Beyond the Money - By Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the February 20, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)      

Whenever it’s said, “It’s not about the money,” you can bet it’s about the money.

Charles Cella, the man at the helm of Oaklawn Park since 1968, gave co-owner Jess Jackson and owner Jerry Moss five million reasons to have their champions, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, respectively, point toward April 9 at the Hot Springs, Ark., track. As of Feb. 11, the parties have agreed to try and meet in the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) on the day before the Arkansas Derby (gr. I).

Before Cella hit one out of the park with his “race for the ages” idea, the Apple Blossom was slated to have a purse of $500,000—already a great payout for a non-Breeders’ Cup filly and mare race.

Now, where Cella comes up with the other $4.5 million is his business, but is he “overpaying” to bring these two stars together?

While it has been made clear this is not a match race, it is necessary that both distaffers appear in the starting gate for the race to be worth the $5 million. Looking at past races “for the ages” and running their purse values through a consumer price indicator calculator available on the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Web site, revealed the following:

  • The $75,000 Kenilworth Park Gold Cup in October 1920, which was a match race between Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, was worth $804,500 in today’s dollars. However, it did include a gold cup to the winner.

  • Seabiscuit and War Admiral squared off in the $15,000 Pimlico Special Nov. 1, 1938. The value of that high-profile race during the Great Depression stands at $228,230 today.

  • On Aug. 31, 1955, Nashua and Swaps met at Washington Park near Chicago for a $100,000 match race that in today’s economy would be worth $800,500.

  • The “Great Match Race” between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian at Belmont Park July 6, 1975, had a $350,000 purse. That translates into $1,395,700 in today’s dollars.

It’s doubtful Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra would come together this year if dangled a carrot worth $1.4 million. Sports and entertainment have come a long way since the days of Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

So have the egos of some Thoroughbred owners.

In a news release issued Feb. 10, Jackson proposed a three-race series for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, saying he had been in discussions with Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to see if “training and racing schedules, as well as purse money, can be worked out.”

Purse money? A series of races?

Equibase’s Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators noted purses for 2009 were off 5.6% compared to 2008 figures (handle was down 9.9%). For January 2010, purses were off 10% from January 2009.

Purses are down, and a lot of tracks are struggling to stay viable. Times are as tough as they’ve been since Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Putting together $5 million for a race with two superstars is fine, but wouldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere? Why should the tracks—already strapped for purses—have to bid to curry favor? The racing calendar affords plenty of opportunities to go a mile and an eighth against fillies and mares or against males. Pick your spot anywhere around the country and run.

While pitting “Rachel” and Zenyatta on the track already has created a lot of buzz and earned a lot of ink, this singular race, or even a series, won’t “save” racing.

If the connections want to do the right thing for racing, if offered, say, a $5-million purse, agree to run for a $2- or $3-million payout with a guarantee that the rest of the money be spent promoting the event. Give the track some firepower to make a serious run at putting together a television package to present the race in front of a national audience.

There are few open windows for national exposure on TV. The original date of the Apple Blossom, April 3, would have seen the race run during the first half of the first game of the NCAA Final Four. The afternoon of April 9 competes on the sports calendar with the second round of the Masters golf tournament.

Wouldn’t it be great if CBS took a 10- or 15-minute break from the Masters to show a “race for the ages?”

Evan Hammonds is digital media editor of The Blood-Horse

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