The Nielsen overnight ratings for the Kentucky Derby are in, and it’s no surprise that the Louisville area ranked number 1 in viewership, with 67% of televisions there tuned in to the big race. As Joe Drape noted in his post over on the NY Times' The Rail blog, the top 10 included markets in traditional horse country—Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia and Florida—but he couldn’t readily explain the fifth top market: Pittsburgh (15.0 rating/30%).
Being a Pittsburgher, allow me to shed a superficial light on this phenomenon—Pittsburghers are sports-crazy. Period. Believe me (and a thousand pardons to my dear Quinella Queen), just-over-the-border Mountaineer isn’t on the radar of most Pittsburghers, and neither are Presque Isle or The Meadows. However, any “big” sporting event is a must-watch in the ‘Burgh because we’re old-fashioned like that. I noted back in 2007, when the Nielsen ratings came back for the Belmont Stakes that Pittsburgh was the fifth-highest marketplace when Rags to Riches beat Curlin. Ah, classic!
As I said, that’s the superficial answer. However, I suspect there is a much deeper interest for Pittsburghers, one that doesn’t readily or openly manifest itself in this hilly, blue-collar region of Appalachia where thoroughbred horse racing farms are, well, non-existent. Still, the city and surrounding area has a long history with the sport, beginning with one of the founding fathers of horseplayers, George E. Smith, aka Pittsburg Phil who has been so wonderfully covered by fellow TBA blogger Colin’s Ghost. I’ve also previously discussed Pittsburgh Steelers’ founder Art Rooney and his prodigious handicapping abilities which helped finance his losing football team for decades.
Another Pittsburgh connection: from 1945 to 1985, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates was John W. Galbreath, who also owned Darby Dan Farm. As a breeder, Galbreath stood such champions as Swaps, Ribot, Sea Bird II and Sword Dancer. He also raced Kentucky Derby winners Chateaugay and Proud Clarion, Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current, and Epsom Derby winner Roberto—named for the late great Pirate Roberto Clemente. Additionally, he was at one time chairman of Churchill Downs, and in the early 1950s oversaw the construction of Aqueduct and the rebuilding of Belmont Park.
It’s not just those who were long-time team sports owners, but also progeny of wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists who ended up invested in the "Sport of Kings." Pittsburgh-born Paul Mellon—son of banking scion and U.S. Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon—owned Rokeby Stables, who raced, among others, Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, Epsom Derby and Arc winner Mill Reef, and Belmont Stakes victor Arts and Letters. Grandson of Carnegie Steel partner (and Pittsburgh native) Henry Phipps, Ogden Phipps twice won Eclipse awards for outstanding owner (1988, 1989) as well as outstanding breeder (1988) for champion filly Personal Ensign and Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer.
Yes, the Episcopalian Anglo-Saxon aristocracy of Pittsburgh for years retreated fifty miles east to Ligonier, and the Rolling Rock Club hunt races, until 1983, included the International Gold Cup which once automatically qualified horses for England’s Grand National Steeplechase. Now, perhaps they are more interested in golf than horses, but there’s still a great deal of “old” money in Pittsburgh, although certainly not enough alone to quantify the Nielsen numbers.
Apart from the aging bluebloods or other unknown x-factors, I think we should take it as encouraging that a non-thoroughbred-industry region like Pittsburgh still enjoys watching horse racing—and that was even before Mine That Bird’s upset. Maybe there is hope for the sport yet.