Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Primetime Churchill Case For Pharoah's Final Breeders Prep

Fanning speculation is a compliance no-no in my real line of work (equity research), but as the blogosphere is free game and handicapping horses involves elements of guesswork anyway, I have no reins in projecting American Pharoah's next race in preparation for the Breeders Cup on Halloween.

Call it a wild guess, but I'm saying American Pharoah will run on Saturday, September 19 at Churchill Downs, contrary to comments by owner Ahmed Zayat published Tuesday by the Courier-Journal's Jonathan Lintner that he'd prefer the Travers if his horse is sound.  

Here Me Out

The Asbury Park Press's Steve Edelson, who has covered pre- and post-Haskell 2015 masterfully, in my view, already articulated Monmouth Park's desire to bring Pharoah back to Oceanport for at least a $1 million under conditions dictated to Mr. Zayat.

Reading between the lines of Mr. Lintner's story this afternoon, however, a comment by Mr. Zayat about money not being the issue presumably eliminates the Pennsylvania Derby at PARX and, in all likelihood, the horse's return to Monmouth Park, as I see it.  

Haskell 2015 was very special to most who witnessed it, but my non-expert opinion is that a return could be a letdown and not as interesting a proposition to customers, who in the New York metro area are thinking NFL, college football and carting their kids from soccer game to soccer game.  

Photo from Courier-Journal
If 30,000 came out for a parade,
imagine how many would watch
American Pharoah race again
under the lights at Churchill
And using the movie business as a parallel, sequels frequently bomb, so I think a mid- to late-September return to Monmouth loses its luster as average attendance dips after Labor Day. 

Scratch Saratoga and California

I get the whole prestige thing with Saratoga and Del Mar, but my gut tells me the connections are interested in maximizing their opportunities for publicity and money with Pharoah before he goes to the stud farm following the Breeders Cup.

Similar to a boxing champion, I think they'd also be entirely justified (whether perceived or not) as ducking the challengers du jour, Texas Red and Frosted, in a potential Travers match-up.  

Mr. Zayat's comment on money otherwise underpins my contention that the extra $600,000 to sweeten the pot to ship Pharoah to the Spa would not be an overriding factor, much as it will not be in sending Pharoah to PARX or Monmouth instead.  

Made-For-TV Event The Key

I like to bet long-shots, and so I'll make such a pitch here that there are two major parties to the equation -- Churchill Downs and NBC -- that make Churchill, in primetime, viable on Saturday, September 19 and American Pharoah's best option for a final prep.

If you look at horse racing as a broader marketing vehicle, and NBC's stake in the mix as the Breeders Cup network, I think sending Pharoah to Saratoga or Del Mar does nothing to enhance the horse's brand or anything more than a slight ratings bump, at least in the case of the Travers, run in the late-afternoon on a Saturday in late-August when a lot of folks are on vacation.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I absolutely think television exposure is a big part of the equation, and the Travers lacks the brand equity to intrigue Mr. Zayat.  

Ties That Bind To Churchill

Now, think back to Triple Crown season, when Pharoah shacked up at Churchill Downs before the Belmont and after, then paraded in front of 30,000 there on June 13 in an NBC telecast

Churchill is clearly American Pharoah's home away from (California) home and the fans in Louisville are hungry for this horse and the sport, as evidenced by the whopping 24.4 rating and 44 share for Belmont Day -- by far the top viewing market in the nation that afternoon.

Combine a track that can accommodate 100,000-plus people and Churchill's financial heft as a publicly-traded entity, plus the potential for NBC to promote the track's already scheduled "Downs After Dark" and probably to quickly create and finance (and draw decent horses to) a race under the lights featuring the Triple Crown champ and heads would turn.  

Such an option, in my outsider position, would appeal highly to these connections, especially since that date is also just about halfway between the Haskell and the October 31 Breeders Cup, or "less squeezed" and taxing a schedule on Pharoah if, say, entered in late August for the Travers and perhaps a tune-up race in late September/early October.

Picture This

Source: www.theguardian.com
No matter what you're doing on the afternoon of Saturday, September 19, you cannot wait to get home from your kids' sports, family function, college football tailgate (yes, we do that here in New Jersey with Rutgers) or from whatever else you're doing that morning and afternoon and put your feet up on the couch and flip on American Pharoah's final prep race before the Breeders in primetime.

NBC already draws eyeballs on Saturday afternoons, so the Notre Dame crowd already tuned in for the 3:30 p.m. (ET) tilt vs. Georgia Tech might stay put just a little longer to catch a glimpse of the dynamic Triple Crown winner's return to Louisville, Kentucky...just down the road from where presumably he will cap off his illustrious racing career in Lexington on October 31.

American Pharoah would not need to ship from California to Saratoga back to California and potentially somewhere else in September in search of another prep for the Breeders.

Much as I dislike several things about Churchill Downs as a fan and horseplayer, from the high takeouts to the well-publicized treatment of Secretariat's jockey, Pharoah's home away from home, in my view, makes a lot of sense, or perhaps is just a pipe dream in hopes of getting new people interested in watching the sport and enjoying the greatness of this champion horse.  

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