Tiger is to Big Brown?

Hmm, not exactly, as one won and the other didn’t. But on Monday, with only a shot or two different, Rocco Mediate might have been Da’ Tara.

For two consecutive weekends, America’s sporting attention was riveted by major events with surprising similarities.

Both the US Open and the Belmont represent milestones in their respective sports. The Open is the second leg of golf’s Grand Slam, the Belmont the third in racing’s Triple Crown.

Each event was hyped for weeks beforehand; one marked the return to the course of its most accomplished player, the other represented the possibility of an achievement not seen in thirty years.

Both events featured a prominent, if somewhat damaged, star: Tiger had a gimpy knee, Big Brown a cracked hoof.

Aside from these two, most of the participants in both events were little-known. While we’d probably all recognize a couple of the golfers in the U.S. Open field, the tournament started with dozens of players of whom we’d never heard and whom we wouldn’t recognize. Ditto for the Belmont: Guadalcanal? And while racing fans might know Da’ Tara and Denis of Cork, no casual fan would have been likely to.

And each event drew millions of viewers who might not otherwise be paying attention.

In the week between the Belmont and the US Open, I lost count of the number of non-racing fans who told me that they’d arranged their previous Saturday afternoon’s activities around the Belmont post time of 6:25. Not a big fan of golf, I was glued to my television Sunday evening, and at work on Monday I regularly refreshed SI.com’s coverage of the playoff, following as many strokes as I could, rooting at every hole for Rocco Mediate, as were most of the people I talked to.

And this is where the events differ, as I talked to very few people who were actively rooting AGAINST Big Brown in the Belmont. Even people like me, uneasy at the prospect of a Big Brown victory, found it difficult to hope that a Triple Crown wouldn’t happen; the historical import of the moment had at least the potential to overrule any personal rooting or wagering interests, as did Rags to Riches’ run to the wire a year ago.

But I think that there’s more to it…in response to the writing of Dana at Green but Game, Alex Waldrop at the NTRA explained that TV coverage of a race without a confirmed star appearance can be a hard sell. Understandable—even coverage of a race WITH an equine star isn’t necessarily going to be a ratings jackpot.

But the US Open showed that it’s not star power that draws viewers; it’s the star and the foil. Macbeth is great on his own, but it’s in contrast with Macduff that he becomes magnified. Can you imagine Magic without Bird? Rick Blaine without Captain Renault?

The US Open had us non-golf fans watching not because Tiger was competitive; we were watching because some guy we’d never heard of was challenging the favorite, and oh, man, did we want Mediate to win (confession: through most of the weekend, I was convinced that the guy was Italian and his name was Meed-ee-AH-tay. I’m sort of disappointed that that’s not the case).

But folks weren’t rooting for the underdog at the Belmont. Big Brown had no foil, no Alydar to his Affirmed, no Easy Goer to his Sunday Silence. Da’ Tara came out of nowhere, out of the anonymity of multiple defeats (much like Mr. Mediate, who has finished in the top ten in tournaments slightly more than ten percent of the time; that makes Da’ Tara, who finished on the board in four of seven starts prior to the Belmont, look like a champion), and disappeared right past the finish line, this time into the coverage of Big Brown’s ignominious defeat.

Not so for Mr. Mediate, though. By Monday afternoon, we recognized him and we knew his story; two days of golf coverage, and he’s a fan favorite. He’s been on sports talk shows and in the papers. Following the Open, he got as much–more?–coverage than Tiger. In contrast, I’ll bet most people who were at the Belmont have already forgotten who won the big race. They only know who lost. Zito and LaPenta were practically invisible immediately and in the days following Da’ Tara’s victory.

I know that it’s harder to market horses than it is to market humans. Fair enough, horses don’t talk, and it’s a lot harder to find an appealing back story for a three year old race horse than it is for a forty-five year old golfer. But for at least the next few tournaments, I’ll watch for Rocco Mediate, cheer for him, hope he does well. Unfortunately, the same will not be true of Da’ Tara and those who showed up at Belmont on June 7th: those casual fans will not be looking forward to Da’ Tara’s next start, and even if they were, they probably wouldn’t be able to watch it. Golf got a gift over the weekend, and it made the most of it. How can racing do the same?

8 thoughts on “Tiger is to Big Brown?

  1. Racing neads great rivalries again to drum up more interest. Curlin is great, but watching him win with no competition is not fun for the casual fan or that intriguing to the hard core fan or heavy handicapper. Your analogy with Golf is accurate. When Tiger is locked in a tight match going into a Sunday finale the ratings soar. However when a PGA event shows a tournament without Tiger, the ratings drop, and when he goes into a Sunday final day up by 15 strokes the TV ratings are dismal. Golf is in the same position as horse racing. They both need not only stars, but intriguing competitive events.

  2. I think sports like golf and tennis hold advantages over horse racing because fans-in particular new fans can find out, doing virtually no research, 3-4 events where all their new favourites will be competing. Virtually all of the top 100 will be back competing against each other at the British Open in July-along with a larger European contingent-and then a few later at the US PGA-along with a lrge number of American club pros. Post-Wimbledon all of the top 48 will play in Montreal, Cincinnati, at the Olympics and then at Flushing Meadows. Racing’s problem compared to golf and tennis is two-fold. After a race like the Belmont-fans might latch onto a horse-but where the hell will they run next-and if I make plans will the connections change them after i’ve booked flights etc?The sport is up against it because the Big Brown’s of the world are probably only actually only in full competition for around 20-25 minutes a year-the time it takes Woods and Mediate to play a couple of holes of golf and for about 4 overs to be bowled in a cricket game.Yet a days racing-especially at a Triple Crown event actually takes longer than an entire days play at a cricket test match (even including lunch, tea and an hour allowed for rain!). The trouble is that if you’ve only come to see one or two superstars-possibly in the same race-the rest of the day can seem like a test of endurance and if your favourites flop-the day very likely quickly fades from memory.Racing has a problem. In order to up TV audiences-the main event is held as late as possible-making all big days way too long-not for the likes of us-but for casual and first time attendees. The Preakness is the worst offender in this-I think it’s around 7 1/2 hours from post time to the main event. Which in my book is 3-4 hours too long.Racing does have a problem with TV-and that it does always seem to be the butt of other sports going into extra/over-time. I can’t of anything worse as a new fan trying to get into the sport-and then finding out that the 1 hour racing coverage has been reduced to 15-20 minutes because of Little League baseball etc. Surely this can be alleviated by using some form of Digital TV-red button technology-Wimbledon, Ascot and the European Championship football-can all be on-the BBC only can show one of them but a viewer can pick to watch one of the other 2-in the case of Wimbledon watch play from any of one 4 courts.American tracks do have one huge advantage-and place like Keeneland and Saratoga are fantastic at this-and that’s that the mornings at those tracks are well managed and fun and it gives a chance for fans to come out most days to see their favourite equines and humans.

  3. The difference is the casual golf fan would know who Rocco is, as he has been on the tour for 23 years, whereas race horses are “Andy Warhol-like” and the casual race fan would not know Da’Tara from Ready’s Echo. Hard to say Bird was Magic’s foil, IMHO, they were both true stars, but I think I understand the point you were making.If Curlin had some decent competition, maybe the sport could build on the rivalry plot and generate more interest. Trouble is time is of the essence and once his ownership situation is finalized…it’s inevitable that he’ll be off to the breeding shed.

  4. Geno: I was thinking of foils in the literary sense, in which two essentially equal and similar character differ in significant ways, their similarities making even more prominent their differences. Didn’t mean to suggest that either Bird or Magic had the edge over the other.

  5. And to Jeremy: great points about tennis. I was thinking the same thing about the tournaments and the fields…there’s a consistency in both golf and tennis that makes it easy to follow players in whom one has developed an interest.

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