Thoroughbred racing is dying. At least that is what you have been told. Heck, I'll bet you anything Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com will tell you it again within the next few days; he does every year.
And I'd wager a pretty penny that ESPN does not even know horse racing still exists. After televising at least three weekends of Kentucky Derby prep races each year for the past two decades, and sometimes as often as every Saturday from mid-February until the Derby, the leader has failed to broadcast a single prep race so far.
In fact, the only horse race shown live on any of the ESPN family of networks, excluding ESPN360.com (or ESPN3.com, as it is was re-branded this month), was Zenyatta's return on March 13 in the Santa Margarita Invitational. That race was shown on ESPNEWS.
After the Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta Apple Blossom failed to materialize, ESPN went from being one of the rumored leading players to televise the race to not even streaming it on ESPN3.com. The only place online to see it live for free, DRF.com, was so overwhelmed with hits that most people never got to see the race.
But imagine just how dead horse racing would be had Triple Crown Productions not formed 25 years ago.
Spend a Buck won the 1985 Kentucky Derby. But the money wasn't at Pimlico Race Course.
The Buckaroo colt had already won two Kentucky Derby prep races at Garden State Park, and a win in the Jersey Derby on May 27 would come with a $2 million bonus, in addition to the first place check of $600,000. The alternative of winning the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes would only have been worth a little more than $730,000.
Garden State Park owner Robert Brennan offered the money to add excitement and top-quality horses to the track. Eight years earlier, a major fire destroyed the grandstand, but Brennan put in $150 million to rebuild the grandstand and get the facility ready to finally reopen in the spring of 1985.
So the horse's owner, Dennis Diaz, sent him to Garden State Park to win more money in a single race than any horse had ever won before.
Yet horse racing was already suffering, even before Diaz directed his horse to New Jersey.
Despite a perception of renewed interest in horse racing following the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, the 1985 Kentucky Derby attendance of 108,573 was the lowest in almost two decades, and the television ratings for ABC's broadcast were a record-low.
Without any chance of a Triple Crown winner, the Preakness would also break its record-low television rating, and the Belmont fared only slightly better than its worst-ever performance.
But horse racing bounced back, or at least the Triple Crown races did.
Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont, the three host tracks of the Triple Crown horse races, banded together for the first time to sell television rights and promote their marquee events. Most importantly, they brought on Chrysler to sponsor a $5 million bonus to any horse that won all three Triple Crown races.
With tradition no longer a strong enough force, the host tracks decided to boost purses to save their series.
The results were immediately felt.
The television ratings for the 1986 Derby were the highest in three years, while the Preakness, largely due to having the Derby winner in the field, jumped up 59 percent over the 1985 figure.
Additionally, since 1985, no uninjured winner of the Kentucky Derby has skipped the Preakness Stakes.
While the Triple Crown races have become increasingly popular, with on-track attendances broken almost every other year and wagering at all-time highs, in addition to a commitment from trainers and owners to send their best horses into the three races, all three races have come into jeopardy in recent years.
Due to Magna Entertainment Corp's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, the Preakness Stakes has been in the most perilous situation. Pimlico, Laurel Park, and the Preakness race itself were all put onto the auction block in the past few months, with Magna delaying the auction multiple times. Many soothsayers feared that the tracks would be purchased by commercial developers, who would raze them and turn them into condominiums and the like, leaving the Preakness nowhere to be ran.
And even before that, Magna spoke of impending doom in Maryland. The appearance of slot parlors at tracks in adjacent Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia caused trainers and owners (who normally ran their horses in Maryland) to move their operations to the slots-infused purses elsewhere.
For the last three years, someone, somewhere wrote about the possibility of that year's Preakness being the last ever.
Just this month, however, Magna announced that it would keep control of its Maryland properties as it came out of bankruptcy. Slot money still has not come, and there is no guarantee that Magna will ever get a license to operate slots in Maryland, but a variety of solutions have been proposed and the state has made it some semblance of a priority to save racing.
Meanwhile, the Belmont Stakes has emerged as the endangered species.
In December, New York Racing Association president and CEO Charles Hayward bluffed that the non-profit company could shut down operations at the end of April if it did not receive an immediate influx of money. Governor David Paterson had still not picked an operator for the casino at Aqueduct, and without that cash flow, the track could not afford to pay the purses it was required to pay by law.
A shutdown at the end of April would mean no Belmont Stakes at the beginning of June.
Although it was only a bluff, as the track would agree to run through the fall just a month later, the situation remains dire. NYRA is owed $15 million from bankrupt New York City Off-Track Betting, and the Aqueduct casino has become an even larger mess than ever anticipated, leaving the company still in financial straits.
A 2011 Belmont Stakes is no guarantee.
But what about the Derby, the untouchable masterpiece jewel of American racing?
The only thing keeping the Kentucky Derby thriving is tradition.
Without slots, Churchill Downs does not have the financial abilities to withstand a serious challenge from another track with money.
What happens if the owners of Philadelphia Park decide to create a $5 million race to be run on the same day as the Kentucky Derby? What if they also throw in a $5 million bonus to any horse that sweeps its race and the other two legs of the Triple Crown, a bonus that has not existed for Triple Crown Productions since Visa pulled out after the 2005 series? Are you telling me that more than a handful of the top horses would stick with the Kentucky Derby?
Hopefully, the powers that be won't challenge the Kentucky Derby, because horse racing needs the Kentucky Derby, it's only tradition that keeps it from happening.
However, in 1985, tradition was stomped on, and Garden State Park stole the last two legs of the Triple Crown.
A lot has changed in the last 25 years, and the Triple Crown races have purses larger than ever.
But there's no guarantee that the 26th year of this arrangement will be just as successful. And if tradition goes, there's no guarantee there will even be a 26th year.
Tradition just doesn't have the same allure when money beckons.
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