One of the most obvious shortcomings of the 2001 racing season promises to be the loss from the television broadcast schedule of a number of important Triple Crown prep races. In the recent past, fans from around the country were treated to most of the major races for 3-year-olds, either on cable or network TV.
Sitting in the comfort and warmth of our homes and watching Triple Crown preps from Florida or California was a sure sign that winter was coming to an end and that the most fascinating slice of the racing season was just around the corner. Debates would rage about whether the winner of the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes from Gulfstream Park had the ability to negotiate two turns, or whether the winner of the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita was a legitimate contender for the Triple Crown trail. We would watch the Fountain of Youth and make a case for the fifth-place finisher who was coming on like a horse that wants to run a mile and a quarter, and say the best horse lost at Santa Anita because of a speed bias.
The live broadcasts of these preps got fans thinking, talking, and anticipating, building momentum as the Triple Crown approached. It's not easy for a print journalist to say this, but televising an event gives it credibility, and the telecasts from Florida and California may have led to increased coverage in daily newspapers and on some of the popular sports recap shows on ESPN, CNN, and FOX.
This year, don't look for any live broadcasts of prep races from Gulfstream Park or Santa Anita Park on the major cable stations or networks. Because these two premier winter tracks are owned by Magna Entertainment, which is dropping out of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the NTRA will not spend money provided by its dues-paying members to televise races from Gulfstream or Santa Anita.
In addition, with NBC picking up the rights to the Triple Crown, ABC will not televise the Florida Derby or any other preps. NBC, with a full menu of sports slated for Saturday afternoons over the next few months, won't begin its racing telecasts until the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
Serious fans can find a local simulcast site showing many of these races, but the loss of television means many casual fans will be left in the dark.
The NTRA's "Racing to the Kentucky Derby" series on ESPN will include races from Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park, including the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby. Key preps in Kentucky, New York, and possibly the Lone Star Derby from Lone Star Park in Texas and the Illinois Derby from Sportsman's Park also are likely to make their way onto ESPN this spring.
Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park also are dropping out of the NTRA at year's end, but the two independently owned tracks had existing contracts for ESPN telecasts with Winner Communications, when it was purchased by NTRA Productions early last year, and those contracts will be honored. But races such as the San Rafael Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, and Florida Derby will not be seen from the comfort of anyone's home--unless you have a satellite dish or access to local FOX Sports Net channels.
The purchase of Winner Communications gave the NTRA five years of guaranteed time slots at favorable terms with ESPN and its affiliates, ESPN2 and ESPN Classics. Some will suggest the NTRA should bite the bullet and show races from the Magna-owned tracks, but that isn't likely. Though the NTRA loses valuable content and Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita lose visibility, it's racing fans who will suffer the most. They really don't care about mandates or governance--their interests lie with horses and horse racing.