A Tale of Two Races

Wandering around Churchill Downs last week, anticipating a big race, I thought about the last time I was there: last November, for the Breeders’ Cup. That was, of course, the Zenyatta Breeders’ Cup: no matter what else happened that weekend, it was all about her, all about the Classic. She was the story on the backstretch in the days leading up to the race, she engendered national buzz, she was trying to cap a perfect career.

It was different this time. While much of the focus was on Uncle Mo and the “will he or won’t he” story, attention scattered across the Churchill backside. There was Mucho Macho Man and the story of his female trainer with the heart transplant; Pants on Fire and the female jockey; Nick Zito with yet another promising Derby starter. Oh, yeah, and there was Derby Kitten, too (well, for me, anyway). The star of the show had yet to be determined.

The Derby, after all, is really about a beginning. The Classic last November was about an ending. This race, the Derby, is about creating a legacy; the Classic was about sealing one.

Tension and nervous energy infused the crowd at Churchill last fall. We knew how much was at stake, knew what a win for Zenyatta would mean; knew, too, what a loss would mean. Excitement battled with uneasiness, and even a little sadness. Win or lose, Zenyatta wouldn’t race again.

The Breeders’ Cup was about an ending, and the Derby is about a beginning: some horse was about to take its place in racing history, to begin Triple Crown dreams that might last for only two weeks, or for a lifetime. The Derby is, in a sense, all about looking forward.

Zenyatta’s loss last November deflated Churchill Downs. As writers began to file stories, the mood was sober, wistful, nearly elegiac. Last Saturday, ebullience replaced soberness as the story simply came together: the trainer who’d lost his “top” horse less than a week before the Derby had made it to the winner’s circle, with a jockey whose mount had dropped out the previous day. For Graham Motion and John Velazquez, for their fans and for anyone with a love for narrative, this year’s Kentucky Derby offered satisfaction.

It might have felt a little anti-climactic, but perhaps only in comparison to the Classic, and maybe it’s not a fair comparison. That Classic was epic, the culmination of years of anticipation, starring a once-in-a-lifetime horse. We won’t see its likes again any time soon.

But nor do we need to. This year’s Derby offered all we could really hope for: likeable winners, juicy prices, and plenty of stories to tell. And while it might lack the drama of that other race last November, it also offers something that the Classic couldn’t: the chance to see these horses again.

On to Baltimore…

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Races

  1. And this may very well be the last Derby contested in daylight if as rumored in some circles the April 30 opening night card at Churchill (which drew 38,000, a record for any day other than the Derby, Oaks or Breeders’ Cup) was a “dress rehearsal” for the 2012 Derby being the first contested at night. I think we are headed that way next year after the Derby this year drew a 9.7 rating on NBC:

    Given the huge surge in NBA TV ratings this spring, continuing a trend from the regular season (that perhaps started with LeBron James’s “Descision” last July that on ESPN actually was the overall highest-rated program in prime time that week, the first time I believe outside of Monday Night Football that has ever happened for a cable program?), the drop in Derby ratings from 10.3 the past two years to 9.7 was not really that surprising, however, that 9.7 rating likely was still good enough to be in the top five TV programs of the week if it qualified for prime time, and for a severely ratings-challenged network like NBC, good enough to be the top-rated show if it were in prime time. This has been one of the reasons why I think we will see the Derby in prime time in 2012 for the first time, most likely with NBC’s telecast moved back to 7:00-10:00 PM ET with post time for the Derby at 9:30 PM ET. NBC’s new parent Comcast I’m sure is going to want the Derby in prime time whether Churchill wants it or not, but even if that weren’t enough, the fact the Asia-Pacific region can’t be ignored also is likely we will see the 2012 Derby in prime time.

    Further expanding on how much NBA TV ratings have surged this season, it was noted that the game on ESPN the Derby aired opposite, a Western Conference Semifinal Thunder-Grizzlies got a 2.9 rating on ESPN. That game tipped just after 5:00 PM ET, and was UP 71% over an Eastern Conference Semifinal (Magic-Hawks) in the same slot a year ago that unlike this year did NOT have to air directly opposite the Derby telecast on NBC (the Derby was a week earlier last year as opposed to this year) or anything remotely similar to the Derby.

    The NBA ratings this spring are up substantially from recent years. The Celtics-Heat game on ABC at 8:15 PM ET Saturday was up 30% from Lakers-Jazz last year (while the corresponding NASCAR Race, which last year also was NOT on the same night as the Derby was down 10%), and the two Sunday playoff games were up substantially as well: Lakers-Mavericks (3:30 PM ET) was up 27% on ABC from Celtics-Cavaliers and Bulls-Hawks (8:00 PM ET) was up 31% from Suns-Spurs. That shows what has been happening with the NBA, and why if I were at NBC, I’d be very pleased with the 9.7 rating for the Derby and would push for it to be at night (which is looking to be the case anyway next year) given the sudden severe upturn the NBA TV ratings have seen throughout the 2010-’11 season.

  2. Oh good grief, I hope they don’t run the Derby at night next year. I was at CD’s opening “day” Downs After Dark this year and it was awful.

  3. If this is the same marshall cassidy I remember-most eloquent of race callers. In 1980, one of your greatest calls was the Ruffian in which I and my parents had more than a passing wish. Jack, Heywood, Jimmy, and Charsie-all admirers of you.

  4. agree with others, beautiful column, and as always a thoughtful perspective on two days of racing. On the TV broadcast Saturday right after the win, Barry Irwin commented that he changed trainers because others lied to him. When pressed for which trainers lied, he replied “all of them.” Jeez. What a nice thing to say on national TV. What’s his gripe? At that point we turned off the TV and headed to the kitchen for our mint juleps. He’s made it hard for me to get excited about Animal Kingdom, but mostly hard to be excited for Team Valor.

  5. Lynne,

    Barry Irwin is probably one of the only good guys left in a mostly cuthtroat sport. What he spoke was the truth-sometimes hard to fathom.

  6. Kathy and I will be hanging in the Clubhouse downstairs at Pimlico on Preakness Day if you have some free moments. Maybe this is the Triple Crown year? Stranger things have happened.

  7. For Alex,
    Thanks for your comments on Barry Irwin. Steve Haskin’s recent Bloodhorse post from Fair Hill also made it clear that Irwin is doing right by his horses. I’m happy to add him to my list of good guys.

  8. Lynne, I’m with you on Irwin’s comments, before your change of heart. In my opinion, his comment was unfair and inappropriate.

    Rich – great to hear from you. Would love to say hello this weekend. Text/call when we’re there?

    Marshall, you are too kind, as always.

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