Animal Planet Shows Jockeys Some Respect

Last Friday night, Animal Planet rolled out the season premiere of its high energy show "Jockeys" to critical and industry acclaim.

The pace is fast and the story lines are well written.  All in all, it's a great show and a gift to racing from a marketing and promotional perspective.

With all of this fanfare, it's little wonder that Animal Planet was able to boast double digit ratings gains, second season (so far) vs. the first season.  Obviously the general public likes what they are seeing.  Give the execs at Discovery Channel - owner of Animal Planet Network- credit.  This is not their usual cup of tea.  All you have to do is take a quick glance at the message boards on Animal Planet's web site to see that some of their viewers think the show is too much about the humans and not enough about the animals.  This is new territory for them, and they are doing a good job.

I'm delighted that Animal Planet has taken the time to learn our sport and teach it to the viewer in a factual, straightforward manner.  The NTRA has been actively involved in the process almost from the beginning.    I personally spent several hours talking to them on camera about the business of racing. NTRA staff worked with Animal Planet producers to promote the series to racing and sports media. This week, our PR team helped coordinate an interview with Jockeys star Chantal Sutherland that will appear on the E! Entertainment network.

Make no mistake, Jockeys is reality TV, and like other shows of this genre it contains a measure of sensationalism. Many criticized season one of the show for playing the "danger and death" card too frequently. Unfortunately we were reminded again late yesterday of just how real the potential for danger is with the news of young Michael Straight's serious injury at Arlington Park.  Every day, in every race, riders like Michael put the dangers and their worries aside in order to guide 1,200-lb. Thoroughbreds around the track at high speeds in close quarters. They do this largely because they love what they are doing. But when things go wrong, the results can be heartbreaking.

"Jockeys" does not sidestep the difficult issues that affect the sport, including injury, death, the use of race day medication (Lasix), or the ways some jockeys reduce to make weight. They discuss the issues but give a balanced, respectful view that reflects the sometimes complicated world of horseracing.  

Instead of "manufacturing" reality a la "Survivor" or "Dancing with the Stars", the producers of "Jockeys" provide more of an unvarnished look at our business.  Take Corey Nakatani.  He is an intensely competitive guy in real life.  Not surprisingly, he is presented to the viewers as the "bad boy" of the jockey colony at Santa Anita.  We see some pretty tough images of Corey that don't appear to have been staged.  Nonetheless, he is treated compassionately.  The brief segment about Corey's connections to Santa Anita through Japanese American grandparents who were forced to relocate to a Japanese American internment camp on the backside of Santa Anita during World War II  (where they actually were forced to live in the stalls!) is poignant.  The scene of Corey viewing films with the stewards is an eye opening look into the seriousness with which racing officials at Santa Anita take their jobs.  As with so many aspects of racing, the stewards meeting involves the application of judgment and discretion to complicated facts and circumstances.  Animal Planet could easily have glossed over this complexity and focused solely on Corey the troublemaker.  But instead they stay with the story and show how it is resolved in a responsible manner with Corey rightly getting a stern warning.

Another entertaining and educational part of the first episode was the detailed explanation of the claiming game.  They insightfully describe it as a game of poker played every day by owners and trainers.  And I also find Jimmy "The Hat," the show's resident gambler, very engaging. It's wonderfully clear how much he loves the game and respects its intricacies. 

What has pleased me the most about "Jockeys" is the respect with which the producers treat our human athletes - not to mention our industry as a whole.  Europe idolizes their winning riders.  In Japan, jocks are like rock stars.  Now, a cable channel with no prior history in racing is exposing millions of American viewers to our human stars.

Our industry's history of promoting jockeys is spotty at best. The popularity of "Jockeys" indicates that the industry should be doing more to promote its human stars. Calvin Borel became a media darling following the Derby and Preakness. Joe Talamo (Twitter) and Garrett Gomez (blogging) used social networking tools to engage customers throughout the Triple Crown season. While there can be only one Derby winning jockey every year, there are great stories within the riding colony at virtually every racetrack across America.

Do you like the Animal Planet show?  If you haven't seen it, you can watch the second episode this Friday night at 9 p.m. Eastern. A rerun of the first episode airs at 8 p.m. Eastern that same evening.   Watch it and tell me what you think.  Is there a marketing strategy we are missing?

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