The Kentucky Oaks has become one of my favorite races since I started working with racehorses. The fillies – which we have been talking about a lot here lately! – are such amazing creatures, so tough and rough and competitive. But if any of you saw the coverage of the Oaks, which was handed over to NBC channel Bravo, you saw that the fillies were downgraded to sideshow status.
If Bob Evans, chief executive of Churchill Downs, Inc., is pleased with the network television coverage of the Kentucky Oaks, he is certainly the only horseman to say so.
“Evans is enamored with the way that NBC has turned the Derby into a broader entertainment program by using its sister networks, like Bravo and CNBC, and programs like “Today” to promote the race,” writes Richard Sandomir in the New York Times. But what exactly did they turn it into? The day racing sets aside for its toughest and bravest fillies was feted with a television host who had never seen a horse race before, a cooking competition, a fashion show, and a “tribute” from Bravo’s appalling train-wreck of a series, The Real Housewives of Insert-Wealthy-Geographical-Region-Here.
I won’t touch the pink saddle towels or jackets on the horsemen. I understand that pink is the universal color of breast cancer awareness – but I do side with the writer who recently wrote that she is not a huge fan of a feminine, swooning-couch color when a woman should be facing down a fight in her most outraged and determined power. If there has to be a girly color associated with the Run for the Lilies (in itself hopelessly delicate and feminine) why not red, the universal color of feisty, tough females? Bad women, traditionally, wear red. And I would never have characterized last year’s winner, the incomparable three-year-old Rachel Alexandra, or this year’s winner, the fierce and determined come-from-behind-closer Blind Luck, as anything but a very Bad Woman. Sweet and innocent? Please. Don’t talk down to a filly.
(I know, I know, Blind Luck runs under hot pink silks. At least it makes her easy to spot as she makes her last-to-first bid.)
Leaving behind all talk of gender and color, though, is the annoying fact that “exclusive” coverage of big stakes races by networks reduces racing coverage to the rest of network television’s lowest-common-denominator approach to programming. In other words, racing hands over its brightest and best horses to a failing and left-behind segment of entertainment, and they in turn treat our stars like they treat Hollywood stars, or reality TV show stars: one-dimensional creatures good only for their looks. Even worse, in Bravo’s coverage of the Oaks, they didn’t even get the star treatment. The fillies were left ignored for a full thirty minutes – nary a horse to be seen, and then it was just a repeat of the television host getting dumped. Oh, thanks, now I don’t have to look it up on You-Tube. Because I’ve never seen anyone come off a horse before.
There was only room for the “human” element of the Oaks, and I don’t mean the jockeys, trainers, grooms, owners, exercise riders, farriers, vets, stewards – shall I go on? – who make racing possible and keep these horses happy and safe. And while I fully respect and support the breast cancer survivor march, I am absolutely disgusted by the reality-TV tie-ins that filled the other thirty minutes – Half an hour that HRTV would have used for analysis, interviews, and past performance or workout videos, much like any other sport network would have done.
If you’re going to reduce horse racing to complete and utter drivel, (“Oh! It’s my first horse race! And all the pretty horsies are GIRLS! And I have a new DRESS!” seemed to be the general focus of the Bravo programming) at least have the decency to allow horsemen to watch the horses – get rid of the ridiculous exclusivity contracts. You can’t tell me that the viewership of HRTV was favorably impacted (and thus, I suppose, inclined to support the advertisers) by the Top Chef competition. My Facebook wall says otherwise, and in 2010, what else do you need in terms of market research?
The Kentucky Derby coverage appeared even less promising – the promos being run for some television host “on the catwalk” threw me completely. There’s a catwalk? Where, from the finish line to the winner’s circle? In the paddock? The only fashion I’m interested in are the silks and blinkers parading before the stands before post time. In the end, I went out and rode Final Call in the ninety minutes between the races, and went inside ten minutes before post.
Evans told the New York Times, that NBC “changed the way horse racing is presented.” And while horse racing certainly doesn’t need to be presented as a sport of hardened, gritty chain-smokers in a dimly lit, cavernous hall filled with television monitors (maybe the race tracks could make more of a effort not to, you know, actually look like this, just to help out) I strongly disagree that horse racing should be reduced to advertising for reality television and cooking shows, hosted by people that have never seen a race.
There’s so much beauty in racing, and it is strange to me that only racing fans¸ the supposed hardened, gritty chain-smokers, are the ones that see this. Why are we the only ones that see the hugs, arms wrapped around the necks of those vicious, dangerous racehorses, as they dangle their heads into the shedrow, looking expectantly for their next carrot? Why are we the only ones that appreciate the delicate balance of tack and horse, the bitting and bridling, the hoods and the blankets, that trainers use to attempt to cool hot hearts and fan the flames of delicate ones, to try to keep up with the vagaries of the racehorse mind? Why can only we see the skipping delight of a horse that loves a racetrack, or the impossible athleticism of the flying lead change? Do the networks and the racing executives truly believe that these elegant moments cannot be distilled for a network audience?
Gloss over the horses, gloss over the people that love them and make them great, and gloss over the heart of racing. It continues to be a marginalized, stereotyped, sidelined sport. The glory days of racing were not just about the movie stars building racetracks and standing in the paddock in tailored clothes. They, too, were about the horses. Anyone who has seen the memorabilia from the early twentieth century can tell you that! No one bought a plate with a painting of War Admiral’s stately profile on it, or ceramic coasters with Seabiscuit’s face, because they wanted to remember the Top Chef competition that preceded the race. They admired the horse. Racing is about horses. Horses are one of the most loved and culturally significant animals in Western Civilization. I fail to see why this connection cannot be brought home to a television audience.
And for heaven’s sake, stop associating the leanest and meanest of Thoroughbreds with feather boas and cooking grits. Today a filly, tomorrow a Boss Mare, always a racehorse. Don’t talk down to a filly.