Stay tuned

Updated: November 22, 2006, 11:09 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

This year's set of sobering television ratings for the Breeders' Cup further proved something that didn't exactly need to be proven: the event, while wildly popular with racing fans and gamblers, hasn't come close to capturing the attention of the general public.

That's too bad because the Breeders' Cup is a terrific show that produces the type of great theater anyone could love. But the public hasn't embraced the event, which is understandable.

The sport disappears from public view after the Belmont Stakes and then, out of the middle of nowhere, tries to reel people back in with one big day of racing. Just who are these horses? What, exactly, is this thing all about? Why should I care? Is the Kentucky Derby winner running? These are the questions the public seems to be asking and no one has yet to come up with suitable answers.

"I live here in Kentucky and talk to people who go to the Derby and go to Keeneland," said Dan Metzger, the president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. "These are attorneys, bankers, doctors. They tell me that after the Triple Crown they are lost when it comes to racing and then, bingo, here's the Breeders' Cup. They don't understand the sequence of events leading up to it. If that's the way it is in Kentucky, imagine what it's like in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles."

There are no magic or simple solutions to this problem, but the sport has to do a better job of bridging the gap between the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup so that it doesn't vanish from the general public's radar screen for five months. There needs to be some context to the rest of the racing season and it has to revolve around an easy-to-understand series of rich, televised races that come to a decisive conclusion with the Breeders' Cup. Post Belmont Day, you have to give the casual fan or non-fan a reason to stay tuned.

That's what they do in NASCAR, now the second highest rated sport on television behind the NFL. Every race matters and every race is part of some sort of series. There are points and standings and, when it's all done, a champion. The same drivers face off race after race, giving fans the type of rooting interest that doesn't exist in racing, a sport where people root for the four one race, the six the next.

Some aspects of a racing series would be a little tricky. What do you do with the 2-year-olds, many of whom might not race before August or September? How, and when, do you merge the 3-year-old and older horse divisions?

Otherwise, everything would be rather straightforward. Take advantage of the exposure of the Triple Crown and start the series on the Saturday between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The series would continue on a once-a-month basis through September or October and then conclude with the Breeders' Cup. The days should amount to a mini-Breeders' Cup, with races for every division (with the exception of 2-year-old races in the spring and early summer) run on the same afternoon and each race should be worth at least $1 million. Use existing races like the Whitney, Pacific Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Arlington Million, etc. Television coverage, of course, is a must.

Horses will accrue points through the series with those points determining which horses draw into the Breeders' Cup fields. Large bonuses will be paid to the owners of the horses earning the most points. Standings will need to be posted in the agate sections of every paper in the country.

Metzger's organization, TOBA, made a serious attempt at putting together such a series, one that was going to be backed financially be some of its wealthiest members, including Houston Texans owner Robert McNair. It was to be called the Thoroughbred Championship Tour.

"One of our goals was to bring more awareness to racing and, in particular, the Breeders' Cup," Metzger said. "The Breeders' Cup is a wonderful and sensational day of racing. We always see pretty solid (television ratings) for the Triple Crown, but the numbers don't come close for the Breeders' Cup. We wanted to have a successful series and our members were willing to put up their money, but we also wanted to make racing and the Breeders' Cup more successful."

But TOBA ran into an age-old problem: there wasn't the sort of widespread industry cooperation that was needed to make it work.

Metzger said his group isn't interested in going back to the drawing board.

That means someone else or some other group needs to come together and make this happen. With the Breeders' Cup ratings down 53 percent this year (part of which is attributable to the switch from network to cable television), the status quo is unacceptable. Because the Breeders' Cup has so much going for it, it shouldn't be such a tough sell to the general public but the general public needs to given more of a reason to tune in.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com