Monday, May 28, 2018
2012: The Mayan Prophecy and Horse Racing

Did you watch the pilot episode for HBO's highly anticipated new horse racing drama Luck Sunday night? Without an HBO subscription I could not. Somewhere around one million viewers did check it out. Keep that number in mind -- it's an important figure that we'll get to later.

The reviews have me quite interested though as no one, inside or outside racing, seems to quite know what to make of Luck or what direction it will take. I guess if you went in expecting to like it or dislike it, you probably did.

Apparently the pilot episode featured a graphic depiction of a breakdown. This is creator David Milch informing viewers in no uncertain terms that Luck is not Disney's Secretariat, and that there's plenty more where that came from. And slapping them in the face in the process. Sign me up. "Raw and unflinching" always gets my attention. All those viewers and racing fans horrified and put off by the realism have several weeks to compose themselves before the series begins in earnest. They'll be back. And I'll have HBO.

Out of Luck on Sunday night, I chose a very different viewing option. A documentary on Discovery channel about 240px-MayanCalendarapocalyptic propechies based on the ancient Mayan calendar caught my eye. It was very interesting to learn how the Mayan prophecy has been widely misinterpreted. Forget planetary upheaval and cataclysm... think instead of a new cycle, an awakening. Basically a very significant, but not necessarily violent, change.

And there just may be a connection between the Mayan prophecy and horse racing. You see, I've dug into this a bit and made some rather startling discoveries. The end of the Mayan calendar does not coincide with "end times", as many have incorrectly suggested. Rather, it coincides with a transition from one age to another. Our resistance or acceptance of the core changes that accompany this transition dictate how violent or peaceful the new age is born.

This is where it gets interesting since I think the Mayans had horse racing firmly in mind when they predicted this dramatic awakening. Now you might correctly wonder "But the Mayans didn't know about horses, much less race them." That's true. The Mayans' initial exposure to horses brutally coincided with subjugation by Spanish conquistadors on horseback.

But consider this. The elaborate Maya number system was base-20, and the Mayan ritual calendar followed a base-13 and base-20 paradigm. As we all know, the Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters. Transpose the numbers in Secretariat's winning margin in the Belmont, 31 lengths, and you have 13. Spooky, I know. There's more.

In modern-day Guatemala, descendants of the ancient Mayans celebrate El Dia de los Muertos every year right around the same time as the Breeders' Cup. The highlight of this racous festival features horse racing accompanied by ceremonial alcoholism, much like our annual Preakness Stakes.

I think you will agree that the evidence is overwhelming: The ancient Mayans prophesized that the year 2012 would usher in a new age for horse racing and be remembered as a year of transition, maybe even a renaissance of sorts.

But how might horse racing change itself for the better, or be changed for the better by external forces? There is no shortage of possibilities.

Maybe 2012 will be the year those thorny issues of illegal drugs and raceday medications are finally dealt with swiftly and with consensus. Could be, right? Lasix-free racing is all the talk. But it seems like there is a long road still ahead though, and you would have to consider 2011 to be the year this transition started to gather momentum anyway.

What about pari-mutuel takeout rates? Will 2012 see industry-wide cooperation and dedication to optimize, as best we can, takeout rates to the benefit of all? Not likely, but even glacial movement is movement. The industry though, at this time, is not sufficiently motivated, convinced, and properly structured to accomplish this.

Perhaps... just maybe... from a high-level perspective... 2012 is the year that the Thoroughbred racing industry casts aside decades of being product-centric and becomes market-centric. This is my favorite scenario, but realistically this kind of shift cannot occur suddenly. It will require a cultural change, a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about how to solve problems. Thoroughbred racing is not there yet.

But I think I know what the prophesized new era will be about. And it's right in front of our eyes. It's TV. More to the point, it's horse racing on TV.

That kind of brings us back to Luck. The talent driving this production, both in front of and behind the camera, is such that its probabilty of success is quite high. Dustin Hoffman, c'mon. What remains to be seen though is how the sport and business of horse racing is portrayed. Will it simply reinforce tired, flawed stereotypes? Will it present horse racing as something compelling? Will it cause viewers to want to learn more and, dare I say, visit a racetrack? Who knows. It's tempting to say any exposure is good exposure, but this one can cut both ways. Now Luck may play a part, doesn't it always? But in terms of TV I'm going in a different direction and looking to a very large peacock.

First let's try to characterize the landscape of Thoroughbred racing on TV. Searching for a single word to describe it and the best I can come up with is Weird.

Think about it. We've got TVG and HRTV piping racing into our homes (well some of our homes) every day. It's a good thing and daily horseplayers and core fans are well-served by it. But these channels exist at the fringes of your channel line-up and likely have a very high channel number. Cheap real estate. The average viewer does not typically find these channels unless they are lost, or drop the remote.

Beyond that we have the Triple Crown races, including most prominently the Kentucky Derby. These telecasts, especially the Derby, are major sporting and social events that draw many millions of viewers who will not watch any other televised horse racing throughout the year.

In comparison, the climactic end to the year in Thoroughbred racing, the Breeders' Cup World Championships, are virtually ignored by mainstream TV viewers. This is kind of like if first round games of March Madness were wildly popular and highly watched while the championship game was an afterthought.

No easy answers are around the corner in terms of boosting Breeders' Cup viewership. Why won't they watch? Let's get some feedback from the Twittersphere.

BCbsMr. Findley's brief but direct comments represent a seemingly major obstacle. College football is always a viewing option on Breeders' Cup Saturday.

BCnc2And Mr. Evans echos Mr. Findley's sentiment. They want to watch the Hogs, but the Breeders' Cup is on. I wonder if they are Nielsen households?

BCncMr. Avalos gives us a slightly more nuanced argument. But Mr. Avalos, people do care about horse racing on TV, at least in May. Let me explain what the Breeders' Cup is...

BCnfFinally, Mr. Boldt offers us a note of optimism, sort of. The reality is the college football TV lineup was pretty weak this year on Breeders' Cup Saturday. Which means that if it were strong... the BC rating would be... oh

The Breeders' Cup has simply not penetrated the sports fan's psyche. But it needs to if there will ever be a Thoroughbred racing "season" with the kind of continuity and closure that sports fans expect and identify with.

So with the current landscape of Thoroughbred racing on TV being fragmented and clumsy, in walks that giant peacock known as NBC.

NBC will bring us the Triple Crown series in 2012 start to finish, and quite a bit more.

A brand new addition to TV will be the telecast of six major Kentucky Derby prep races, the costs of which will be underwritten by the Jockey Club as part of a long-term plan to invigorate the sport. Compared with 2011, when I'm pretty sure there weren't any nationally televised Derby preps, this will mark a gigantic leap forward.

Churchill Downs, having covered the costs for a few televised preps two years ago, must have been downright giddy to learn of these planned telecasts. This will almost assuredly bump Derby viewership a bit, never at a loss for eyeballs to begin with.

Not to be a downer, but these planned Kentucky Derby prep telecasts will not achieve stellar ratings. Or even good ratings. The NBC telecast will likely attract no more than one million viewers. And the NBC Sports Network and CNBC telecasts will attract less than half that many. Basically, it will be the core audience tuning in. Just as they did for the Summer at Saratoga and Autumn at Keeneland programs this year.

And the core audience for Thoroughbred racing on TV, one million or so viewers in their 50s and 60s, is not exactly an advertiser's dream. But NBC knows this. You can imagine the other networks whispering behind NBC's back. "I wonder what she sees in him. She can do better."

What does NBC see in Thoroughbred racing? We're about to find out. And here's the kicker... NBC is going to go right at ESPN with the rebranded NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) starting on January 2 and try to make a dent in the Worldwide Leader's sports media dominance. And horse racing is coming along for the ride.

Besides the Nielsen TV ratings, is there any entrenched entity more overdue for legitimate competition than ESPN? And make no mistake the NBC Sports Network is in it for the long haul.

Could this be the dramatic game-changer that the Mayans envisioned centuries ago? Let's have some fun thinking about the possibilities.

Imagine promotional spots for the Travers Stakes during the Olympics. Or a promo for the Kentucky Derby prep series during the Super Bowl. Sunday Night Football spots for the Breeders' Cup? (Ok, I'm assuming NBC is interested in taking over the BC from ESPN). Maybe a SportsCenter-like sports news show on the NBC Sports Network that actually covers horse racing on a routine basis. Not to mention the digital push. You get the idea.

This is a monster of a promotional machine the likes of which Thoroughbred racing has never imagined. And promote it they will. NBC will build TV ratings for horse racing. If nothing else, to prove to the NFL and MLB that they can work magic. "Just look at what we did with horse racing. We have skills and great power. Let's talk".

Let's take it a step further and pretend that raceday production is reimagined somewhat to allow for viewer education. The Breeders' Cup has failed to demystify the sport to the mainstream (one of its original objectives). And production probably has had a lot to do with that. Even the very first Breeders' Cup telecast, perhaps ironically on NBC, was criticized on this point.

Instead of status quo coverage, maybe make it standard procedure not to use racetrack jargon without first explaining it. Don't talk about the morning line without telling viewers how it is created.

And take the opportunity to educate viewers when curiosity seekers and casual fans outnumber core fans by a boatload. That means the Triple 500px-Alton_brownCrown series. Surely during those many hours of Kentucky Derby coverage there must be room for a few brief but entertaining segments that explain both the basics and nuances of pari-mutuel wagering.

Make these segments fun and engaging. Use someone like Alton Brown to be the host and teacher. Better yet, use Alton Brown. Is he a horseplayer? No matter, his Food Network buddy Bobby Flay can twist his arm.

Can you see it? Alton Brown explaining the finer points of trifecta part-wheels. Pinch me.

Now, the onus to educate viewers is hardly on NBC. But I could not imagine vehement protests should the production go in this direction in small doses. It's long overdue.

So where were we? It's mid-2012 and Thoroughbred racing is rocking in front of sports fans on the NBC family of channels. At an entirely different level, HBO's Luck is doing its thing in front of many non-sports fans (horse racing's sweet spot).

Don't look now, but the Travers Stakes on NBC drew three million viewers. Maybe more. Game-changer. The Mayans called it.

In 2013 or 2014, those televised Kentucky Derby prep races, and Summer at Saratoga... maybe NBC is now paying Thoroughbred racing for the rights. And the Breeders' Cup telecast can hold its own against the Hogs.

Of course, I could be dead wrong about all of this. I bet on horse races for fun and profit... I'm wrong much of the time and pretty well used to it. But you have to admit the potential is there... it's all there... but...

If I'm right then company is coming over and the house is a mess. Exposure, awareness, and increasing involvement are all fine and good but Thoroughbred racing has many problems that need fixing. We want these fresh faces to like what they find.

240px-EinarmbanditNot to mention that when all these enthusiastic novices come out to the racetrack, enchanted by what they've seen on TV, they have to be able to find the horses. They did not count on having to navigate through a forest of slot machines. We've got some explaining to do.