Monday, March 31, 2014

Guest Blog: The Biggest Event I'd Never Heard Of

--Drew Rauso

"And African Story wins the Dubai World Cup!"
   A tale as old as time at this point, given the immediacy of our modern world, and thus, that is all the play the winning horse shall receive in this post. Instead, let us focus on Fox Sports 1, which graciously broadcasted the event, along with other aspects of the richest day in racing that I found interesting, odd or downright unexpected.
   First, backtrack about 72 hours, to a conversation that now brings a red, sheepish hue to my otherwise Mediterranean-style skin.
   My friend and massive horse enthusiast: “Yessir, the Dubai World Cup is this weekend.”
Me: “Umm, don’t you mean the world cup in Qatar, and that’s in 2022…”
Friend: “No, the richest day in horse racing, the Dubai World Cup.”
Me: “Oh.”
   Needless to say at this point in the conversation my fingers were itching to grab the ever-reliable smartphone cradled in my pocket and Google my way out of confusion, which began a frantic, 5-minute journey through cyberspace.  And so, I discovered that yes, there IS a Dubai World Cup, held at Meydan Racecourse annually with a total purse of $10 million.
   Now, I am among a presumably small percentage of my generation that knows about races that matter that are not named in the Triple Crown. I watched the Breeders’ Cup in November and have witnessed the Haskell live several times at Monmouth Park, both experiences helping to convince myself that I am not completely blind in the sport.
   So imagine my surprise when the most expensive day in racing was during the upcoming weekend, and I had never even heard of it. Just another testament to the lack of integration between the sport and 20-somethings, I suppose. But alas, yet another tale as old as time, and a rhyme that only sounds worse when used twice.
   On Saturday, Fox Sports 1’s broadcast of the event at times felt like a recorded version of my dad and
uncles discussing Twitter at a family party.  There were respected pundits (I’m going to assume they’re respected; I’d never heard of any of them unfortunately), including Alyssa Ali, who was in charge of the social media campaign and as far as I know a very good field reporter for the industry and Greg Wolf, your standard sports panel host.
   Fox tried engaging younger viewers with a hashtag #DWC2014, with Ali actually interrupted the pregame show (if I can call it that) to tell viewers to tweet which country they believed would win the race with said hashtag.
   I’m no social media strategist, but if that is the best Fox could come up wit in terms of active engagement, there needs to be some reevaluations afoot.  We are talking about a sport that is desperately calling for an increase in young viewership and preference, and the Twitter opportunity they went with is what represented country will win?!  A quick Twitter search--yes, you can do that--revealed an alarming high number of tweets strictly about J-Lo’s (ahem, Jennifer Lopez’s) performance at Meydan, perfectly illustrating two points.  One, at least the decision to bring in J-Lo was somewhat successful, because you know she was not there as the main audience’s first choice.  And two, not a lot of engagement on that Twitter poll!
Jennifer Lopez at Meydan
   Both moves only showcase the desperation horse racing has for a push to go young, and while they may have been with the best intentions, as everyone’s favorite paleontologist Dr. Grant says, “Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”  I’m not putting a bad Twitter poll on par with stealing man-made dinosaur eggs (Jurassic Park 3 if that reference went unnoticed), but there is a takeaway here.
   Fox, spend more time and effort into planning how to attract an audience.  The race was during the midst of March Madness; maybe a bracket-style poll could have been interesting?  Something to draw in your American audience that possibly (a more polite form of “probably” in this case) flipped to FS1 in the hopes of college basketball and saw relatively unknown talking heads discussing horse racing.  You had the audience, all you had to do was keep them.  Keep in mind, American television ratings have not been posted yet, or I have not seen, so I am interested to see the numbers, but for now, I have my rant.  Any ideas for Fox, please, I’d love to hear them.
   The coverage was also interspersed with so many commercials, I felt like I was watching a poor man’s Super Bowl.  I know, call me crazy for using the word “poor” to describe anything in Dubai, but I stand by my vocabulary usage.  What I took from the combination of enhanced advertisements and the segment on who the experts were betting on was that there was just too much time for not enough information.  While having a lot of ads could be because of high viewership (again, no ratings yet), I saw it as a constant excuse to kill time before the big race.  Take it from me, commercials destroy an attention span.  I won’t even watch videos online if there is a 30 second ad first.
   The fact that gambling wasn’t only discussed, but the subject of a whole segment was interesting.  For one thing, it was mentioned that gambling is illegal in the United Arab Emirates, so the thousands of attendees were simply there for the thrill of the spectacle, which many people may age may write off as “crazy” unfortunately.  Being a sport so intensely related to gambling, I understand that maybe the out-in-the-open style of betting isn’t so odd, but it just felt unnerving.  Each pundit gave his or her bet, an interesting spin on another sport’s pregame show with all the experts simply picking winners.
   Finally getting to the actual race, and once again this may seem completely normal to racing enthusiasts, but the black synthetic material and the time of day (or should I say night) was jarring and foreign to me.  I’d never seen a horse race on something other than grass or dirt, and the jet black track was extremely noticeable, but I did not notice any real discussion of the track in the broadcast, as might be necessary for an audience less inclined to understand such things.  Also, night races exist?  I had no idea, and was thrown for even more of a loop when during the race, a horse and jockey went tumbling over the far wall.  I began shouting and gesticulating (my Italian relatives would be proud), but there was no real deep mention of the incident until later.
   I understand that I may seem hard-headed or naive or maybe just plain ignorant (I hope not), so please forgive me if anything stated is blatantly wrong and/or misguided.  I do my best to research and at least pretend to know what I am talking about, while simultaneously not trying to look too deep into things in order to keep a neutral, infantile-level of intellectual commentary on events such as the Dubai World Cup.  For me, this was the beginning of a long hard look into the minds on both sides of the “young generation infusion” debate, one that seems to be a very timely issue in the racing world.  With that, I ask: How do you attract people to a sport that inherently revolves around gambling when (1) it’s not like postgrads are rolling in money, and (2) the faces of the sport on television are all much older?  Stay tuned...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Guest Post: A Horse of a Different Color

--Drew Rauso

“I like that one’s name; he’s my favorite.”

My name is Drew Rauso, and I do NOT approve this message.

In my 22 years as a casual observer of the track, I have heard the aforementioned phrase more times than I can remember.  

However, I am happy to say that I, a soon-to-be graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, am not on the same level of naivete as some of my less informed Generation Y-mates.

Though still definitely a fledgling when it comes to the “Sport of Kings,” I know my way around a track, and am here to provide an outsider’s commentary on the sport, whether that entails media coverage, thoughts on racing in popular culture or merely how much fun I had at the Preakness.

And so I must open my discussion with an introduction of what I’m doing here.

My first experience with horses (watching them, not riding them; no one wants to hear recollections of a six-year-old terrified of a pony named Bill) was at Monmouth Park with my late grandfather, a grumpy Italian man named Andy who couldn’t tip the 130-pound mark on a scale if he tried.

While Pop-Pop Andy was a nuisance to more than one waiter who wanted to disprove the recipe of marinara sauce, the guy knew which horses would win.

I spent many a sun-kissed Sunday afternoon at Monmouth with him, and watching him, pen in mouth, dark eyes squinting through sun-reflected round glasses in the grandstand, along with the massive Thoroughbreds, which captivated me from a young age.

In a much more contemporary setting, I have had the privilege to sit down and interview the great Bill Nack, the legendary sportswriter and author of Secretariat who is one of the most compelling storytellers I have ever met.

Mr. Nack opened my eyes to the unequalled grandeur that sport possesses; in no other setting will you find grown men screaming at people (jockeys) they have never met but whose fates are now intertwined (or at least until the purse is displayed), only to forget about those relationships after 120 seconds, and then do it all over again.

My mission, however large or small it may turn out to be, is to turn heads towards racing for those other than the die-hards, owners, breeders and trainers.

I hope that I can illuminate the sport for what I have come to see it as, an iconic pastime not named Steroids on a Field (ahem, Major League Baseball) that is as much an enjoyable day spent outside as it is a way to make money, with commentary along the way.

And so I present to you, readers of the TDN, an unbiased, original series looking at all things racing through my eyes, the point-of-view of a local kid from Middletown, N.J., “A Horse of a Different Color.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Guest Blog: One less Hall of Fame vote for Asmussen

By Bill Finley
courtesy of

   When it comes to scandal the timing is never good, but with the Steve Asmussen-PETA story that broke Thursday in the New York Times the timing is a nightmare for horse racing’s Hall of Fame.
   An investigation by PETA that cast Asmussen and assistant Scott Blasi in a very unfavorable light hit just 13 days after it was announced that Asmussen was placed on the ballot for the Hall of Fame’s class of 2014. The story and, in particular, an undercover video put together by PETA raises all sorts of questions about Asmussen, Blasi, their operation and things they may have done that are illegal. A lot of sorting out will be done before we’ve heard the last of this story, but at the very least, it’s impossible not to conclude that Asmussen has a contemptible disregard for the well-being of his horses.
   That’s not someone I want in the Hall of Fame and I am pretty sure that’s not someone the Hall of Fame wants to celebrate as one if its newest members come induction time in August. Inducting Asmussen would be an embarrassment for the sport, which has already been embarrassed enough, and for the Hall of Fame.
   For what it’s worth, Asmussen’s chances of getting in became a bit smaller Friday morning. I had some reservations about voting for him as it was because he has had a number of medication violations, but I did so anyway. His on-track accomplishments are without question Hall of Fame worthy. My ballot was sent via snail mail about 12 hours before I read the story. That story cost Steve Asmussen my Hall of Fame vote.
   I informed the Hall of Fame of my situation and that I no longer wanted to vote for Asmussen.  They told me they understood and allowed me to rescind my vote. My original ballot had “yes” votes for Asmussen and the Asmussen-trained Curlin and no one else. I have now voted for Ashado, and no one else, also rescinding my Curlin vote.
   It may seem unfair to penalize Curlin and I may vote for him in subsequent years. But with so much now unknown about Asmussen and what he may or may not have done to win races with the horses in his barn the dust needs to settle before anything that has anything to do with Asmussen should get into the Hall of Fame.
   Whether or not Asmussen gets in the Hall of Fame bears watching. How many people already sent in their votes for him? Are there some who are willing to look past this scandal and focus solely on his accomplishments?  He need only be among the top four vote-getters. Don’t be the least bit surprised if he gets in.
   Ironically, what could really destroy the careers of Asmussen and Blasi is not what they may have done to their horses but the way they handled their workers. PETA alleges that Asmussen was paying his employees $5.95 an hour, below minimum wage, and forcing the many who are illegal aliens to work under false identities. That sounds like something the heavyweights at the IRS and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services might be very interested in.
   When it comes to the treatment of the horses and what Asmussen and Blasi were doing it may well be that most, if not everything, they were doing is legal. But that’s a big part of this story.
   While not everyone in the sport is a bad apple, a culture exists where far too many feel the way to the winner’s circle is not through good horsemanship but through good pharmaceuticals. This isn’t the first time someone has documented the litany of drugs that trainers can and will use to get their horses to perform, drugs that can take an infirm horses and make them able to make it around the racetrack no matter how sore or broken down they may be.
   That’s what is most troubling about the Asmussen expose. It portrays an operation that does not care one bit about the welfare of the horses and will do whatever it takes to win. Sadly, the system allows this cavalier attitude to exist by being so permissive with the vast amounts of drugs that can legally be given to a horse.
   If the PETA expose turns out to be an accurate portrayal of Asmussen and Blasi then there shouldn’t be any place for people like this in the sport. In the meantime, voters can take a stand and at least see to it that Asmussen does not make the Hall of Fame.