Need for New Owners - By Evan Hammonds

Have we seen the last of Justify? That was a burning question during the week following the July 10 announcement that this year’s unbeaten Triple Crown winner would be “evaluated after some filling in his left front ankle was discovered.”

Certainly, trainer Bob Baffert and the crew of majority owner WinStar Farm will do what is best for the horse. However, with a year-end goal of making the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs, time is quickly becoming an issue in having enough days to work that in along with a needed prep race. We have to assume he’ll be whisked to the stallion barn for the 2019 breeding season next February.

Several misguided missives have been posted online—where else but Twitter—bemoaning how horrible it is for the sport that its stars do not race at 4. We get the point, but simple economics makes the answer an easy one for the owner. Just weigh how much a horse might earn on the track (minus hefty insurance premiums) as opposed to how much one can earn covering mares at a fee that has to be considered a minimum of six figures.

As for growing the sport, stars help promote the game, yes, but they are by no means racing’s “saviors.” General interest in racing lags following the Triple Crown; that is just the reality of today’s sporting scene. American Pharoah drew packed houses at Saratoga and at Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup after his sweep in 2015, but his appearances didn’t move the needle in the television ratings nearly as much as one would have thought.

Let’s face it: Racing has become what is now called a “niche” sport, in the same vein as tennis, golf, auto racing, and even “bigger” sports such as college basketball and even Major League Baseball.

Last year’s seven-game World Series between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers drew an average television rating of 10.6 with 18.7 million viewers. Twenty years ago those same figures were 16.7 and 24.7 million viewers. Thirty years ago it was 24.0 and 35.3 million viewers—that’s nearly twice the number of viewers than last year.

The opening weekend of this year’s college basketball tournament, while being shown on TBS, CBS, TNT, truTV, and NCAA March Madness, averaged 8.6 million viewers.

No offense to Justify, but this spring’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) scored an 8.5 rating with 14.9 million viewers watching, the lowest-rated Derby in 12 years, according to NBC. However, the race did have 123,000 viewers who streamed on NBC Sports’ digital platform.

Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic drew a 1.3 rating and 2.0 million viewers on NBC, and while American Pharoah’s run in 2015 drew nearly twice as many viewers, it still was only 3.9 million.

While any sports marketing person worth his salt is about creating new fans, what racing desperately needs are new owners. What helps sell the sport is when a horse such as Seattle Slew sells for $17,500 and goes on to win the Triple Crown; or when horses such as Funny Cide ($22,000 sale yearling) and I’ll Have Another ($11,000 sale yearling; $35,000 sale 2-year-old) go on to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown and put a couple of million bucks in the bank.

Justify, with his $500,000 yearling sale price tag, doesn’t quite have that “rags-to-riches” feel, but the fact he has earned nearly $3.8 million with millions more in stud fees to come, should show prospective players that there is plenty of glory—and money—to be made at the deeper end of the yearling sale pool with the right horse with the right pedigree.

And that will help generate our stars of the future.

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