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?