Protecting stars will preserve sport of kings

The story of Rags to Riches is a textbook case of why marketing and promoting horse racing is so frustrating.

Trainer Todd Pletcher was pointing the Belmont Stakes winner toward a start Saturday in the Coaching Club American Oaks. Meanwhile, ESPN2 was set to televise the San Diego Handicap live from Del Mar and insert the CCAO on tape delay. Because of Rags to Riches, the network switched to showing the CCAO live on ESPN and not covering the San Diego Handicap at all.

Here’s why: Rags to Riches might be the most popular horse in racing, and ESPN attracts a bigger audience than ESPN2. This meant showcasing the sport’s brightest star to more casual and new racing fans.

These well-intended plans blew up when Rags to Riches got a slight fever and now won’t be running in the CCAO at Belmont.

Racing is a tough sport to sell, especially when you can’t guarantee the star horses will show up. I’ve written before how important it is to preserve the health, and extend the careers, of champion horses.

This is so the public can enjoy them, build loyalties and hopefully get more involved in racing.

Conversely, it also has been opined by racing media that in doing so the sport is wasting it’s time — waxing nostalgic — that star horses do nothing to increase wagering or attract newcomers.

I disagree.

If the sport doesn’t keep trying to lengthen the careers of its stars so the public has champions to root for, then horse racing will dissipate into jai alai or dog racing.

The sport will be stripped of general interest other than results and entries on the scoreboard page.

For the media and the public to care about horse racing, it needs to be more than betting, handicapping and technology. Retaining a balance between gambling and sport is important.

I point to what ESPN has done for poker and its players. It’s a good case study to emulate.

LEROY’S — Leroy’s is offering a daily Surfin Six progressive pool contest on the races from Del Mar. The entry fee is $10.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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