Kentucky Derby A Week Away – – Anyone Notice?

The Kentucky Derby is a week from tomorrow. Ten years ago, there would have been a general buzz about the race among sports fans; twenty five years ago, a significant number of sports fans would have had their “Derby Horse” picked out because they had been following his performance in prep races from January until the last week in April. This year it’s crickets…

If the Kentucky Derby cannot create a buzz amongst the sports fans who are not yearlong followers of horseracing, then there isn’t anything that will. The critical issue for the horseracing industry is that their loyal – even rabid – fanbase is aging quickly. That means that the Grim Reaper is harvesting a significant fraction of that loyal fanbase and there is no surge of interest in younger fans. The actual Kentucky Derby race this year will probably be similar to most of the other Kentucky Derbies of recent years. There will be a large field (Churchill Downs is limited to 20 runners); there will be a cavalry charge to get favorable position on the first turn; there will be a wall of tiring horses at the top of the stretch in front of any stretch runner who would try to catch those front runners that are still hanging on. Only the identities of the horses involved here will be different; and in 2009, there is a significant fraction of the sporting public who cannot name 4 horses who are Derby entries – – let alone how they have performed this year.

Racing has a ton of other problems too not the least of which is that racetracks are in danger of being razed and turned into real estate developments. Even in the down economy, that is a serious threat. Bay Meadows in California is closed and Hollywood Park could have a date with the wrecking ball at the end of its meeting in December 2009. One bidder for Pimlico and Laurel Park as a result of the Chapter 11 filing by Magna Entertainment Corp said explicitly that he wants to tear the tracks down and put up multi-use real estate developments. Here is a truism; even if someone miraculously solves the problem of attracting hordes of new fans, horseracing will not do very well if there are no tracks to hold the races.

By the way, the other huge event in horseracing is the Breeders’ Cup races in the Fall. They were at Santa Anita last year and by all accounts, it was a hugely successful weekend of racing. It is supposed to be there again this year – – except Santa Anita is another track affected by the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings of its owner, Magna Entertainment Corp. The folks running the Breeders’ Cup want assurances that the track can indeed stage the events this Fall and they want it in time to make other plans. This could be another huge mess – – instead of a showcase for this troubled sport.

The NFL Draft is this weekend; it has moved into prime time; instead of starting at noon, it will begin at 4:00 PM EDT on Saturday. The NFL and ESPN have turned this event into a sports news juggernaut and one result is that NFL personnel people are now viewed as if they were actually doing something calculable with all of their charts and times and Wonderlic tests and other measures that appear to be meaningful because they are expressed in numbers. Here is a piece of history related to the NFL Draft:

    In 1985, the sixteenth overall pick in the draft was a young wide receiver named Jerry Rice. Fifteen teams decided not to take him. Arguably, Jerry Rice is the best WR in the history of the NFL; all he did was to be selected for the Pro Bowl 13 times. Fifteen teams did not think he could make an impact on their squad…

    By the way, in that same draft another wide receiver named Andre Reed was drafted in the third round with the 86th overall pick. Andre Reed will be in the Hall of Fame one of these years.

Remember these little facts when you hear people talking about how they did extensive work on whomever they picked and why they think he was the “best player available”. They do not always know what they are talking about…

Having said those less than kind things about the people who make draft day decisions in the NFL, I must admit that they have not yet been as embarrassed as Canadian Football League draft gurus must have been about 15 years ago when one of the teams – – I am 95% sure it was the Montreal Alouettes – – drafted a player who had died a couple of months prior to the draft. I admit that I have on occasion referred to a player taken in the NFL Draft who did not perform well at that level as “a stiff”, but a Canadian Football League team actually drafted a person known in the vernacular as “a stiff”.

While the teams are drafting new players, keep in mind that those players will become members of the NFLPA. About a month ago, the player reps from all the teams met and elected DeMaurice Smith to head up the NFLPA as a replacement for the deceased Gene Upshaw. There were several “finalists” for the job who had gone through a winnowing process and then there was the vote.

Yesterday, the LA Times reported that DeMaurice Smith has been working for the past six weeks without a contract with the NFLPA. His contract is still being negotiated; and so far, he has been paid nothing by the NFLPA despite the fact that he is “working 16 hour days” and seems to be available to anyone with a microphone or a camera or both. ESPN says that the issues are salary and contract duration. Gee whiz; is that all? That sounds like something the players who make up the NFLPA should be able to deal with; those are generally the issues that hang up their negotiations with teams.

My confusion here has to do with something other than contract terms, signing bonuses, and contract duration. The search for a new NFLPA Executive Director went on for about 3 months; perhaps as many as a half-dozen people received something more than a cursory glance by the NFLPA. Then there was a final review prior to the player reps voting in early March (as I recall). Yet, at the end of that entire process, no one associated with the NFLPA thought that it might be a good idea to state to the applicants just what the salary and benefits would be if they were the person selected for the position? Haven’t the players learned yet that these kinds of negotiations are good for them when they are the job-seekers but not such a wonderful thing when they are the job-fillers? DeMaurice Smith may have more issues on his plate in trying to run that organization than he may have imagined when he applied for the job…

Finally, here is a comment attributed to Warren Sapp that relates to the leadership qualities of the Raiders’ new coach:

“Tom Cable couldn’t lead the Raiders to a picnic in his own back yard.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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  • bones  On April 24, 2009 at 8:43 am

    You’re right about the Alouettes drafting a dead guy in the 96 draft — I think he was a defensive lineman but one thing I’m sure of is that his time in the 40 was reeeaaaally slow. And to boot, the Ottawa Rough Riders drafted a stiff in the 1995 dispersal draft of the Las Vegas Posse (after the CFL’s abortive foray into the States).

  • JJC  On April 24, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Warren Sapp should know better – The head coach of the Raiders is Al Davis. Cable is just a yes man fall guy. It’s going to be interesting to see who would be willing to take the job giving the difficulties of the job and the history of Davis not wanting to pay out the contracts.

    Not only did Bay Meadows go under and is being turned into an office park complex, the other major racetrack in the area, Golden Gate Fields, isn’t likely far behind it. Granted, GGF is doing things like dollar days (food and drink items for a buck) and other giveaways, it’s just not a good time to be in the horse racing game.

    Of course turning Bay Meadows into a business park with offices and retail space seems to be just as ignorant of the current economic situation as anything else. While the local residential sales are showing signs of life (all real estate is local), commerical sales and leases are still flatlined.

  • Peter  On April 24, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    in 2009, there is a significant fraction of the sporting public who cannot name 4 horses who are Derby entries

    I would imagine that the typical sports fan can name, oh, about zero Derby entries :)

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On April 24, 2009 at 11:26 pm


    I did not know about the drafting of a deceased player in the dispersal draft. That makes the Alouettes’ selection – – in a later year – – even more embarrassing.


    From what I have been reading, Golden Gate Fields has a handle that is about the same as last year – – which is a big plus for that industry in these economic times. Maybe they are benefiting from the demise of Bay Meadows?


    There was a day not all that long ago when Ky Derby news would be on Page 1 of the sports section for each and every day of next week in every major city in the US. Now, you have to find a fan who reads “special publications” just to find someone who knows that Dunkirk is the name of a horse scheduled to run next week – – in addition to being a geographical location.

    As Ross Perot said during his 1992 Presidential campaign, “It’s just sad!”

  • Ed  On April 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    dunno if you saw it, but the NY Daily News ran an editorial Sunday advocating the closure of Aqueduct racetrack, saying the space could be much better developed in a crowded city. They went there Thursday and it was only two thousand and change, they said 40 years ago it was in the high 20 thousands on comparable days.

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On April 28, 2009 at 9:10 am


    Closing Aqueduct would be a boon to the city in terms of development and open space. It is a large facility and the NYDN is absoulutely correct. On most days, there is no one there. The facility at Belmont – – a much larger track that Aqueduct – – can more than handle all of the live racing that NYC needs. [Conversely closing Belmont and doing all the racing at Aqueduct would work too.]

    Racetracks that do not have casinos/slot machines these days are ghost towns. They are expensive to maintain and they deprive localities of a lot of tax revenues. Note that the closures of tracks in California have not been violently opposed by the localities where that has happened or is about to happen.

    With tht backdrop, consider that the governor and the legislature in Maryland just passed an emergency bill giving the State the right to match any offer to buy Pimlico and Laurel and the Preakness race and the Preakness trophy. As they say in the Guinness ads, “Brilliant!”

  • Ed  On April 29, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Yes, but the paper wrote about Aqueduct – because Belmont is not in NYC, it’s in the suburbs. Aqueduct is in Queens.

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