Labor Day Pains - By Evan Hammonds

I remember turning the dial—yes there was a real dial back then—to CBS Sports to watch the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). Jack Whitaker was there and so was Heywood Hale Broun. Besides the appeal of watching John Henry take to the main track that afternoon at Belmont Park was the fact the 5-year-old mare Relaxing was taking on the boys. Analyst/handicapper Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder told us John Henry couldn’t win because he was a turf horse; Relaxing couldn’t win because she was a mare, and Peat Moss was too slow. John Henry held off a late-charging Peat Moss. Relaxing was a gallant third.

Hey, he took a stand.

Taking a bigger stand is owner Jess Jackson, opting to send out his 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra in the Sept. 5 Woodward (gr. I) at Saratoga. It’s a bold move with America’s racing sweetheart. It’s too bad she won’t be performing on network television.

The Woodward will be shown on TVG and HRTV, networks known to hard-core fans of Thoroughbred racing, but it’s doubtful their reach is enough to grab the general sports fans that may want to see how Rachel stacks up against her elders. It would be a coup for the sport if the Woodward was available on a network or a beefier cable station, say one of the ESPN channels.

A tough break for Thoroughbred racing is the calendar—Labor Day weekend is the traditional kickoff to the college football season. During the afternoon of Sept. 5 when the Woodward is slated to go, ABC has a blockbuster game of pre-season No. 9 Oklahoma State hosting No. 13 Georgia. On ESPN, it’s Missouri and Illinois. The Labor Day weekend docket at CBS is third- and fourth-round action of tennis’ U.S. Open.

The schedules for CBS, ESPN, and ABC (the latter two are majority owned by the Walt Disney Co.) have been booked for months. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association would love to step in with a half-hour or hour package and find a slot somewhere, but the obstacles are too much to overcome.

Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the NTRA, points out it’s a “challenge” to maneuver across the TV landscape on a few weeks’ notice these days. Networks—and advertisers—like to lock in six-to-nine months out with a financial commitment.

Another hurdle is the New York Racing Association has an exclusive broadcast deal with New York-based entertainment network MSG Plus. Getting clearance from NYRA, MSG, TVG, and HRTV isn’t easy on the fly.

There is also a little matter of money. Waldrop notes that to put on an hour of television, it’ll run you about a quarter of a million dollars, and it’s more to sit down at the table with a network. The chance of getting a return on that investment through advertising or sponsorships is highly unlikely. Last weekend’s 90-minute Travers show—one slate of stakes races negotiated in a deal with MSG months ago—on ESPN didn’t begin to bring in that kind of coin.

Of course, the coin that could have lured Team Rachel to the widest audience would be the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) and a potential showdown with unbeaten Zenyatta. However, decisions fleshed out two years ago will keep racing’s No. 1 star from the World Championships. It was a marketing decision for the Breeders’ Cup to gain some traction and hold its event at the same venue—Southern California’s Santa Anita Park—in back-to-back years. That also made for the majority of Breeders’ Cup races to be contested over a synthetic surface in back-to-back years. On multiple occasions Jackson has made it clear Rachel Alexandra won’t compete on a synthetic surface.

In another marketing move, the Breeders’ Cup was split into a two-day, Friday-Saturday format, with the Friday races designated for females. That means that even if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta met in the Ladies’ Classic (gr. I), it would take place Nov. 6, a Friday afternoon. Would Breeders’ Cup officials have the right stuff to call an audible and move the Ladies’ Classic to the Saturday, Nov. 7, program for greater reach?

For Labor Day weekend, the best-case scenario will be that the suits at ESPN will see the value of following Rachel and offer a similar treatment to the one that took place when she ran in the Aug. 1 Haskell (gr. I), giving an update after the race and positioning the results prominently on “Sports Center.”

In today’s programmed world, that’s as “front and center” as the industry can expect this time of year.

Evan Hammonds is Executive Editor of The Blood-Horse.

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