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Eric O'Keefe

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American Thoroughbred Racing Needs a Lifeline, and the Answer Can Be Found in Australia

Posted: 11/09/2009 3:30 pm

It's the sort of headline that demands a second look:

"Zenyatta Joins the Immortals with Sensational Breeders' Cup Win"

At more than 1,500 words, the accompanying article not only singled out the gallant charge of the 5-year-old mare down the stretch to beat her male rivals in North America's richest race yesterday -- "arguably the finest racemare in American racing history" -- but it highlighted other key contests on the second day of most important event in U.S. Thoroughbred racing, the Breeders' Cup World Championships.

Too bad it ran in Britain's Guardian. What's wrong with that? Because it sure would be nice if the American press gave a damn about horseracing.

Friday morning I stepped off a 14-hour flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles and got ready to make my way to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup. Naturally I picked up a copy of the Los Angeles Times. As I leafed through it, it was clear that jet lag had already set in. The only article I could find in sports about the races was about synthetic surfaces. It was one of those absurd moments when you know you just put your keys in your pocket only you can't find them anymore. There had to be something somewhere, only I was too frazzled from my flight to pick it out. It didn't take long for me to come to my senses. There was no article.

Think about that. If Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were about to tee off in the U.S. Open and you had a look at the local paper where the tournament was taking place, wouldn't you expect the event to be all over the place? Now what would you do if the Open were about to begin and the only story you could find was one about a group of groundskeepers arguing over the merits of one type of seeded Bermuda fairway green over another? You'd probably join the rest of America and stop reading newspapers.

With press like that is it any surprise that the racing industry in the U.S. is on life support? At Seabiscuit's final race in 1940, 78,000 watched him win the Santa Anita Handicap. On Friday, 37,651 showed up at the same California landmark for the biggest, richest race meet in North America. No wonder Santa Anita's parent company is in bankruptcy court.

The New York Times? I opened that paper this morning to find a whopping 200+ words devoted to the most memorable Thoroughbred race of the last decade. That's half the coverage the Times gave the Harvard-Columbia game and a fraction of what it devoted to an 18-year-old NBA hopeful dribbling his life away in obscurity in Israel.

Sure, the Daily Racing Form and the Thoroughbred Times went the distance on Zenyatta's epic performance, but those are industry rags. Racing is their beat. America's great dailies? They just don't get it. Zenyatta was anything but a narrow niche story. Minutes prior to the Classic, her sassy moves were critiqued by Len Goodman from Dancing With the Stars. How did the Brit score the long-legged mare? "10!" During the post parade, it was impossible to overlook the thousands of pink signs with "Girl Power" and "Maneater" dedicated to their heroine. You can imagine the endless ovation after she returned unbeaten.

I bring all this up because I just flew back from Australia, a country with one-tenth the population of the U.S. Yet the Australian racing industry is the envy of every racetrack operator in the States. There are not only more racetracks in Australia, there are more racetracks in Australia than in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain combined. The country's greatest racing event is a four-day meet called the Melbourne Cup Carnival, and like the Breeders' Cup it too ended on Saturday. Attendance on the first day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival was a tad over 107,000. That's right. More people packed into Flemington Racecourse for the first day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival than showed up at Santa Anita Park for two days of Breeders' Cup. And things were just getting going. Over the remaining three race days, the Victoria Racing Club hosted an additional 250,000, which is why it is Australia's largest single event.

The reason I'm so familiar with Australian racing is because I just wrote a book called The Cup. It's about one of the most emotion charged episodes in the history of the Australia's greatest race. I won't give away the storyline, but it goes without saying that Damien Oliver's journey to the winner's circle in the 2002 Melbourne Cup has been chosen as one of the greatest moments in the history of Australian sport. Over the past six years, I've been to Australia four times, researching the book and writing the script for the companion movie with the Australian director Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove, Free Willy).

So why is Thoroughbred racing alive and kicking Down Under? The obstacles they face are no different -- casino gambling, online competitors, and of course rising costs for everything under the sun. But I'll tell you what they do have going for them: the sort of press that champions a great story. (Not that synthetic surfaces isn't gripping material.)

Go to Google and punch in the words "Jake Stephens Alcopop." I just did this and links to 666 stories popped up. Was the 5-year-old gelding hailed as the next Secretariat? No. Was his owner a Whitney or a Mellon or, to use an Australian version of more money than God, a Murdoch? No. You know what Alcopop was? A story people wanted to read. For the last two weeks, Melbournians read about him in their three daily papers, and they watched his South Australian trainer on TV brushing off questions about the fact that he had taken out his license just a year ago. And Alcopop wasn't even this year's big news. Center stage belonged to 81-year-old Bart Cummings, a 12-time winner of the Melbourne Cup who had three runners in the race.

Guess what? Neither Alcopop nor any of Bart's runners won the Cup. So did the Australian media get this year's Melbourne Cup wrong? Not at all. The moment the Race That Stops the Nation concluded, the tabloids and the newspapers had a brand new story about a hard-luck trainer and a never-say-die jockey who believed in a great horse.

That's a lesson their American counterparts should take to heart ... before another track goes bankrupt.


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