In the sort of cross-promotion that multi-platform media has made common, CNBC on Thursday night aired The Business of Horse Racing, a look, ostensibly, at the economic state of the industry. While money was frequently mentioned through the one hour program, the program didn’t quite live up to its name, as, much to this viewer’s pleasant surprise, it focused on a variety of elements of the sport.
It didn’t get off to the most auspicious beginning, as host Melissa Francis misquoted the popular Derby tagline “the most exciting two minutes in sports” as “the greatest two minutes in sports.” Hmm…a bad sign?
Michael Iavarone was the first racing industry insider to be quoted, which was disheartening, though it made sense, given the alleged economic focus of the show, to have the face of IEAH, perhaps the most brutally economic-based entity in racing, front and center. Inexplicably, though, Big Brown was referred to a racing “legend.”
Fortunately, Iavarone’s contributions to the program were diminished by those of writer/handicapper/publisher Steven Crist and John Asher, vice president of racing communications at Churchill Downs. They offered insight and history during a succinct and informative overview of the sport of racing, including its evolution in the 20th century, the role of television, and the rise of gambling competition, and their frequent appearances through the hour were highlights of the program.
While discussing the popularity of gambling on horse races, Crist noted that the money wagered on racing last year exceeded the combined box office of all Hollywood movies. While not as popular as a live spectator sport, racing has never been more popular as a betting attraction, according to Crist.
During an overview of the business interests of Churchill Downs, Incorporated, the show at times seemed to be a thinly disguised advertisement for TwinSpires, as full-screen shots of a TwinSpires.com screen were emphasized more than once.
Unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the show was a discussion of the history of Churchill, including its opening in 1875 and the role of Matt Winn in building the popularity of the Derby. Robert Evans, Churchill CEO, noted that Winn was the first to recruit actively from the east–both humans and horses. In particular, he wanted New York journalists to come cover his race and his race track, knowing that their influence would raise the profile of Churchill and the Derby. Winn was also the first to try to bring celebrities to the race track, and to make the race as much a social event as a horse race.
The third segment of the show focused on breeding and the life of a stallion, featuring interviews with representatives from—surprise!—Three Chimneys. Though it was a little IEAH-heavy for me, this focus did, I think, demonstrate the continued appeal of Big Brown, who inarguably captured the imagination of the racing public for a few months last year, beyond his run at a Triple Crown.
In discussing that run, Francis observed of Big Brown’s Belmont loss, “Horse racing fans everywhere [were] devastated,” a bit of an overstatement.
The show also featured segments on jockeys and trainers, both of which were informative and detailed, offering examples of the risks and profits involved with these jobs. It did seem odd to me that, while discussing the Derby wins by several prominent jockeys, the names of the horses they rode to those titles are never mentioned.
In fact, horses played a curiously small role in the program–Big Brown was shown over and over (and over and over), but few other notable Derby winners were mentioned by name.
Featured prominently in these segments were Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron, and Bobby–ahem, “Robert,” as he’s called here—Frankel. Also quoted was Lincoln Collins, “Thuroughbred Consultant.” Oops. This misspelled title was shown twice in the last fifteen minutes of the program. Collins suggested that some trainers get to the Derby year after year because they have an “intuitive understanding” of how to train a horse to get there. I suppose that’s possible, but it might have been worth noting that those annual Derby trainers are also likely the ones who get the most promising colts. Collins’ comments implied that it’s the skill of the trainer, not the quality of the horse, that matters most.
The closing moments of the show discussed, briefly, the role of drugs in racing, painting in fairly broad strokes and including images of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez for dramatic effect. Francis noted that trainers had been found administering “steroids and other illegal drugs [emphasis mine] to their horses,” suggesting that trainers who had given their horses steroids had done something wrong, when in fact until recently, steroids were perfectly legal in the sport.
Frankel offered this perspective: “Everybody’s trying to win, and they’ll do anything they can to win a race as long as they don’t get caught.” He added, “It’s a little frustrating to get beat by someone you think is cheating.” But wait…didn’t you just stay that everybody—everybody—is cheating?
It was something of a relief that while each segment contained at least some connection to the economic elements of racing, those connections were woven into stories about the sport that would appeal even to those not particularly interested in the money side of the game. The show will air again on Saturday night at 7 pm on CNBC, and it’s a good general overview of racing with a focus on the Derby. Regular followers of the sport are not likely to learn much new, but even for the experienced, it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour.