Breeders' Cup officials are trying to put on happy faces about the second $10-million series of races at Aqueduct on Nov. 2, but behind the public facade, they must be wringing their hands over the disappointing ratings for NBC's four-hour telecast.
The seven races were filled with quality international fields, five of the horses won by margins of a length or less and NBC's program was only a tad beneath its award-winning performance in the Breeders' Cup debut at Hollywood Park a year ago.
Yet, the estimated 15 million viewers represented a 17% decrease from the first year, not an encouraging sign for an event that was conceived primarily to acquaint people with a sport that has stagnated in the marketplace.
The astonishing thing about this year's Breeders' Cup ratings is that the top two cities were Denver and Dallas. Not the two so-called racing strongholds of New York and Los Angeles, but Denver and Dallas.
Denver is the city where such storied tracks as Centennial and Arapahoe Park have gone belly up, mainly because dog racing is more popular.
Dallas, as geography scholars know, is still in Texas, a state that has rejected the legalization of horse racing so often that the future of the sport there is almost a dead issue.
New York finished third in the ratings, not really close to Denver and Dallas, and fewer New Yorkers watched the races this year than last, even though they were run in their own backyard and had been sufficiently ballyhooed by the local newspapers.
You can't say that New Yorkers chose to go to the track instead of watching on TV, because the crowd of 42,568 at Aqueduct was not extraordinary.
Los Angeles tied for fifth with Boston in the ratings, just behind Philadelphia. It has become convenient to write off the West Coast ratings because the telecast started at an early hour, 9:30 a.m., but you would have thought the interest in New York might have counterbalanced that disadvantage.
Almost $6 million was bet on the races at off-track betting shops in New York. Wouldn't many of those bettors have tuned in to see how their horses were running?
Either they didn't, or they all went to watch at their favorite bars, where the empirical ratings system doesn't measure viewers.
The Breeders' Cup completed a disastrous year for racing on television:
--The Kentucky Derby had the lowest rating in the 25 years it has been measured.
--The audience for the Preakness Stakes dropped 43% from the previous year.
--The ratings for the Belmont Stakes improved a negligible 6%.
--CBS canceled its coverage of the Jockey Club Gold Cup from Belmont Park, mainly because track officials wouldn't change the post time to accommodate a football telecast and also because the network was in strained negotiations to renew the Belmont Stakes contract.
"Maybe television is the wrong barometer for judging racing," an NBC executive said after the Breeders' Cup.
If that is true, the Breeders' Cup, despite its artistic success, is destined to be only an extension of the entire sport--an event embraced by the hard core, but of only passing interest to the rest of the country.
Because of the topsy-turvy results in the Breeders' Cup, which hurt as many horses as it helped in terms of divisional titles, Precisionist has emerged as one of the compromise candidates in the Horse of the Year picture. Any winner of Horse of the Year will be a compromise, because no one horse dominated throughout the season.
Trainer Laz Barrera, who's Affirmed won consecutive Horse of the Year titles in 1978-79, would vote for Precisionist if he had a ballot.
"When he won the Strub series, he was the best horse in the world," Barrera said of Precisionist. "Then he had some physical problems (bruised feet), but still won a stake (the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap) at Hollywood Park. Then he came back after being out more than four months and won the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
"So he won at a distance early in the year, won in the middle of the year, then overcame injuries to beat the best sprinters at the end of the year. That should be enough to give him the title."
Owner Fred Hooper has won a Kentucky Derby, with Hoop Jr. in 1945, and five Eclipse Awards, three with Susan's Girl and two for being voted outstanding breeder, but has never had a Horse of the Year. Two more races at Hollywood Park--the National Sprint Championship Nov. 30 and the Native Diver Handicap Dec. 21--are being considered for Precisionist.
Victories in those stakes would refresh voters' memories about Precisionist's talents. The 4-year-old probably has already clinched the Eclipse for sprinting. But Hooper must weigh what losses in the two races would do to Precisionist's Horse of the Year chances. In 1982, Hooper appeared to have the 2-year-old colt title in the bag with Copelan, who had won four straight New York stakes going into November. But Copelan lost at the Meadowlands and was beaten by Roving Boy in the Hollywood Futurity in December. He finished second to Roving Boy in the voting.
Racing Notes Lou Eilken, the racing secretary at Santa Anita for the last 12 years, has retired, but will continue to work as director of racing at Canterbury Downs, a track near Minneapolis that is partly owned by Santa Anita. Tom Robbins, racing secretary for Oak Tree, will replace Eilken. . . . Slew the Dragon, who has won five straight grass races in New York, is scheduled to run Sunday in the $250,000 Hollywood Derby. He'll be ridden by Jorge Velasquez, who with his two wins in the Breeders' Cup has moved into second place in the national jockey standings with purses of more than $10 million. . . . Expected to start in Saturday's $100,000 Citation Handicap is Lord at War, who won the Citation last year. Lord at War hadn't started in almost four months before his win in the Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita on Oct. 27