While for some the trail to the Triple Crown begins the minute a healthy foal hits the ground, a more realistic starting point is when the first major prep races are shown on live television.
Thankfully, that time has arrived. With neither Santa Anita Park nor Gulfstream Park broadcast on the Television Games Network, many of the best early-season allowance races and stakes for 3-year-olds have been seen by a dedicated few who visit their local off-track betting shops--often braving frigid wintry conditions to do so.
That all changes, beginning Feb. 15, when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's first racing telecast of the year, featuring the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) and Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. I), is scheduled on ESPN from 5-6 p.m. Eastern time.
The operative word here is "scheduled." Last year's kickoff show featuring the Fountain of Youth became a 15-minute embarrassment for the NTRA when previous programming overran its time slot. This year's telecast follows a two-hour basketball game between Big 10 rivals Michigan and Ohio State. Let's hope for a lopsided score with no timeouts or fouls in the closing minutes.
The 2003 television outlook is far more promising than last year's for two reasons. First, more races will be broadcast live. This year's Citgo Racing to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) series on ESPN and ESPN2 will televise 13 races live, compared with six in 2002. Second, the broadcast team for the telecasts has been upgraded to include two well-known sportscasters from other ESPN programming.
Kenny Mayne, who spent more than his share of time behind the cable network's "SportsCenter" desk, will host the telecasts. Mayne developed his love for racing at now-defunct Longacres in the Pacific Northwest, and in recent years has emceed the Eclipse Awards dinner.
Joining the regular on-air team as a reporter will be Miami-based Hank Goldberg, who is widely known to sports fans from his work on ESPN's pre-game shows for college and pro football. Former Dallas-area racing writer Randy Moss and Lexington broadcaster Kenny Rice round out the ESPN team.
The fact Mayne and Goldberg are working the pre-Derby series suggests ESPN is looking at its long-term relationship with racing (it has a contract with the NTRA extending through 2008) as an opportunity to improve the quality of the telecasts and build viewership.
In addition to the ESPN/ESPN2 Citgo series (the schedule for which was published in The Blood-Horse of Feb. 1, page 626), racing will get pre-Triple Crown exposure on April 12 when the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) are shown live on NBC in a special 90-minute telecast from 4:30-6 p.m. ET. That show will be hosted by Tom Hammond, the one-time Keeneland auction-ring announcer who again will head the NBC broadcast team for its Triple Crown coverage.
Racing's television ratings were up last year, and the trend has continued so far in 2003 with the weekly "Long John Silver's Wire to Wire" recap show nearly doubling its viewership after being moved from Wednesdays to Tuesdays at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2. That show will take on a livelier look later this year as it moves out of the studio.
But for all the good news about racing on television, it has not led to an immediate spike in two important economic indicators that measure the health of the game: purses and pari-mutuel handle. Last year, despite the legalization of account wagering in California and record handle for the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, total handle crept upward by a mere 3%, and purses gained less than 1%.
An increase in handle and purses ultimately will result from a fan base that grows as a result of television exposure. For now, let's just rejoice that the Triple Crown season is back in our living rooms.