Can we put a cork in Kegasus, please?
Let’s do some alliterative word association: Preakness. Pimlico. Pandering.
The five weeks of the Triple Crown are the season of harmony in the otherwise discordant world of U.S. thoroughbred racing. This is when stars are born — hello, Animal Kingdom — and when the sport recaptures its prominence of the past to steal a few headlines and highlight segments. Who wouldn’t rather watch Animal Kingdom charge down the stretch than hear about the latest from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals?
Churchill Downs capitalizes on this opportunity. It creates lifetime memories in its two-minute Run for the Roses. The twin spires are iconic. Celebrities walk the red carpet. It shines like the "jewel" the Triple Crown races are supposed to be.
The Preakness? Say hello to "Kegasus."
Yes, in one of the rare moments horse racing has to grab the media spotlight, Pimlico has trotted out a half-horse, half-trailer-trash mascot who calls himself (itself?) "the Lord of the Infield."
Beer gut? Check. Nipple ring? Check. Mullet usually seen only on reruns of "Cops"? Check. The only thing missing is Jaime Pressly at his side.
The marketing push here is to get the 21- to 35-year-olds into the Pimlico gates. Preakness day, at least in person, has become known for the party as much as the race. A raucous crowd heads to the infield to drink, drink, drink and drink some more. Kegasus, Pimlico officials say, speaks to that demographic.
No, Kegasus panders to that demographic. He’s a marketing strategy born of desperation.
Maryland racing is in such poor shape that Pimlico will do anything for an influx of cash. Nearby states inflated purses with money diverted from legal slot machines, which drew horsemen away from Maryland and reduced the number of horses running in the state. It’s a horse racing fact that smaller fields reduce betting handle. Over the years, Maryland racing suffered from a slow bleed of business.
After finally getting a slots bill passed, the Maryland Jockey Club will get an influx of $15.6 million over the next three years, but that’s a mere bandage on the problem. Track officials want to cut racing dates and perhaps close the Laurel racetrack.
As an isolated case study of marketing, Kegasus is a hit. Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas told The Associated Press sales are up about 18 percent for Preakness day this year compared with last year. The Preakness crowd has exceeded 100,000 in nine of the past 12 years. The infield accounts for about a third of the overall attendance.
This revenue bump helps Pimlico pay the bills, but it does nothing for the long-term health of the sport. It sells the wrong story.
For every TV standup you get showing a fat dude wearing a horse suit straight out of a middle school play, you’ve missed an opportunity to sell what the sport is really about. The Preakness favorite, Animal Kingdom, is trained in Maryland. His trainer, Graham Motion, has a squeaky-clean reputation in a sport full of conditioners who find shortcuts in a syringe.
Don’t think a horse can create buzz? Tell that to the fans of Zenyatta, who flocked to the track every time she ran. Animal Kingdom is a magnificent horse who very well could catch on with the public. Not this week, though. Kegasus gets first billing in Baltimore.
Bob Baffert, who trains long shot Midnight Interlude, has won the Preakness five times and is a quote machine. Dialed In, trained by the media-friendly Nick Zito, is gunning for a record payday of $6.1 million, thanks to a track bonus offered for winning a series of three certain races.
Those are the stories of horse racing, but they may go unnoticed by those staggering out of the Pimlico mosh pit after an all-day binge.
Just to put this perspective in context, this is not coming from a stuffed shirt who looks down on the railbirds with disdain. I’ve never stepped foot in a Turf Club, nor worn a sportcoat to the track. I learned the sport in the Del Mar infield, enjoying a beer under the sun.
Del Mar always has promoted a good time, but never at the expense of the sport itself. Infield fun was always secondary to the sport. At some point, it occurred to me to put down the beer for a moment and pick up a Daily Racing Form to see why the races played out the way they did. I was hooked. And I kept the beer in hand as I came back to see the likes of Best Pal, Tight Spot, Silver Charm and, yes, Zenyatta run at Del Mar.
Horse racing is all about a good time. So, Pimlico, sell your $20 bottomless mugs of beer. Bring in the bands. Have a party. But, please, put a cork in Kegasus.