Thursday, August 18, 2011

Victor Espinoza donates $10,000 for racetrack grooms

Angela Valverde of CTHF, groom Steve Kenny, Kevin Bolling and Mary Forney of CTHF, and jockey Victor Espinoza.

In a winner’s circle ceremony following Wednesday’s second race at Del Mar, Jockey Victor Espinoza presented a check in the amount of $10,000 to the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation (CTHF), to be used exclusively to assist southern California racetrack grooms. The check represented Espinoza’s total earnings at Del Mar Racetrack for Aug. 10-14, a week during which he had 3 wins, 5 seconds, and 4 third-place finishes from 25 starts.

Espinoza, a 39-year-old native of Mexico City, is one of the nation’s leading riders with more than 2,800 career victories and over $143,600,000 in earnings. He holds 11 southern California meet titles including three at Del Mar, where he had a record-setting seven victories on Labor Day, Sept. 4, 2006. Through Sunday, Aug. 13, he was ranked 7th in the jockey standings with 10 wins from 88 starts for the meet.

Espinoza said he came up with the idea of riding for a week on behalf of the grooms because they are so often overlooked even though they are such a vital part of horse racing.

“The grooms are important for everybody in horse racing” said Espinoza. “They take care of the horses more than anybody, sometimes 24 hours a day.”

CTHF chairman, Ken Smole, said, "Victor’s generous gift will be of enormous benefit to the racetrack grooms in Southern California. It is a thoughtful and admirable act. His gift is also very timely,” Smole added, “as the economic challenges in the racing industry over the past few years have led to decreases in CTHF's sources of funding."

CTHF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in the community of stable workers occupied with the care of Thoroughbred racehorses at California’s major racetracks, fair circuit tracks and state recognized off-track training centers. CTHF administers medical and dental services through its on-track clinics, making health care accessible and affordable for more than 5,000 backstretch workers and their families.

Thoroughbred racing spends millions… but not on TV

Zenyatta in the paddock before the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Last month, Forbes released its list of the 15 “Richest Sporting Events in the World.” Amazingly, three thoroughbred races made that list, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The other two were the Japan Cup and the Dubai World Cup. Even more amazing was the following statement by Forbes writer Monte Burke:

“Five of the 15 spots on our inaugural list of the sporting events with the biggest prize money are occupied by soccer tournaments. Only horse racing, with three races, comes close.” (emphasis added)

That’s right. Horse racing beat out golf, poker, football, baseball, and auto racing for total prize money.

With that type of money at stake, one would assume that horse racing must also support a concomitant investment in television broadcast coverage of its big events, the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. However, as anyone closely involved with thoroughbred racing knows, that has simply not been the case. In fact, one of the most commonly voiced complaints in the business is about the general lack of network television coverage of the sport – the type of coverage that would lure new fans to horse racing. A look at average television ratings for horse racing’s major events over the past five years validates those complaints.

Television ratings, which represent the percentage of TV homes in the U.S. tuned into television, are woefully low for racing’s big events when compared to most other televised sporting events.

In his article entitled “TV Ratings and Horse Racing: The Big-Event Phenomenon,” Seattle sports writer and blogger Matt Gardner compared the television ratings for some of the top sporting events in the U.S. over the last five years. Not surprisingly, Breeders’ Cup Saturday had an average rating of 1.0, compared to 42.5 for the Super Bowl. The Triple Crown races fared a little better than Breeders’ Cup with ratings of 9.2 for the Kentucky Derby, 6.5 for the Preakness, and 4.6 for the Belmont.

“These ratings crystallize the notion that American TV viewers, for the most part, like to watch ‘the big event,’ regardless of whether they follow that same sport on non-event days,” Gardner said. Horse racing’s Triple Crown falls into that “big event” category, and is widely viewed as the sport’s biggest stage.

“The fractured nature of horse racing, with every track and every state forming essentially their own league, is another reason why the impact of television is lessened, at least in a direct revenue sort of way,” said Gardner. “There is no doubt that TV has the ability to attract new fans, but it's more of a long-term growth strategy than instant financial impact.”

The Jockey Club has taken a first step towards implementing that long-term growth strategy. Based on recommendations in its report, “Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding,” released at its recent Round Table conference in Saratoga Springs, NY, The Jockey Club has pledged to underwrite the production of a national television series in 2012.

Although plans for the television series, including format, have not been finalized, Jockey Club president, James Gagliano, indicated that the organization is in discussions with major national networks for a series that could range from recaps of major races to a reality-type racing show.

This is encouraging news for the horse racing industry, but there are other hurdles that must be overcome if racing is to be successful in bringing major television coverage to the masses. The biggest issue is the format of the broadcasts, which must be tailored to an audience with an increasing appetite for quick-paced action and a decreasing attention span. Racing will have to find ways to deal with the down time between races, particularly on multi-race big event days like the Breeders’ Cup, in order to hold viewers’ attention.

But, the biggest hurdle always being funding, the Jockey Club’s initiative is a long-awaited step towards a long-term solution to the problem.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Del Mar to hold ‘Battle of the Exes’ match race Aug. 7

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club will present the "Battle of the Exes," a match race involving formerly-engaged jockeys Chantal Sutherland and Hall of Famer Mike Smith on Sunday, August 7.

Besides the one-on-one battle that match races automatically engender, the event holds special interest because of the history between Smith and Sutherland, whose romance played out publicly and to great interest by racing fans in the two-year Animal Planet television series “Jockeys.”

The match will be only the fifth in 72 summers of racing at the seaside oval. The previous ones were the heralded 1938 duel won by Seabiscuit over Ligaroti, widely considered “The Race that Put Del Mar on the Map;” the 1994 “Showdown at the Seashore” in which Soviet Problem under Chris McCarron, bested Mamselle Bebette and Corey Nakatani; the 2002 “Mule Duel at Del Mar” in which Black Ruby, known as “the best ass in the West,” continued dominance over archrival Taz; and the 2003 “Battle of the Sexes” in which Patrick Valenzuela aboard Chester’s Choice won by a nose over Hall of Fame rider Julie Krone on Woke Up Dreamin.

Smith, 45, inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2003 and the regular rider for 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, is approaching 5,000 winners with mounts that have earned more than $217 million during his 29 years in the saddle.

Sutherland, who only has been riding for 11 years, is approaching 900 winners and purses of nearly $43 million. The 35-year-old scored the biggest victory of her career when she captured the Santa Anita Handicap aboard Game On Dude earlier this year.

Two maidens, plus an “also eligible” backup, have been selected by Racing Secretary Tom Robbins, based on comparable ability. The horses are 3-year-old geldings seeking their initial career wins. The two chosen starters are Joker Face, trained by Peter Eurton and Parable, trained by Carla Gaines. The “also eligible,” who will be ready to substitute if necessary, is Tapfortexas, trained by Mike Machowsky.

Joker Face has started four times with two runner-up finishes for earnings of $16,660. Parable’s statistics are 8 0-1-2 for $21,940 in earnings. Tapfortexas is 7 0-1-1 with earnings of $15,024.

The preliminaries for the event will commence on Wednesday, Aug. 3 at 12:30 in the track’s paddock/walking ring, where a blind draw will be held to assign mounts for the one-mile, main track race. The draw and subsequent press conference will be open to the public.