Come May, most Minor League Baseball teams are off to the races following the April commencement of the MiLB season. This May, one team took the turn of phrase literally.
On the night before the famed Kentucky Derby, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans made headlines when they hosted Derby Eve during their May 3 game against the Salem Red Sox. The big hats, pastel colors and argyle jerseys were enough to win the Pelicans MiLB's May Promotion of the Month Award and a spot as a finalist for a Golden Bobblehead Award, presented at the Innovators Summit in September.
Late in the 2018 season, a member of the Pelicans game day staff and former jockey saw that the Pelicans had a game scheduled for 2019's Derby Day. He immediately saw the potential and threw out the idea for a Derby-themed game on Saturday, May 4. The front office staff bounced around the idea and ultimately decided to create a new holiday: Derby Eve. As the Myrtle Beach community features Kentucky Derby celebrations all over town on Derby Day (involving several of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans' nonprofit partners), and the team's first pitch was scheduled for almost exactly race time, the Pelicans found the idea of direct competition with this historic race less than desirable.
Instead, Derby Eve was born and -- in true Derby fashion -- the team went all out. Pastels and silks weren't enough for the Pelicans. For what is likely the first time in Minor League Baseball, there was a live, in-game, thoroughbred horse race. Situated on the outfield warning track, two horses and their jockeys raced from foul pole to foul pole between innings while staff, fans, players and Facebook Live viewers watched with baited breath.
"That was the longest 60 seconds of my life," said general manager Ryan Moore. "I could just hope it would go off the way we wanted it to and a horse didn't go wild into the outfield. So my favorite part of the night was watching those horses exit the field."
The biggest challenge the Pelicans staff faced through the planning and execution of its new promotion was not securing horses, designing jerseys or managing a horse race on a baseball warning track in the middle of a game. It was convincing people of the size of the horses and the existence of a race at all.
"I think a lot of people were curious as to what we were going to do with this horse race. We weren't going to just have little horses out that you could take pictures with. No, we were going to have two big thoroughbred horses and we were really trying to push that 'Yes this is actually happening, and yes, we're going to pull this off. You have to come see it to believe it,'" said Hunter Horenstein, director of fan engagement. "It really was about creating that curiosity and creating that excitement to come out to a baseball game and see something you've never seen before at a Minor League Baseball stadium."
Though the Pelicans staff took every measure to promote its game as much as possible (including strolling through the streets of urban Myrtle Beach on horseback), pitcher Javier Assad decided to take things a step further. With one out in the top of the first inning, Assad made a soccer-inspired play that garnered attention as the No. 2 spot on Sports Center's Top Plays and was named MLB Network's No. 1 play for the day. What followed the next day was a plethora of comments on social media featuring one or both of the following sentiments: "What are those jerseys?" and "Where can I get one?"
Video: Pelicans' Assad kicks for out
By all accounts, Derby Eve achieved great success and gained enough attention to warrant a second go-round next season, schedule permitting. The event's success is a testament to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans staff's thoroughness and attention to detail. It wasn't enough to dress in everyday pastels, serve mint julips and call it a day. They were committed. With a former jockey on staff and the internet at their fingertips, the front office strived to create the most authentic experience possible, just short of attending the actual Kentucky Derby.
"We wanted to be as authentic as we could for the entire night. We spent a lot of time poring over the different silk designs and what the jerseys would look like to make sure we got it right, down to something as simple as the Facebook ads," said assistant general manager Kristen Call. "We actually used a photo of Rich (the aforementioned jockey), who gave it to us and said, 'Feel free to use this.'"
All-in-all, the big hats, three-piece suits, thoroughbreds, best-dressed competition and bright blue-and-yellow jerseys created immense success for the Pelicans. Taking Assad's top play into account, Murphy's Law didn't stand a chance in Myrtle Beach on Derby Eve. The Pelicans players left the field as victors that night and went on to produce a five-game win streak. You could say it was Derby magic, or you could say it was a wonderful coincidence. But it's more fun to call it magic.