The 27th edition of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships was one for the record books. It was not only fourth all time in single-day attendance (72,739 on Saturday) and highest ever in amount bet (some $180 million over the two days), but it produced a number of champions who distinguished themselves in ways only imagined some 30 years ago when the late visionary John Gaines unveiled an idea to stage a season-ending championship for Thoroughbred racing.
Over the years, the number of races has doubled from seven to 14, allowing the Breeders’ Cup to grow into a festival of racing that rivals any in the world. The starters now come from all around the globe, providing an international appeal that is unmistakable. This year, 23 foreign runners from seven countries and three continents competed. The Irish-bred mare, Goldikova, won the BC Mile on Saturday while England-based Dangerous Midge took Saturday’s BC Turf..
Thanks in large part to pre-race promotion of Zenyatta, Breeders’ Cup was also a very popular television draw this year. From the brawl in the winner’s circle after the BC Marathon (not a proud moment for our sport, but no doubt intriguing for television viewers who seem to crave reality-based programming) to the final stretch run with Zenyatta giving us everything she had in her heartbreaking attempt to run down a determined Blame in the Classic, it was two days of great competition and non-stop publicity for racing. In a season crowded by NCAA and NFL football, NBA basketball and even the remnants of World Series baseball, racing more than held its own.
In fact, during the 6:15-7:15 p.m. segment that included the Classic, ESPN reported viewership of about 5.1 million people compared with 1.8 million viewers for the final hour a year ago. That’s a 180% increase - the largest increase ever for a Breeders’ Cup broadcast. These numbers will put the Breeders’ Cup broadcast near the top of the cable ratings for the week.
And the television viewership numbers from Saturday tell only part of the story. In the days leading up to and after the Breeders’ Cup, millions of ESPN customers were exposed to Thoroughbred racing through the promotion of the Breeders’ Cup on other ESPN programming and media platforms like SportsCenter, the ESPN ticker at the bottom of the TV screen, cross promotion on college football, and coverage on ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. The television numbers and multi-platform engagement will translate into more sponsor interest and potentially larger advertising revenues at future Breeders’ Cups. Not to mention new followers of horse racing.
Why the success in reaching a larger audience? No question; we owe it to the great mare from California. Whatever her place in history may be, Zenyatta and her star power drew in millions of new fans who would never have given horse racing a second thought but for the chance to see her race one last time. Because she did not cross the finish line first, history may never fully reward her for her efforts. Such is the heartbreak of all great sporting events. At the same time, though, the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic will never be forgotten. In that final mad dash to near-immortality, Zenyatta touched hearts and changed minds.
On Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Zenyatta and her worthy adversary, Blame, gave us everything they had. And racing was the undisputed winner.