(Originally published in the April 30, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
We are approaching the Triple Crown season, the highest point of interest in our sport each year and the ideal opportunity to promote horse racing and grow its fan base. As Zenyatta showed us again last season, an appealing star attracts attention. But we seem to miss that point with an approach that can make it more difficult for standouts to step into the spotlight on our biggest days.
I think of the Triple Crown races as the championship round that follows the regular-season schedule of prep races. While most sports acknowledge in-season success by the structure of its tournament or playoffs, Thoroughbred racing pretty much ignores any prior achievements at its marquee events.
Yes, graded stakes earnings determine the 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) field, but that’s as far as racing’s rewards system goes. With use of the traditional blind draw format to assign post positions, the Derby runners receive the same treatment as a bunch of maiden claimers entered in the fifth race on a Thursday.
While it is very democratic, by using “the luck of the draw” approach, we sometimes put our biggest potential stars at a disadvantage. That is precisely what happened last year when the graded earnings leader and eventual 3-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky drew the rail. He was banged around in the first run through the stretch, had pretty much lost all chance in the first quarter-mile, yet managed to finish a respectable sixth. It was the 24th consecutive year that the horse that drew the rail failed to win America’s most important race.
We could avoid that scenario and act like virtually every other sport that conducts playoffs by using graded-stakes earnings to determine the order for a Derby post-position draw. Simply give the connections of the top earner the first pick, continue down the list, and the 20th selection goes to the final qualifier. Instead, we use a system with the potential to handicap our standouts.
What other sports do that? The NFL gives its top teams a first-round bye, and the match-ups are determined by seeding, based on divisional standings and won-lost records. The teams with the better records play at home until the Super Bowl. Home-field advantage is a perk that is earned. Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, and NCAA sports use formulas tied to accomplishments to set up playoff tournaments.
Auto racing determines starting positions through qualifying. Performance counts. There’s no luck of the draw involved at Daytona or Indy.
In golf, the non-qualifiers are eliminated when the cut is made after a couple of early rounds, and the leaders go in the later pairings. This gives the top performers the opportunity to see how the course is playing and to make decisions at critical junctures based on what the competition is doing.
Can you imagine the NCAA using a blind draw to set the brackets for its incredibly popular men’s and women’s basketball tournaments? That really would be March madness if the University of Kentucky had to play Syracuse in the first round of the men’s tournament and the UConn and Tennessee women met before the Final Four.
We need to take lessons from other sports and make the most of our playoffs to discover or display stars when the lights are shining the brightest, during the Triple Crown. Without question, the real jewels in our crown have four legs and a tail. While our trainers, jockeys, and, yes, owners develop star power, it is our standout horses that people really connect with. Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte were outstanding horsemen and deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, but it is Secretariat who lives on in people’s memories.
In my view we must promote racing by putting the spotlight on our stars and by engaging fans. A horse running for immortality in the Triple Crown and racing’s “championship” delivers weeks of national attention and great TV ratings. Trainer Todd Pletcher noted after the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) last year that winning the Triple Crown is the toughest challenge in sports. We do not have to make it easier, but ignoring the success of the top earners with a traditional draw for a 20-horse field could make it even more difficult.
Matthew Gatsas is the president of Sovereign Stable in Manchester, N. H.