Last year, American Pharoah seemed to burst onto the racing scene like a bay comet, with stellar speed and true star quality, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont with ease to take the Triple Crown, a feat no horse had accomplished in 37 years.
Suddenly, a Thoroughbred was again on the cover of Sports Illustrated, drawing crowds of 15,000 to racetracks early in the morning just to watch him work out, and setting TV ratings records for the races leading up to his final outing: the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.
Horse racing was back.
In fact, that part of horse racing — the Triple Crown, the big days, including the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships — never went away.
“The Triple Crown has always been popular, and American Pharoah has renewed interest. … That part has always worked, has never been in need of being saved, has never been broken,” said Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “Every one of those races last year, and for the last several years, have been growing. The big days in racing are doing well.
“It’s the average Wednesday and Thursday where we’re challenged to get any level of participation from the public.”
The big days in racing are doing well. It’s the average Wednesday and Thursday where we’re challenged to get any level of participation from the public.
— Alex Waldrop, NTRA president
There is little hard evidence that having a newly minted equine celebrity has had much impact on that level of the sport in the past six to nine months, but there is some.
▪ Betting, which is the only financial metric that counts in racing, is up 3 percent year over year through March, according to Equibase.
“Give credit to American Pharoah for that,” Waldrop said. “We’ve been flat for a long time, so let’s take that as a win.”
▪ Television ratings, which are another important indicator of fan interest, also are up. Significantly.
Broadcasts of nine races leading to the Breeders’ Cup saw ratings up 136 percent, with 3.1 million people watching the Haskell Invitational and 3.4 million watching the Travers Stakes. The Breeders’ Cup had its highest ratings in 20 years, according to NBC.
And on April 9, NBC Sports Network again aired a two-hour show featuring the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby. Viewership was up 17 percent over last year’s similar telecast.
▪ Tours to visit American Pharoah at his new home at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, where he stands for a $200,000 stud fee, have sold out every time they’ve been offered.
Anne Hardy, who runs Horse Country, the tour-booking site that the horse industry set up last year before American Pharoah was much more than a blip on the horizon, said they began offering batches of tour dates to see him at Ashford in Versailles in November, just after he arrived. The first group sold out in days.
It’s my dream. I never got to see Secretariat. I feel like my life’s complete, now that I got to see Pharoah.
— Phyllis Bingham, visitor from Owensboro
“The next group sold out in 22 hours,” she said. “In mid-February, we released dates through the end of May, and they sold out in mid-March. It’s amazing. We did a wait-list but that completely sold out, too. … Even in January and February, which is not high season for tourism in Kentucky — I mean we had big snows — and those tours at Coolmore were completely sold out.”
Phyllis Bingham of Hopkinsville was one of the lucky ones who got to tour Ashford recently.
“It’s my dream. I never got to see Secretariat. I feel like my life’s complete, now that I got to see Pharoah,” she said afterward. This was only the second horse farm she’d visited, after Claiborne Farm in Paris, where Secretariat is buried.
This, she said, “was like meeting a movie star. I was so excited I thought all day I was going to have a nervous panic attack.”
Sometimes people who want to see American Pharoah end up going to another horse farm if they can’t get in, giving the industry broader exposure, she said.
Many of these visitors are clearly new to Thoroughbred breeding and often don’t recognize the horse farm owners even if they see them. A tour group ran into John Philips, owner of Lexington’s venerable Darby Dan Farm, where Shackleford, Dialed In, Perfect Soul and Tapiture stand at stud, as he was out planting a tree one day, and the visitors had no idea they were talking to the man who had bred some of the highest-priced Thoroughbreds sold in the past year.
At Ashford, the normally publicity-shy Irish global bloodstock empire has been inundated with requests to visit. Ashford now has three Kentucky Derby winners — Fusaichi Pegasus and the now-pensioned Thunder Gulch also are there — plus Uncle Mo, the sire of at least three of this year’s top Derby contenders, so the number of visitors has to be capped.
Marketing director Scott Calder has seen everything from those who have followed racing for years to those who just want to see where American Pharoah lives now.
“We’ve seen much greater interest in what we do from the general fan,” Calder said. “It’s an opportunity for people to learn what goes into producing a foal each year. … That’s probably quite a big eye-opener for people who only watch the big races.”
Still, it’s hard to convert all that interest in one horse to interest in the sport as a whole, and then into betting, which is where racing gets the purses that fuel the sport.
The horse industry knows this. In 2011, The Jockey Club released a report by consultants McKinsey & Co. that outlined a dire future for racing if the industry didn’t make big changes and fast: “Without new growth strategies, Thoroughbred racing handle will decline 25 percent in the next decade. The number of viable tracks will decline by 27 percent. The losses of an owner will grow 50 percent and the foal crop will decline by at least 9 percent.”
Jim Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club, said the efforts to address those issues, including paying to broadcast more racing, are paying off already.
“If you look at national handle, we have stabilized,” he said. “We see the foal crop stabilizing, see good signs in the commercial market for American bloodstock, and sales results for yearlings in the last five years show pretty good increases.”
And then came American Pharoah.
“American Pharoah was a tremendous boost for the industry during the Triple Crown season, and afterward his races at Monmouth, Saratoga and in the Breeders’ Cup trended very high among social media and national media,” Gagliano said.
Now we’re selling ‘can we have a repeat?’ Stars and rivalries sell sports. And American Pharoah was a star.
— Stephen Panus, America’s Best Racing
Rogers Beasley, vice president of racing at Keeneland, said he thinks the swell of fan interest has carried over into this spring.
“People are coming to the races enthused and hoping for another (Triple Crown winner),” he said. “Look at Bluegrass Stakes day (Keeneland’s biggest Derby prep), which was not the best weather-wise this year. It was nippy, and we still had 21,000, and in excess of $21 million in handle. A new record. I think that’s huge.”
“I think it’s hard to quantify exactly how much (American Pharoah) has helped,” he said. But “the attention is there.”
Trying to cash in
Racing is doing its best to capitalize on that attention with the America’s Best Racing series of videos and social media campaign.
Stephen Panus, vice president of The Jockey Club Media Ventures, said ABR spent January with the McKathan Brothers in Florida and has produced a four-part series on the farm in Florida where American Pharoah learned to be a racehorse. The first videos have had nearly 300,000 views, with interest from around the world, he said. The last one will introduce his full sister, American Cleopatra.
“American Pharoah is a strong brand. We want to leverage that to get people excited about 2016 and the new crop of horses,” Panus said.
“Now we’re selling, ‘Can we have a repeat?’ Stars and rivalries sell sports. And American Pharoah was a star,” Panus said. “We’re looking to see if it can be repeated, and people will watch.
“It’s up to some horse here to help us capture that.”
Nyquist’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, would love to help.
American Pharoah “took horse racing from the back page of the sports section, sometimes not even covered in the sports section, to the front page of the sports section,” he said. “Where I live, it’s kind of a beachy town, and horse racing really isn’t on the tip of anybody’s tongue around here. And a lot of people because of American Pharoah, last year they were constantly asking me, you know, ‘What do you think? Do you think Pharoah is going to win?’
“Now of course they’re all excited about Nyquist. It is definitely just the average person that glances through the sports section, listens to a little bit of sports talk radio, they now have heard a lot about horse racing in the last year, year and a half, and that’s a credit to Pharoah, and hopefully Nyquist can carry the torch farther.”
Kathryn Hurst and Alicia Wincze Hughes contributed to this report.