A man with a plan to bring back fans

On Horse Racing

September 01, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Fred A. Pope, founder of the National Thoroughbred Association, has gotten the message. He's watched long enough as attendance at racetracks slumps lower and lower.

"The public is letting us know it doesn't like what we're doing," Pope said Friday in a telephone interview. "We've got to re-establish the credibility of horse racing as a major sport."

Pope, an advertising executive from Lexington, Ky., is leading the charge for a restructuring of the sport into a "major league" of racing. The result would be heavily promoted, top-flight races on weekends and holidays -- a package of live local races and simulcasts -- and a "minor league" of less-attractive races during the week.

The idea, Pope says, is to mobilize all segments of the industry -- traditionally fragmented -- behind a creative organization working solve the sports' growing problems. According to the NTA:

Attendance at racetracks declined nearly 37 percent from 1991 to 1995.

Television ratings for the Kentucky Derby, the most-watched horse race on TV, fell about 40 percent from 1991 to 1995. In that same period, ratings for the Preakness plummeted more than 50 percent.

In 1995, horse owners spent more than $2 billion competing for purses of $800 million.

And, finally, as tracks lose customers, they're forced to depend on revenues from simulcasting, further undermining the live product and repelling potential new fans.

Pope tried something like this three years ago, but the idea fell flat. This time, he says, the nation's leading horse owners and some track executives are behind him.

But Joe De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel, says he has yet to hear from Pope's group. "What I've seen so far doesn't sound all that feasible," De Francis said.

A strong proponent of more structure in racing, De Francis said he doesn't see where the proposed system differs radically from the current one -- with one major exception: The NTA plans to charge 7 percent to 9 percent of a track's simulcast handle for its racing package. Tracks currently pay about 3 percent for simulcasting rights.

"What I want to know," De Francis said, "is how does what's being created justify these premium rates?"

No Cigar

Although De Francis offered to create a $1 million race on Maryland Million Day to lure Cigar back to the state of his birth, Cigar almost definitely will not race here, De Francis acknowledged Friday.

Instead, Cigar's schedule calls for one or two races at Belmont Park -- Sept. 14 and/or Oct. 5 -- and the Breeders' Cup Classic Oct. 26 at Woodbine near Toronto.

De Francis' proposal included rescheduling the Maryland Million races, long set for Oct. 12, to accommodate Cigar's schedule, and canceling next year's $500,000 Pimlico Special, to help finance the race.

Say goodbye to Influent

When last we visited Influent, the 5-year-old Canadian gelding with speed to burn but the temperament of a mule, he was standing in the Pimlico starting gate watching his opponents gallop off to two- and three-length leads.

Influent finished third that day, teasing trainer Katy Voss with his ability, but again displaying his destructive penchant for not wanting to break. That was July 24, the day Influent was featured in a story in The Sun.

But now, as they say, we don't have Influent to kick around anymore. He was sold Aug. 20 at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the Fasig-Tipton auction of 2-year-olds in training and horses of racing age. Of the 81 horses sold, Influent attracted the highest price, $54,000. Howard Tesher, a New York-based trainer, bought him for racing in New York and Florida.

"It'd have been fun to keep him," Voss said. "But that's the way the game goes. The owners had to sell some horses, and he had kind of established his value."

The owner, Austin Taylor of Canada, sent Influent to Voss in 1994 with the warning that the headstrong gelding did not like to break -- most likely because of physical problems early in his career that had made running painful.

Voss worked with him, tried nearly everything, but couldn't persuade Influent that when the starting gate opened he wasn't supposed to stand there. But her persistence paid off. On July 6, in his first race on grass, Influent won by eight lengths, tying Laurel's 31-year-old 1-mile turf record.

Skip Away's woes

Sonny Hine is disgusted, again. He can't seem to get a break with his outstanding colt, Skip Away.

First it was lousy post positions in the Triple Crown races, and lately it's been questionable rides by the jockey Jose Santos. So Thursday, Hine fired Santos and gave Skip Away back to Shane Sellers, who rode the gray colt until suffering an injury between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

"At least Shane goes around saying this is the best horse he ever rode," Hine said from his barn at Monmouth Park. "After the Travers, I caught up with Jose and asked him, 'What happened, Jose?' He said, 'Got out-run.' . . . I was so disturbed the blood rushed to my head. I had to sit down."

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