of the politics out of the the Eclipse Awards is to stipulate that the winner of each of the Breeders’ Cup World Championship races will have earned the Eclipse Award for his or her division. Eclipse voters would still cast ballots for Horse of the Year. This way, if a terrific racehorse, say a Triple Crown winner, were to be injured and unable to compete in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, voters could recognize him/her with the award for Horse of the Year.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business


1. Television Ratings and Program Content

Two days prior to the Kentucky Derby, CNBC’s Melissa Francis anchored a one-hour primetime television program titled “Run for the Roses:  The Kentucky Derby and the Business of Horse Racing.”    The show was supplemented with four online vignettes hosted by Francis called, respectively, “The $4 Billion Industry,” “Online Betting,” “Big Hats and Strong Drink,” and “Jockey School.”

In addition, NBC and its cable channels promoted the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness on regular programming.   Jockey Calvin Borel, for instance, appeared on the Jay Leno Show.  ABC carried the Belmont telecast.

All of this favorable on-air exposure, especially by NBC, coupled with the attraction of Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, had a desirable effect.   The race portion of the Kentucky Derby (6:09 PM – 6:57 PM) drew the largest audience since 1989 with 16.3 million viewers.   The national rating was 9.8 and the share was 23.    Each rating point equates to 1.145 million households and the share metric means that the Kentucky Derby attracted 23% of all the televisions in use during the telecast.   The audience is larger, of course, than the number of households as multiple people may be watching from each household.

Network television has, over the years, lost a huge portion of its audience to cable channels and the Internet.  The Triple Crown telecasts have followed the same precipitous declines.   Following are audience and ratings data for select years, as measured by Neilsen, for the Kentucky Derby.   The Kentucky Derby began a steep audience/ratings decline after 1975 and then the audience/ratings numbers began to rise after 2001.

Year        Viewers                             Household Rating                        Share of Audience

1975       26.74 million                               18.9                                                  54

1985        12.06 million                               10.9                                                 32

1995         8.13 million                                    6.0                                                 17

2000        7.93 million                                   5.8                                                  17

2005       13.58 million                                   9.0                                                 22

2009       16.30 million                                   9.8                                                 23         

The 2009 telecast of the Preakness had a rating for the race segment of the program of 6.8 and a share of 16, or 10.9 million viewers, up some 3 million viewers from 2008.   This was the best showing for the Preakness since 2004.   In 2009, the Belmont Stakes had no chance for a Triple Crown winner, unlike 2008, and the race segment of the telecast had a rating of 5.0.   This was a significant decrease from 2008, when Big Brown’s attempt to complete the Triple Crown registered a race-segment rating of 9.5.   However, compared to 2007, the last year with no Triple Crown sweep on the line, this was a respectable rating.   In 2007, the race segment had a rating of 3.1.

The reviews for the quality of the telecasts were overwhelmingly positive.   The program content was upbeat and interesting.    The colorful cowboys from New Mexico that brought longshot Mine That Bird, the likeable and emotional jockey Calvin Borel, and the filly Rachel Alexandra, all made for good television.  The only negative publicity surfaced when a couple of owners were revealed to be conspiring to keep the filly Rachel Alexandra out of the Preakness.

2. Wagering

Most racetrack experts expected the down economy to take a heavy toll on handle.   On the contrary, handle held up surprisingly well.   Betting handle was down just 0.1% for the Kentucky Derby, as compared to 2008, and off 4.1% for the entire race card.   For the Preakness, handle rose by 30% on the race and 18% on the 13-race card.    Betting handle for the Belmont was down from 2008, by about 10.2% from all sources.   Keep in mind, however, that 2008 had the second highest Belmont handle ever, both on-track and off-track.  Compared to 2007, the 2009 Belmont handle was up by 2%.

3. On-Track Attendance

Churchill Downs had its lowest Derby-day attendance since 2004, but still attracted a paid audience of 153,563 people.  On the other hand, the Preakness took a big hit.   The reported crowd of 77,850, 30.6% fewer attendees than in 2008, was the smallest number since 1983 and the first crowd under 100,000 since 1996.   As a result, in-state wagering on the Preakness declined by 15.1%, and this was attributable to a 30.6% drop in the on-track crowd.  The Belmont Stakes drew 52,861, which is much less than the 94,476 fans who paid to see Big Brown’s Triple Crown try in 2008.   A sharp drop-off was to be expected given that Mine That Bird had lost the Preakness and therefore could not be a Triple Crown champion.

The Maryland Jockey Club was accused of greed by a few sports writers for not allowing infield fans to bring in their own alcoholic beverages for the Preakness at Pimlico, and this policy no doubt kept away fans by the thousands.   Presumably, The Maryland Jockey Club rendered the policy in order to line its own pockets with the sale of beer, liquor, and wine.  No evidence was offered for this simplistic claim.

In reality, the alcohol issue is not a cut-and-dried decision.   On the one hand, Pimlico’s management wants to see a full infield, especially for the benefit of TV images.   On the other hand, management has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for attendees.   Pimlico could suffer considerably, from a monetary standpoint, should someone get badly injured in the infield while management stood by and let things get out of control.  Joe DeFrancis, a former owner of Pimlico, told the Washington Post:  “The fundamental problem is the full (beer) cans being used as missiles.”    Critics on the outside most likely do not know what Pimlico management was told by its attorneys and insurance companies about  infield-crowd liability or what they concluded on their own.   From a revenue viewpoint, the no-alcohol rule may be a loser, but a necessity unless some compromise can be found.

4. Conclusion

In the aftermath of the demise of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, horse racing was roundly criticized from inside and outside the enterprise.   The public-relations fallout was considerable.   Then, the severe worldwide economic downturn took its toll on business per se and leisure activities like pari-mutuel wagering were affected greatly.   This combination of negative publicity and economic turmoil is a recipe for disaster.   Still, by any objective measure, whether it is TV ratings, betting handle, or on-track attendance, the 2009 Triple Crown race portfolio, on balance, performed way beyond what would be expected given the circumstances.

In my view, much of the credit goes to NBC, which did a superb job of promoting the Kentucky Derby through the CNBC one-hour special, in its Internet podcasts, with mentions on network and cable news programs, and via advertising.   This drove up ratings for the Kentucky Derby.  Underdog Mine That Bird’s improbable win, Calvin Borel’s appearance with Jay Leno, and the addition of the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness fueled more interest.   Although there was no chance for a Triple Crown winner after the Preakness, ABC’s telecast of the Belmont had some draw because Calvin Borel had the opportunity to be the first jockey to win all three Triple Crown races on two different mounts.

With a mediocre economy and no Triple Crown to gin up an extraordinary climate of excitement, the business results from the three races were satisfactory, to say the least.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


-George Santayana, 1863–1953, American philosopher


Never in the history of the Kentucky Derby has the jockey on the winning horse deserted his mount for another entry in the Preakness.   But there is an eerie precedent for a jockey choosing to ride a filly over a Kentucky Derby-winning colt when the jockey was the regular rider of both…and the precedent is a cause for concern–a red flag–for everyone who cares about animal welfare and racing’s image among the general public.

Jacinto Vasquez was the regular rider of Foolish Pleasure, who won the 1975 Kentucky Derby and ran second in the Preakness and the Belmont.  Vasquez was also the rider of the great but starcrossed filly Ruffian.   Like Calvin Borel in 2009, when Vasquez was forced to choose between riding a Kentucky Derby winner and piloting an exceptional filly, he elected to ride the filly.

On July 6, 1975, a match race was run between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian.   It was the heretofore undefeated Ruffian’s eleventh career race.   As 50,000 fans watched at Belmont Park and millions more tuned in on television, Ruffian broke both seasmoid bones in her right foreleg during the race and she had to be euthanized following surgery.

A hue and cry about the inhumane treatment of racehorses ensued as racing’s “Battle of the Sexes” morphed into a public relations nightmare.   Many people asked why it was necessary for Ruffian to take on Foolish Pleasure to prove her merit.   The race, in fact, was an equine version of a male vs. female tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which had attracted a huge television audience. In that denouement, King routed the braggadocios Riggs.

In the wake of the breakdowns of Barbaro, George Washington, but especially the filly Eight Belles, it is imprudent if not crass to risk a rerun of the Ruffian/Eight Belles tragedies.   Racing cannot readily survive an incident come Saturday in Baltimore pertaining to the injury or demise of Rachel Alexandra.   Sure, she might win and be celebrated but, however remote,  the Ruffian outcome looms like the Sword of Damocles.

Have the connections of Rachel Alexandra had a memory lapse about what happened in the 2008 Kentucky Derby? Do they know of what occurred to possibly the greatest filly in turf history in 1975?   Here’s hoping that the Jackson’s, who own Rachel Alexandra, weigh the costs versus the benefits to their filly, as well as to racing’s future, and opt out of the Preakness.

Do it as a tribute to Ruffian and Eight Belles.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business.