A New Dawn for Big Event Racing

During NBC’s Preakness coverage the network teased its coverage, to begin in 2017, of the Royal Ascot meeting in Britain.  NBC Sports Group also composed a press release about it.  Similar attention was given to the Donn Handicap Pegasus World Cup next January at Gulfstream (though there is no official advisory yet).

The idea of NBC covering more races on television does have its positive points – more coverage means more eyeballs and potentially more handle.  But there’s a caution to that, as rank-and-file cynical horseplayers will yap over Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski not being placed in an isolation chamber as players – whether by price or sanity - seek an alternative to Basic Cable and clamor for a way to see races in HD on their TVs without having to call 1-800-Comcast.

But the fact NBC Sports Group is willing to show Royal Ascot shows something in racing that’s now crystallized beyond a few tracks.  Racing is now a big event game.

The idea of racing as a big event game is far from new.  The New York Racing Association knows it, as Saratoga’s weekday cards have nary a graded stakes on them and the graded stakes have been loaded onto weekends.  The Maryland Jockey Club concentrated nearly all of the stakes in its Pimlico meet during the Friday and Saturday of Preakness week.  Before that, Churchill Downs combined its post-Derby spring stakes into a single card in mid-June with the G1 Stephen Foster Handicap as the headliner.  As easy as it is to make Churchill Downs into a villain, they took the “big day at the races” concept from experiment to practice before NYRA did – as the success of Churchill’s Foster Day was implemented at Fair Grounds.  For better or worse they were ahead of the always-praised NYRA suits on this one.  Even Picks & Ponderings quietly has acknowledged this trend before putting it into writing here.  When both Nicolle and Paul plan the races to cover and handicap (usually done at the end of a month for the following month; i.e. May’s races were sketched out in late April), condition books and stakes schedules get searched looking for a big event day – whether it be Arlington Million Day or Preakness Day or whatever.

The cost of big event racing is the marginalization of weekday (and non-big day) programs.  Although some weekday tracks blend together and become a blur, the best example was Monmouth last year – who to pay for American Pharoah (by upping the purse of the Haskell from $1M to $1.75M) to come to the G1 Haskell effectively gutted the post-Haskell meet.  The risk, to the outside eyes, was worth it.  Monmouth had a record handle day for the Haskell and its year-over-year stats held steady.  Yet any post-Haskell card was viewed the same zeal as a Monday at Delaware, making their meet a success as this was all in the days before legalized exchange wagering.

At Monmouth, racing became a big-event game last year. Churchill has theirs, and so do other tracks.  All NBC is doing is opening the book to including international races from Royal Ascot.  One critical argument would be how attendance suffers on weekdays and on off-days, but the idea of attendance as a metric to measure racing interest is as fresh as a Foghat concert.  For example, the piece on Monmouth put their handle figures before attendance.  Churchill Downs and subsidiaries long ago punted on day-to-day attendance outside of big days.  Once again, for better or worse, the CDI suits were ahead of the curve.

The idea of big event racing isn’t going to go over well, especially in a sport with stubborn curmudgeons.  But tracks are doing big event racing. And NBC does it with the Kentucky Derby and now opens the door with Royal Ascot on its airwaves next year.  And Picks & Ponderings acknowledges it with this piece.  Even the readers have spoken: as covering big days outside of Arlington (aside from Million Week) gives strong readership numbers and Picks & Ponderings has taken that to heart.

Racing sometimes yearns for attention as a sport and not to be thrown to the back pages – a tenet that emerged in fury when Serena Williams not American Pharoah was named Athlete of the Year by Sports Illustrated.  Yet racing is taking the big event concept – something other sports have done and done successfully.  The NFL’s concentration of action makes it a big event driven sport.  Bringing European soccer into American homes (instead of American soccer) makes it a big event driven sport. NBC showing the Triple Crown, and soon Royal Ascot, makes it a big event driven sport.  So many sports play to this; all racing is doing is acknowledging it since racing is always a touch behind the curve.  It’s a culture shift, too.

As such, we move now to a world without a Triple Crown (oh look, a big event) on the line, since Exaggerator turned the tables on Nyquist in the May 21 Preakness.  But we also move to the developing world of big event racing, whether it spans the states or spans the world. Big Events in racing are here to stay.

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