Old School Notebook - By Evan Hammonds

While the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Selected Yearlings Showcase raked in more than $61.2 million over two days, we’ll defer commenting on the yearling sales until we get more than two books in. Even then, the expert commentary will come from Bill Oppenheim’s “In My Opinion.”

Until then, here are some side comments, like the old-school sports columnists used to do in a “notebook.”

• About the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1): With attendance down to about 1,000 (our guesstimate) and only a handful of live tellers, of course on-track handle was off…but the substantial drop in national overall handle isn’t all that surprising even though Churchill Downs officials have to be disappointed. For the record, Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) day handle was down 48.5% and the Derby day handle registered a 49.8% decline.

Facts, figures, and stats are down everywhere as we grapple with a pandemic—with the exception of national unemployment numbers. The sports calendar has an established rhythm—and a Derby on the First Saturday in September instead of May—doesn’t register with the average fan. Neither does an Indy 500 in August, a 60-game Major League Baseball season, or a Masters golf tournament in October.

• This fact is hammered home in looking at the television ratings. While NBC rightfully crowed the Derby offered the best ratings for a sporting event since the Super Bowl…that’s quite an accomplishment, but consider since the Super Bowl there was no NCAA basketball tournament and the NBA finals are still weeks away.

For the record, NBC’s numbers in 2019 were stellar. In 2019 the Derby drew a total audience delivery (TAD) of 10.9, or 10.9 million viewers (broadcast, cable, mobile, tablets, etc.), good for a 25 share. That was a hefty increase over 2018 when the figures were 9.1/20. For the pandemic Derby, the numbers were 4.8/14.

Even the NFL’s opening night game Sept. 10 registered a 13% decline in ratings despite being the “highest rated program since the (Feb. 9) Academy Awards,” according to a release.

Sports are off kilter in 2020—and don’t expect things to snap back to 2019 levels in 2021.

• An underlying factor in Derby handle is Churchill Downs didn’t “own the weekend.” When the Derby and Oaks is in its regular slot, the racing world stops to watch. This year on Labor Day weekend, Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar were hosting the final weekends to their summer runs. The New York Racing Association ran its Saratoga Showcase for New York-breds Sept. 4 and contested major races such as the grade 1 Woodward Handicap for older runners and grade 2 Prioress Stakes for sprinting fillies and mares on the same day as Churchill ran the Derby…and the seven-furlong Derby City Distaff Stakes Presented by Derby City Gaming (G1), along with the Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet (G2) for older runners Sept. 4. Del Mar slated its usual stakes slate to close its stand.

Expect more of the same come Preakness Stakes (G1) weekend. While we’ll toast the third leg of the Triple Crown, it won’t hold the same excitement without a Triple on the line. And while we enjoy Pimlico’s accoutrement of stakes, including the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2) and Pimlico Special Stakes (G3), they will also face stiff competition the first weekend of October.

Keeneland’s Fallstars Weekend features grade 1 racing for 2-year-olds, 2-year-old fillies, turf milers, turf females, and older distaffers. Belmont Park’s “Fall Championship” is in full swing as well on Preakness day with five graded stakes, including the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1T), which would pull from the same older stars on the turf pool that the Maryland Jockey Club would like to see in its Dinner Party Stakes (G2T; formerly the Dixie). That’s some spread.

• The American Graded Stakes committee is sure to give 2020 a pass. However, with 25-plus graded stakes Derby weekend and again on Preakness weekend, with a shrinking foal crop (see page 12), it appears the proportion of graded stakes is off.

• Also “off” is the purse of this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), set for Oct. 10 at Belmont Park. Once the crown jewel of the fall racing calendar, this year it is a $250,000 “Win & You’re In” race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). The last time the purse was this low, Hobeau Farm’s Group Plan won the two-mile Gold Cup in 1975.

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