If every movie review you ever read was positive, would you watch more films? If every hockey player on the ice was characterized as good or great, would you become a bigger fan? If Don Cherry never said anything controversial, would you remain tuned in during the intermission?
There is nothing more mesmerizing and attention grabbing than a well-crafted critical review. From your favourite urban affairs columnist to your beloved colour commentator, to Simon Cowell, the American Idol judge that convinces you and millions like you to tune in week after week, criticism is appealing – especially when the words uttered are accurate.
If you send me a well written Letter to the Editor criticizing my perspectives or opinions, I will make sure it gets printed. If it’s something that might pique our readers' interest, why wouldn’t I?
Why then, despite watching thousands of hours of simulcast shows and horse racing broadcasts, have I virtually never heard, a commentator say that a driver gave a horse an awful steer. I don’t hear judges criticized for poor decisions, trainers chastised for having a recruit unprepared, or track operators taken to task for the racetrack being in poor shape.
Is there any reason that we in horse racing believe that an infomercial catches more attention than an articulate and brutally honest analysis? Does anyone believe that by filling a broadcast with a vast array of superlatives praising everyone from the hot dog vendor to the sprinkler operator, we attract more bettors or keep the ones we have?
I’m not asking that we put Donald Trump on the air to berate every claiming horse on the track. What I am pleading for is that our broadcasters be allowed to take an honest shot at describing what happens at the races. We’re clearly capable of secretly pointing fingers and, when someone wins too many races whispering “cheater!” We should be able to speak into a microphone about the efforts exerted on track during the course of a race.
In the past, I have heard commentators relate stories of how horsepeople have complained when they are criticized, some refusing to cooperate and claiming the announcers are hurting their abilities to make a living. The last time I checked, every race has a winner and every horse has a driver and a trainer. The same purse money is distributed and the participants are professionals. Like any athlete, they are glorified and celebrated when they achieve greatness. And conversely must absorb the flak when they come up flat.
My primary motivation for writing this column came after I spent 45 minutes watching a rugby game on late night television. I assure you I know nothing about the sport and have absolutely no interest in either of the teams involved. I turned on the game by accident and kept it on for one reason – a captivating colour commentator who eloquently and compellingly criticized and dissected every poor decision, giving me a real insight into who was playing well, poorly and deplorably on the field. I don’t know who that commentator was, but he single-handedly did more for the sport of rugby in developing me as a potential fan than anyone ever has. Which brings me back to racing.
When Woodbine Entertainment Group unveiled the concept for Bet Night Live on The Score, I was very hopeful. The focus was on benefiting the gambler and reaching new fans. I was looking for an edgy and controversial show to bring new life to the television product. Instead the focus was on light fun and education. It’s a noble and worthwhile approach, but in my opinion, it’s misguided.
If I’d never seen a hockey game before in my life, I’d still rather watch Don Cherry than someone explaining what an offside is. If I’d never seen American Idol before, I’d still rather listen to Simon Cowell tell a bad singer that he’s bad, than listen to ninety minutes of playful banter between contestants and judges.
Racing must become comfortable with its own skin. If we’re going to broadcast our sport, we must loosen the reins on our commentators, allow them to criticize and ask tough questions and mandate that participants act professionally in interviews, even if challenged. Tracks have used private property rights before and I can’t think of a better use than to excuse a participant who feels his ego should be placed above the demands of the customer.
Horse racing is a gambling activity and a sport aimed at adults. Why wouldn’t our television personalities be the most brutally honest on the air? How many Rush Limbaughs, Judge Judys and Chef Gordon Ramsays do we need to see succeed before understanding what sells?
To racing’s broadcasters: if your off-air chats are more interesting than your on-air ones, you are failing your customers and your business. Now, be honest…