Horse racing needs to get jockeys into position

Updated: November 20, 2001, 11:12 PM ET
By Kenny Rice | Special to ESPN.com

There I sat with my popcorn awaiting the latest Gene Hackman movie. The theater lights went dim, the screen lights came up and there was a ... commercial?.

There on the big screen, fellow captive movie goers and I watched a dozen NASCAR stars pile out of a car and rush to the concession stand to buy a Coke. It was a fun bit. And I had seen another NASCAR theme commercial before previews last year.

A friend asked me if jockeys ever did commercials. She had never seen them in any. Outside of the racing industry spots the only one that immediately came to mind was Bill Shoemaker standing next to Wilt Chamberlain in an American Express print ad in the early 1980's.

After wondering why movie ticket prices increase but I'm subjected to watching something that I could see in the confines of my living room without the luxury of changing channels? I thought about the lack of recognition jockeys receive -- from the rest of the sports world and from racing itself.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is making the effort to make racing popular. To appeal to sports fans who outside the Kentucky Derby might accidentally see one other race a year. The industry cries each year about the need for a super horse to bring in the crowds. That's true, but there is a group not only on racing's doorstep but on top of the sport's better publicized stars every day, who have not been promoted as what they are: outstanding athletes.

Even the greatest horses will come and go so fast that Joe in Des Moines or Jane in Mobile can't quite remember when they ran -- and can't understand why they don't any longer. They follow everything from hockey to tennis, but who's their favorite jockey? Not Jerry Bailey or Chris McCarron. The only rider they know is singing jockey Kenny Mayne in the clever, outside-the-box ESPN commercials.

Point Given was brilliant but we'll never see him race again. But we do see Gary Stevens all the time. Was any horse of the past decade more popular than Cigar? But five years after his last race, there's Jerry Bailey at work almost every day. That is the dilemma of the sport. There are actually costars in each race -- rider and horse. Why not increase the emphasis on the one who can talk and actually has a shot at a few endorsement opportunities?

Let jockeys wear commercial logos on their pants and boots. If they or their agents can cut the deals, it can only help racing in the long run. A buyer of a certain product might not know more than two or three jockeys, but handsome, articulate guys like John Velazquez, Jose Santos, Richard Migliore and Robbie Albarado could draw attention and increase their individual fan bases, and in turn, racing's.

And fans are needed. Everyone wants a rooting interest when watching a sporting event. The jockey vs. jockey appeal hasn't successfully been tapped. The NTRA has stated it wanted to emulate several of NASCAR's examples and the cross-promotion potential is a perfect one to look at.

The NTRA has hired Host Communications of Lexington, Ky. to bring in more corporate sponsors. Host has a solid track record in promoting college sports. With the new business they bring in, there is the perfect opportunity to assist in putting jockeys and sponsors together.

The pitch is simple: "We've have some terrific athletes who in general are controlling an animal that outweighs him by 900 pounds. Plus many of these jockeys have experience in front of the cameras. We'd like you to take a good look at them to use in promoting your business."

Envision these possibilities: Patient Pat Day taking his time with a Snickers bar to get extra energy while sitting in the back of the pack before the winning move; Jerry Bailey with his lovely wife Suzee and cute son Justin discussing the importance of investing with Bessemer Trust for their future; Mike Smith using Alberto VO5 after a hard day at the races to look his best for the evening; Gary Stevens talking with NASCAR star Jeff Gordon about the need for speed in front of a Penske Auto Center; Chris McCarron discussing the precision needed in winning a race while he steers a John Deere across the field.

Two weeks back, Churchill Downs had a Pat Day bobblehead doll giveaway promotion that attracted 19,806 to the track. The first 10,000 paid admission received a voucher for the 7-inch doll after the second race. Fans began lining up at 7 a.m. -- four-and-a-half hours before the gates opened! Yes, Day is by far the biggest star in Blue Grass racing and his popularity makes a strong case for using jockeys more to promote the sport.

Go to nearly any sports memorabilia store. See any horse racing items? That's another way to reach potential fans, especially with the rebirth in popularity of the bobblehead dolls. Fans want to collect items of their favorite athletes, so racing needs to make sure items such these are available outside of racetrack gift shops.

Weekly standings with a points system for graded stakes and stakes wins that are emailed from the league office to TV sports directors and newspaper sports editors are another way of keeping the jockeys' names in front of the public.

The next great horse might come along in 2002, but there's no doubt the sport's outstanding riders will be there for sure. So feature them more. This isn't the solution to all of racing's popularity problems, but it could be a start.

So perhaps someday, while you're sitting in the theater before the third installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, instead of seeing NASCAR drivers piling out of a car, you might view a spot showing a dozen jockeys riding up on thoroughbreds to the concession stand. And if something like that happens, you'll realize horse racing may finally be on its way to reaching the new fans it so desperately craves.