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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Playing the Heartstrings Card

If you ask the common person on the street—someone who pays little or no attention to horse racing on a daily basis—to name any horse race, I guarantee you his or her answer would be the Kentucky Derby. It is an American cultural event shrouded in history and mystique, much like the Indianapolis 500, the World Series and the U.S. Open. The mainstream media, which virtually ignores horseracing the rest of the year, finally bestows its limelight on Churchill Downs. It is a time for our sport to shine, to open people’s eyes, minds and hearts to what we love about it—the excitement, the thrill, the challenge, the horses. While the dilettante is attracted emotionally to the sport, only with some degree of commitment do serious fans also intellectually connect. Therefore, while in an ideal world we would love people to instantaneously understand what exactas, trifectas and superfectas are, and appreciate the intricate differences between sprints and routes, turf and dirt (let alone cushion and polytrack), the emotional draw will have to suffice.

What “feel good” stories we will most likely see as the Kentucky Derby approaches? Unfortunately, Circular Quay’s workout running mate Rags to Riches will be running in the Oaks and not the Derby—God knows how the public loves a “girl vs. the boys” angle—i.e. Winning Colors, Genuine Risk, even Serena’s Song, who lost badly. However, there are still some nice stories to be told:

Tiago, half-brother of 2005 Kentucky Derby longshot winner Giacomo, who won the Santa Anita Derby as a 29-1 longshot. People love underdogs, especially those that seemingly come out of nowhere, and Tiago fits the bill. There will definitely be a segment of the population rooting for him, for his Giacomo connection as well as his likely longshot status.

Storm in May has three angles that are emotionally appealing—a veritable longshot who was purchased for only $16,000 at the 2-year-old Ocala sale, he is not only a beautiful gray/roan (which, for better or worse, is eye-catching for the casual fan since it makes him stand out when running, thus easier to follow), but also he is blind in his right eye. That’s correct—a one-eyed horse! Thankfully, he can see the rail just fine out of his good left eye, but here is a horse that doesn’t wear blinkers or any other type of eye protection when he runs, and he still competes on an elite level. People love that!

Curlin is the only undefeated entry. As much as people love underdogs, they love champs more, and if you ain’t been beat, then everyone is aiming for you. Especially considering the way in which he has dominated his races (regardless of quality of competition), some folks will be flocking to his corner.

Cobalt Blue is owned by Merv Griffin. For better or worse, America is obsessed with celebrity, and the creator of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune is one of the last great old-time Hollywood stars. And Merv is such a nice (albeit loquacious, even frisky!) guy…wouldn’t we all like to see him win?

Chime in with any additional “emotional” angles of which you are aware. Again, we are talking about how to draw new fans to the sport, by first gaining their attention, then, hopefully, educating them


On another topic, nice to know it’s not just me having problems trying to decide on a Derby favorite:

Normally, after the final round of major preps, odds-maker Mike Battaglia can identify his likely morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby, along with who might be the second and third choices. But in the wake of Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, Battaglia had this to say Sunday of his would-be Derby favorite: “I don't have a clue.” [Louisville Courier-Journal]

I will admit, however, that my list is narrowing, and the value of Scat Daddy and Any Given Saturday went up in my estimation since Pletcher has announced Edgar Prado and Garrett Gomez (respectively) will be up on each. I loved Circular Quay last fall coming into the Breeders Cup Juvenile, and his recent workouts (with Rags to Riches) have been impressive, yet I'm not a big John Velazquez fan. However, watching Prado and Gomez this winter, at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, and this spring at Keeneland, I find them both to be intelligent, classy jocks who are definitely at the top of their game right now.

And, finally, on another completely unrelated topic, one of my favorite old-timers, 8-year-old Danthebluegrassman is entered in Thursday’s 9th race at Keeneland, a $10,000 claiming race. I wish I had $10,000 :)