Lost Opportunities - By Eric Mitchell


(Originally published in the October 23, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell

California trainer John Shirreffs looks back at 2009 and believes racing missed a huge opportunity to build up the sport and attract new fans.

“They had a great filly on the East Coast and a great filly on the West Coast, and they didn’t celebrate both of them. Instead they pitted one against the other. I thought they made a huge mistake,” said the man who’s molded the champion Zenyatta, keeping her focused and conditioned through 19 consecutive victories.

Who exactly “they” are is a matter of interpretation. Shirreffs points some of the blame for the divisiveness surrounding Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra at the racing press. But no one has to read through too many blogs to see two passionate camps had formed around these two outstanding athletes. For every voice saying, “Shouldn’t we recognize both of their accomplishments?” there were 10 shouting out their reasons to love one more than the other.

But that’s in the past. What is disturbing now is that racing as an industry has missed another prime opportunity this year, as it did last year, and in 1995 and 1996 with Cigar and in 2007 and 2008 with Curlin.

“They say they are looking for stars to promote. ‘Where are our stars?’ they ask,” Shirreffs continued. “Here she is and then they seem to be looking for something better. The opportunity here is that (Zenyatta) is so unique.”

Sure, Breeders’ Cup has got Zenyatta’s name plastered all over Louisville for several weeks leading to the World Championships and will have her name sprinkled throughout ESPN/ABC programming. Wouldn’t the momentum be stronger, however, if the industry had some coast-to-coast promotions back in late February/early March? That’s when a series of missed opportunities began. Where were the television spots, radio promotions, updates on Twitter, or posts on Facebook promoting Zenyatta’s first race of the year? We could have started the year asking whether the extraordinary mare who beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) would return to her winning ways in 2010? Then promote her road trip to the Apple Blossom Invitational Stakes (gr. I), then her pursuit of win 17, then 18, then 19.

But who is the “they” that should be grabbing these opportunities and running with them? That’s the problem. There isn’t “they” anymore.

The Thoroughbred industry has no robust central marketing/promotional arm that was originally part of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association when it was created in 1998. In 2001 the NTRA had an advertising, marketing, and promotions budget of more than $21 million. By 2009 this budget line item had fallen to around $3 million—nowhere near enough to sustain a national marketing campaign.

The NTRA continues to do what it can with a significantly smaller budget. This year the organization streamed 14 stakes races featuring Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and key Breeders’ Cup prep races on its website. These webcasts attracted around 1,000 to 7,000 views. But again, it is not enough to raise racing’s stature nationally.

Would a national campaign to promote racing be successful? Is there enough of a core to build on? I think so.

I recently attended a digital publishing conference in Boston. One evening a colleague and I hitched a ride with a half dozen fellow attendees from a conference center to the hotel. When the group learned we represented Blood-Horse Publications, one of them asked, “So, is there a big horse right now? Like a Secretariat?” As a matter of fact there is, I told them. I gave them a five-minute synopsis about the big mare and her accomplishments. I left them with, “She’s looking to tie the all-time North American record for consecutive wins on Oct. 2.” These were not racing people, but they were intrigued by the story and repeated Zenyatta’s name aloud to themselves a couple of times before we departed in an attempt to remember her.

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When Zenyatta traveled to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Shirreffs said about 150 people every day came by the barn to see her. For her California races, people have flown from Maine, Missouri, North Carolina and Michigan, to see her run in the Vanity Handicap (gr. I) and Lady’s Secret Stakes (gr. I). Even Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens is a fan.

The interest is there. We have Zenyatta—one of the brightest stars we’ll ever see. It’s a shame the industry didn’t do more to share her with the rest of the world.

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