Is Smarty Jones saving horse racing?
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Who knows how many people will be at Belmont Park Saturday. They had 101,864 on a miserable rainy day last year to watch Funny Cide attempt to win the Triple Crown and as good a story as Funny Cide was he can't touch Smarty Jones for charisma, popularity and his too-good-to-be-true tale. Also, they're saying it's going to be a nice, sunny day when Smarty Jones takes his shot at joining 11 racing immortals.
So beautiful Belmont will be rocking Saturday like it never has before, every inch of the huge facility filled with maybe 125,000 people, many of whom will be curiosity seekers who, at best, go to the track a couple of times a year. Getting people to come to the Belmont is easy. The hard part is getting them to come back on those routine days when 4,000 or so people mill around the depressingly empty Belmont stands. For a sport that normally struggles for media attention and is fighting an impression that it's fan base is dwindling and routinely draws minuscule crowds at tracks across the country, is Smarty Jones a savior?
That's a more complicated question that it may seem.
Racing doesn't really need saving. On-track crowds are at all-time lows because people have found more convenient ways of wagering that going to the racetrack, like simulcasting, phone wagering and internet betting. Nearly $15.2 billion was bet on thoroughbred racing in North America in 2003, a $5.6 billion increase from 10 years earlier.
"By any objective measurement, we are not an industry in decline," said NTRA Chief Executive Officer Tim Smith. "That's one of they myths we deal with."
And Smarty Jones is not going to be put 20,000 extra people in stands on any given Wednesday at Santa Anita, Belmont or any track in between. Despite being on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated, despite his last workout being shown live on Good Morning America, despite the tremendous play he is getting in major newspapers across the country, he is not going to cause racing to reclaim its glory days.
What he can do is give the sport a huge shot in the arm.
"Racing does not need to be saved, but Smarty Jones will give the sport a big boost," said NYRA Senior Vice President Bill Nader. "Win or lose, the world is watching. When Secretariat won in 1973, the crowd was 67,000, and there were 65,000 for Affirmed and Alydar in 1978. This Belmont Stakes will mark the third consecutive year when crowds exceed 100,000. It will be the second straight year when the Belmont Stakes is the highest rated broadcast for its week on prime-time network television. Smarty Jones is the leading man and he has a good chance to be rewarded with racing immortality."
Smith has proven to be a top-notch executive in his years with the NTRA, but he might also be the luckiest guy around. Smarty Jones will be the sixth horse in the last eight years to come into the Belmont with a shot of winning the Triple Crown. That has made his job, a large part of which is promoting and marketing the sport, a lot easier. The public is obviously enraptured by the Triple Crown quest and all the attention these Belmonts have received has given racing priceless exposure.
"To come to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line is so valuable in and of itself," Smith said. "Of course, six out of eight years we will have seen that. But this is special. I would wager that if someone went back and did a column inches analysis of general sports coverage this might be double Funny Cide, and that was rightly considered a gift from the marketing gods in terms of incredible story lines. There's no question, Smarty Jones is significantly bigger. In some sense it's cumulative. Each year, if some more people who aren't hardcore fans or handicapping experts get interested and learn a little more it ripples and you have a bigger impact."
Smith says that there's no doubt the five previous Triple Crown hopefuls, all of whom, of course, failed in the Belmont Stakes, have done wonders for racing's popularity and have increased the sport's exposure. No one knows exactly how many new racing fans have been created or how many more will or have fallen in love with the sport because of Smarty Jones, but Smith is confident it is a significant number. His trainer, John Servis, has already seen some of the impact.
He reports getting thousands of fans letter, many from kids. Traditionally, racing has struggled mightily to gain a foothold with younger audiences.
"The percentage of American adults that list horse racing as one of the sports they're fans of has increased each year for the last four and the total amount of the increase in percentage terms, admittedly off a smaller base than some other sports, was the second biggest increase over that period, second only to NASCAR," Smith said. "I think all of that flows from those spikes in public attention and terrific ratings we've gotten from these Belmonts. Last year the TV ratings for the Triple Crown were higher than the TV ratings than golf's four majors, the NBA playoffs, the Nextel Cup on NASCAR and decimated the Stanley Cup playoffs. Horse racing put a nose ahead in '03. Everyone else has been flat or down. We have built, built, built."
NYRA officials understand that it's important to put their best foot forward Saturday. The track, a stately facility that might be the underappreciated track in racing, is so large that it won't feel too crowded even with 125,000 in the building. Grandstand admission is just $2, making the Belmont, far and away, the greatest bargain in sports. A lot of people will come out Saturday and most will have a great time. Some will come back, maybe time and time again. For that, horse racing can thank Smarty Jones.