Maria Borell out as trainer of Runhappy, the BC TV Rating and things Breeders’ Cup should look at

Talk about a 180 in 24 hours or less:

Saturday afternoon (October 31), Maria Borell was on top of the world.  She had done what just a few months ago was unthinkable, completing Runhappy’s unlikely rise to the top with her win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint a couple of hours before American Pharoah’s becoming the first horse in the BC era to complete a three-year-old Grand Slam (the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses).  Literally as soon as the calendar switches from October to November, Ms. Borell is fired as the trainer of Runhappy after a dispute with management because she didn’t want to take him onto the track after he had “fill and heat” in one of his ankles.

While an owner has the right to do such, the way it happened here was wrong on ALL counts.  Just because the owner (or in this case, his sister-in-law who is the Racing Manager for Runhappy) wanted him out on the track doesn’t mean this was the best case.  Reaction as you can imagine was swift to her being let go as trainer of Runhappy, with the overwhelming amount of it being disgust and angst.  If I had a trainer say my horse had “fill and heat,” in an ankle, I would want to have him checked out as soon as possible before it potentially becomes worse.  Ms. Borell did the right thing here and I would think some owner who wants a trainer who thinks that way will want to give her horses.

On another front, as would have to be expected with American Pharoah making his final start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the TV ratings for the Breeders’ Cup were up, with the Classic on NBC up 46% over last year.  This is even more impressive when you consider other than with NBC and in a few other places, there was almost no coverage at all of the Breeders’ Cup save for brief segments on ESPN’s College Gameday and the SEC Network’s SEC Nation, especially with many in the New York metro area distracted by the Mets unexpected run to the World Series.

While on the surface that was an excellent increase in ratings, it likely also came with the age of the average viewer up sharply from the last three BC Classic telecasts that were in prime time on NBC while this year’s BC telecast was in the afternoon.  For advertisers, the overall rating does not matter so much because the long-held view is those who are 50 and older are unimportant because they are “stuck in their ways” and are not swayed by ads the ways those younger (and especially 18-34) are.  Even with evidence that this is not the case like it was say 10 years ago (when most famously legendary oldies station WCBS-FM (101.1) in New York was flipped to JACK that created a massive outrage to where it went back to oldies two years later), advertisers seem to refuse to believe this and continue to be obsessed with those 18-49 and completely ignore those over 50.  This often has major influence on what you see on television because advertisers are willing to pay considerably more to reach those 18-49, and especially those 18-34 (that make up “The Millennials,” or those who were born in 1981 or later).

These ratings, the ones that matter to advertisers likely were at best even if not down for this BC Classic (even with American Pharoah making his final start) because simply put, many younger often have things they have to do (often organized activities or errands) during the day on Saturday or in the case of many under 30 in particular consider events taking place in the daytime unimportant.  This is something people in Horse Racing seem to refuse to understand, especially those in the industry who are used to being up early in the day, not realizing especially with those who matter to advertisers they are not the norm in many cases and those outside the sport who are up early in the day in many cases only are because they have to be.

In my last blog, I wrote how for those who care about the sport, this Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland itself was a success and they deserve to host another BC.  That is true, but I also wrote in that blog how overall handle was actually down for a Breeders’ Cup that especially with the first Triple Crown winner of the BC era starting in the Classic should have been up.  In fact, it should have been up substantially given realistically for the first time in five years, people in the northeast were not either dealing with a massive storm in the days immediately before a BC or long-term repairs in the subsequent years after said storms.  As written in that blog, the loss in handle was likely due to four major factors:

  1. Friday BC Races being in the afternoon on the east coast. The five previous BCs all ran to about 7:45 PM ET and likely was heavily responsible for bringing younger patrons to simulcast locations.  With the Friday BC races taking place this time while many still had to be at work, these people were lost.
  2. Saturday BC Races starting in mid-morning on the west coast. With Keeneland not having lights, the Saturday BC races had to start at a very early hours in Los Angeles, San Francisco and everywhere else in the west (just after 9:00 AM Pacific Time).   While in the past, even when the BC was at Santa Anita this was the case, we are dealing more than ever with generations who do not want to necessarily be up at an early hour on a Saturday, even for an event like the BC.  A considerable amount of handle was likely lost because of people on the west coast likely still asleep or just waking up when the main BC races started.
  3. Loss of handle from Hong Kong. With the BC at a track without lights, this also meant the loss of what can be an important market for the future for BC wagering due to the BC taking place in the very early morning hours in Hong Kong.  It’s well known Asians love to bet as evidenced by the huge handles in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Hong Kong and Japan), and the loss of wagering from Hong Kong (even if only for a couple of races) likely had an impact on BC handle.
  4. The World Series being the same week as the BC. This is one as noted in my prior blog is something that in hindsight BC Ltd. should have seen coming as especially in New York, with all the talk being about the Mets in the World Series (to the extent where even NFL talk was squelched, which simply does not happen), many who don’t follow Horse Racing day-to-day may not have realized the BC was even taking place this week.  That likely also had an impact on handle that could have been avoided by moving the Breeders’ Cup back by one week (making whatever deals were need to do that) once it was known what the World Series dates would be last September.

In my view, had this Breeders’ Cup gone to 11:00 PM Eastern Time on both Friday and Saturday night and been one week later, we would have seen:

Handle on this Breeders’ Cup likely up substantially, as much as 20%, which would have returned handle to where it was in 2010, the last BC before this one not affected in any way by “100 year storms” (and that includes factoring in the there are two fewer BC races now than there were in 2010).

Seen television ratings much higher than they were for this Breeders’ Cup Classic, even though if the Breeders’ Cup had been a week later and the telecast on NBC had been in prime time, instead of the World Series it would have been airing directly opposite LSU-Alabama football on CBS.  While that game has in recent years become the biggest rivalry in the Southeastern Conference (the 2011 meeting between the schools actually set one of the precedents that gives NBC’s parent Comcast the right to demand lights at the Breeders’ Cup host so it can be in prime time even if that is not spelled out in contract language), that game is NOT a World Series game involving a team like the Mets that can alter the talk in sports to where even NFL talk gets squeezed.  If American Pharoah’s finale had been in prime time and away from the World Series, in my opinion the overall rating would have been at least double and more likely in the 6-7 rating range, which would have actually been a big number for Saturday night, a night where TV ratings are basically in the toilet.  The 18-49 rating (the one advertisers care about) likely would have also been at least double and more likely triple what it was, especially with many under 30 conditioned to think championship events must be in prime time to matter.

Moving forward, it became clearly obvious if Keeneland gets another chance to host the Breeders’ Cup, lights will need to be mandatory so the BC can be at night as this daytime BC happened when many were still at work on Friday and it was too early for many on Saturday.  While many in the sport and others would likely dread the Breeders’ Cup going to 11:00 PM Eastern Time (and loudly complain if it actually happened), this year suggests that may very well be necessary even if especially on the east coast people complain because handle should have been up considerably on this BC but was not.  In addition, many under 30 clearly are far more likely to be up for a Breeders’ Cup Classic that goes off around 10:35-10:40 PM Eastern Time as many such are conditioned to expect championship events to run to at least 11:00 PM on the east coast.  Mandating lights at any track hosting the Breeders’ Cup also allows if we again have a situation like this year where the World Series is a week later than it was originally expected to be held, it can more easily be pushed back a week (Keeneland was awarded this year’s BC before it was known the World Series would extend into November, which Major League Baseball has been adamant in the past about trying to avoid at all costs).

Another thing that needs to be addressed is what to do with Friday.  While many would really like to see the BC return to a one-day event even if it meant 13 races in one day, doing so really would mandate lights at any BC site for the simple reason that otherwise, the Breeders’ Cup program would have to start at mid-to-late morning local time, which would be way too early.  While another option would be to make the Breeders’ Cup a Saturday-Sunday event, there is that 800-pound gorilla known as the NFL the Breeders’ Cup would be going against.  That means we are likely stuck with having to have some BC races on Friday no matter what.

While since 2008 the Distaff has been the main event of the Friday Breeders’ Cup races, many real fans have been clamoring for that race to be returned to Saturday.  Given that, to me, Friday could be repackaged as “Future Friday” with ALL of the events for two year olds then and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile becoming the new Friday headliner.  In fact, ALL of the races on the Friday Breeders’ Cup program could be for two year olds, borrowing a page from Churchill Downs, which annually has two “Stars of Tomorrow” programs during their traditional fall meet during the late October-November period that just about bookend that meet. In addition to the four Breeders’ Cup races (with the turf races for each sex preceding their respective dirt races), there can be sprint races for each sex on each surface (using the same format as the actual BC races) and also four races for maidens eligible to the Breeders’ Cup (one for each sex at a spring and going a distance) that would carry enhanced purses.  Such likely would be appealing to NBC, which at worst could schedule an hour on Friday (with the other Friday BC races as all such were this year on NBCSN) for the Juvenile since such would be for many more casual fans their first look at the following year’s Derby contenders.

With Friday for two year olds, all of the Saturday races can be for older horses.  This would allow Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. returning to having the Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf and Classic return to being the final five BC races in their original order, though one order that could also be done could be this:

Filly and Mare Sprint (possibly renamed Distaff Sprint)
Turf Sprint
Dirt Mile
Filly and Mare Turf (possibly renamed Distaff Turf)

This order likely makes the most sense if all nine races for older horses are on the same day, since except for the Filly and Mare Sprint (which has no counterpart on turf), each division could have a turf race followed by a dirt race (though if the BC is at a track with two turf courses, the Mile and Dirt Mile could be flip-flopped since the Mile is an original BC race whereas the Dirt Mile was only added in 2007).

This format, with the rebranding of Friday to be “Future Friday,” a program entirely for two year olds and Saturday being entirely for older horses is likely the way to go.  That would give those who feel the Distaff should be on Saturday that back and for those who are not fond of two year old races a chance to fully focus on Saturday.  Meanwhile, more casual fans likely would see Friday as a chance to check out possible Derby horses to follow through the winter in a way where the Juvenile probably becomes a more important race with casual fans.

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