When Kentucky Speedway hosted its inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race last year, Bruton Smith – the wonderfully loquacious and off-the-wall track owner – rankled more than a few fans of real horsepower when he took digs at Churchill Downs and Thoroughbred racing’s signature event, the Kentucky Derby.
One day before last year’s logistical nightmare in Sparta set in, Smith boldly (and some would say foolishly) sat in the Speedway’s media center and declared “We will outdraw this horsey race you talk about. This event will be larger than anything (the Kentucky Derby) has ever had.”
Of course, those who sat in/witnessed the debacle know last year’s Cup event was remembered for the epic traffic snarl that saw thousands of fans stranded for hours trying to get into track and some even turned away due to lack of parking. Even if all of the 107,000-plus who had purchased seats made it into the Speedway, its numbers still didn’t come close to the record 165,307 that turned out for the 138th running of this year’s Kentucky Derby – never mind the 112,552 that showed up for the Oaks.
Even though tonight’s Cup event is unlikely to be a sellout, the ever-bold Smith still didn’t back down from his original stance even when the cold hard numbers were pointed out to him during a Saturday afternoon press conference.
“What I’d like for them (Churchill Downs) to do is come forth and swear, give us a sworn statement that they had that many people,” Smith said when asked if he wanted to amend his previous statement. “If they do that, then we’ll continue the argument.”
Those who cover NASCAR on a regular basis know that Smith doesn’t back down from much of anything – which is part of the reason he was able to make a Cup date materialize in Kentucky to begin with – so his answer to the above query was expected. But whether Smith wants to accept it or not, it is the opinion of this humble turf writer that he and his track have more than a long way to go if they are ever going to approach the Kentucky Derby in terms of both relevance and popularity within the Bluegrass.
Put aside the fact the Derby has a 137-year head start on Kentucky’s Cup race. And let’s not even get into the fact that for all of Churchill’s issues – and that list is long – it knows how to get 160,000-plus people in and out of its facility without backing up an interstate to the point where it become national news.
The Thoroughbred race horse is what Kentucky is known for. It is still the signature industry of this state and chances are, no matter where in the world a race horse may be running, there are likely people on every corner of the Bluegrass who have a vested interest. Maybe it’s because the sire stands at their farm. Or the grandsire. Or they once took care of the broodmare. The point is, there are countless people in Kentucky who make their living and are deeply connected to what transpires in races across the country.
And for a sport that is supposedly on its last legs, it continues to produce athletes that inspire a level of passion that would rival any other fan base. Junior Nation is one of the most powerful forces in the game, no doubt. But put them in a steelcage match with the masses who cheered on Black Caviar at Royal Ascot and I’m not so sure who I’d put my money on.
For the record, this is not a bash on NASCAR. I personally grew up as a fan of the sport and still consider myself a patron – even though I have to put my fangirl roots aside for the evening to actually cover tonight’s 400-mile test. What this is a knock on is people with little working knowledge of horse racing who seem to want to try and kick it in the teeth for the sake of building their own product up.
Admittedly, Thoroughbred racing has made itself an easy target with its inability to gets itself together on several major issues and the fact it keeps shooting itself in the foot from a PR standpoint (I’m looking at you, New York State Racing and Wagering Board). But as much as anything right now, the racing community needs to stand up for itself and own what it does best and what it has gotten right.
Both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes drew record crowds this year. And even though I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown hopes ended with a premature retirement, this year’s Belmont Stakes still had more than 85,000 in attendance as well as its third largest on-track handle ever at the track. When the rubber hits the road and racing puts its best face forward, it can put up numbers even the sporting world’s Big Four would be envious of.
When Churchill Downs announced it was now going to base entries in the Kentucky Derby field on points rankings rather than graded stakes earnings, some officials favorably referred to it as a “NASCAR-like system”.
But as Bruton Smith unwittingly emulated again today, even mainstream sports have their struggles. And in this case, Thoroughbred racing should be celebrate the fact that in this particular intrastate match up, they have a open length lead that isn’t likely to fade in the stretch.