More than 18 million households tuned in to NBC Sports to watch the Kentucky Derby on May 4. According to Sports Media Watch, the A.C. Nielsen ratings actually grew in the minutes after the race to 18.5 million households as stewards deliberated whether or not to disqualify Maximum Security from his apparent win.
Controversy followed the stewards' decision to take down Maximum Security's number for interference and make second-place finisher Country House the official Derby winner. Accusations flew. An appeal was submitted and rejected. A lawsuit was threatened and, ultimately, filed.
More was said and written about this 145th Kentucky Derby than any in memory. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. Even the president of the United States weighed in, Tweeting his displeasure with the result.
The door was open for racing to seize a rare opportunity, to build a rivalry when millions of people are paying attention to a sport they generally ignore. But then the realities of the game took over.
Gary West, who bred and owns Maximum Security with wife Mary, told Savannah Guthrie of NBC's “Today” show on Monday morning after the Derby, “There's no Triple Crown on the line for us, and there's no reason to run a horse back in two weeks when you don't have to.”
Imagine if Lucille and Adm. Gene Markey, the owners of Calumet Farm, had said the same thing when Alydar lost the 1978 Kentucky Derby to Affirmed.
Then Country House got sick and his trainer, Bill Mott, said the May 18 Preakness was out of the question for the asterisk-ridden Derby winner.
At least War of Will, the most accomplished of the three horses affected by the incident at the five-sixteenths pole in the rough and tumble Run for the Roses, showed up at Pimlico for the Preakness. Did he ever. The clear-cut win at Old Hilltop was a tribute to the belief his connections – owner Gary Barber, trainer Mark Casse and jockey Tyler Gaffalione – had in the War Front colt's abilities. The victory added fuel to the argument over whether or not War of Will could have won the Derby with a clean trip, somehow making up the 4 ½ lengths he was beaten.
Without Maximum Security and Country House in the field, the 2019 Preakness fell flat with the viewing public. The overnight television rating was a 4.3 and 10 share, the lowest since 2001. By comparison, the Kentucky Derby rating was 10.9, with a 25 share – the highest since 1990. (A ratings point equals the percentage of total television households measured by A.C. Nielsen watching a particular show; a share equals the percentage of televisions turned on at that time watching that same show. In other words 4.3% of all television households watched the Preakness; of all the televisions turned on during the telecast, 10% were tuned in to the Preakness.)
If controversies are good for television ratings, I would say that rivalries are better.
The Preakness had neither. By Saturday, the controversy's news cycle had moved on despite Gary West's efforts to keep it in the spotlight with his $20-million challenge to the owners of four horses for a rematch at an unspecified time in an unspecified race at an unspecified track.
With 13 starters, this 144th Preakness was a very good betting race. Improbable, moved up via disqualification to fourth in the Derby while never threatening Maximum Security, appeared to be a vulnerable favorite. Betting on the Preakness contributed to an all-time wagering record for the Maryland Jockey Club.
But good betting races don't resonate with the general public or the media the way a good rivalry does. There would be no Affirmed-Alydar, no Sunday Silence-Easy Goer, no Real Quiet-Victory Gallop. West not only took Maximum Security out of consideration for the Preakness, he said the colt would pass on the Belmont Stakes as well.
They can pick up the rivalry two months down the road in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. By then, however, the general public and most of the media will have long forgotten about horse racing until next spring. This was an opportunity lost.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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