Photo: Eclipse Spotswire
When it comes to positive publicity for the sport of kings these days, beggars can’t be choosers. I have noticed a disheartening trend over the last few years around Triple Crown season, and unfortunately I cannot say that this year bucked that trend. Hardcore horse racing fans have become increasingly more contemptuous of the coverage our sport receives from major networks. While I cannot say that I have been completely enamored of the job NBC did this year, I would like to think that I have kept my eye on the prize. That is, despite the lackluster and often uninspiring work done, for at least one day, horse racing took center stage on a major network.
Put yourself in the shoes of the average American and think back to last year’s Triple Crown season. What pops immediately to mind? If you say I’ll Have Another coming so close only to not even have the chance to complete the sweep, then you’re fooling yourself. As brilliant as I’ll Have Another was last year, it was his trainer Doug O’Neill and his past drug transgressions that were grabbing headlines. You can rest assured that if most people remember nothing else about last year’s bid for a Triple Crown winner, they remember the controversy that followed O’Neill like a second shadow.
Fast forward back to this year’s Kentucky Derby. What were the major headlines? Rosie Napravnik making a bid to become the first woman to win the Kentucky Derby. Veteran Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens making a come back. Trainer Shug McGaughey and jockey Joel Rosario seeking their first Kentucky Derby victory with the improving Orb. Kevin Krigger seeking to become the first African-American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since 1902. How about Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino looking to continue his string of successes this year with a Derby victory with Goldencents? Nowhere in there was there anything negative garnering major attention on a national scale.
If you check my Twitter and Facebook feeds, you’ll see that I made it no secret how little I cared for Michelle Beadle. More often than not it appeared that she was not at all happy to be covering Kentucky Derby weekend, and her commentary was often peppered with thinly veiled scathing remarks toward the traditional fashion statements to be found on the grounds of Churchill Downs. But the fact of the matter is that she is a face that is easily recognizable to non-racing fans, and let’s face it, her awful race calling was hilarious. Humor aside, her poor attempt to emulate Larry Collmus highlighted how difficult it is to do a job that many take for granted, if they even consider it at all. So if having Michelle Beadle as the featured reporter for NBC attracted a bigger audience and drew new fans to the sport, who are we to judge or ridicule her? I know I’m like the skunk calling the hog stinky for saying this since I wanted her replaced between Oaks and Derby Day, but epiphanies don’t always happen before I open my mouth.
I know that more than a few people were unhappy with how much attention Rick Pitino, who only owns 5% of Goldencents, garnered leading up to the Derby; but again, he is an easily recognizable face. Along with other celebrity owners, he has the potential to draw more fans to our sport simply because he is who he is. And let’s not forget how much weight a human interest story carries. People like to see barriers broken, and I can guarantee that the 60 Minutes special featuring Rosie grabbed the attention of women across the nation. The same can be said for those rooting for Krigger based on the trend he was trying to buck.
Hardcore racing fans want to see more of the horses themselves along with the daily work that goes into preparing a thoroughbred for these huge races because it is the horses and their connections that drive this sport. Aside from keeping with tradition, for the most part we could all care less about the pageantry, fashion, and mint juleps. Show us the horses. Tell us their story. Walk us through a day in the life of a trainer or jockey. All these things appeal to us who live and breathe the sport, but if we want to attract new fans, we have to be willing to cater a little bit to the general public.
For the most part, NBC did a poor job of balancing the reality of horse racing with the pageantry involved with one of the sport’s biggest days. There was more than one point where I used the mute button on my remote so that I didn’t have to listen to Michelle Beadle. There was entirely too much focus on the celebrities present and the fashion statements people were making and not enough focus on what we were all tuned in for: the horses themselves. In the future, I hope that NBC does a better job of finding that balance. But let’s face it, this year was a huge step forward after all the negative press surrounding O’Neill last year. At least this year, it was all positive.