In the Thoroughbred world's version of the hit television show "Survivor," my money would not have been on Jim Wilburn, the impresario for racing on ESPN and ESPN2, to make it past the first couple of meetings of the tribal council. In voting among racetrack managers, Wilburn might have been the first to get the boot.
But popularity and performance are two distinct variables. Truth is, Wilburn is far ahead of the pack when it comes to getting Thoroughbred racing on television, even if some people in the industry didn't necessarily like the tactics he used to get it there.
In 1981, Wilburn co-founded Winner Communications (now Winnercom), which began with Quarter Horse telecasts and broadcast its first Thoroughbred race on ESPN in 1985, when the sports network reached just 18 million homes. Wilburn convinced (arm-twisted?) more tracks to pay production costs if he could get their races on ESPN, which helped his company grow substantially. Meanwhile, ESPN became a cable giant.
Wilburn has been tight with ESPN management, though not because of horse racing. His company produces many other programming hours for ESPN, including hunting and fishing, rodeo, and soccer. That close association helped Wilburn get a very good deal for televised horse racing on ESPN and ESPN2--so good, in fact, that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association bought out Winner's contracts, which then became the nucleus of NTRA Productions, where Wilburn serves as president. The NTRA is using those programming hours for such series as "2Day at the Races," and "Racing to the Breeders' Cup."
While those contracts extend through 2003, thus ensuring a solid presence on ESPN for several years, the deal did not include the many hours of programming that began in 1997 and were built around the Triple Crown races. This so-called "shoulder programming" was a perfect fit for ESPN, since the Triple Crown itself was televised on ABC. Both networks are owned by the Walt Disney Co.
However, when NBC agreed to pay more than $50 million over five years to broadcast the Triple Crown beginning in 2001, there were concerns about whether ESPN would continue its commitment to help promote races being seen on another network. Fortunately, Wilburn and Churchill Downs president Tom Meeker (also president of Triple Crown Productions) were able to renew the agreement with ESPN for five years. The deal calls for a minimum of 44 hours of racing coverage each year on ESPN and ESPN2 during the Triple Crown series.
There is some question about what will happen to telecasts of several key races, including the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes, which were part of ABC's pre-Triple Crown coverage. Those key preps would seem like a natural fit for NBC in a lead-up to its Triple Crown telecasts. If NBC isn't interested, I'd put my money on Wilburn getting the races on ESPN. Come to think of it, I don't think I'd bet against Wilburn on anything, even in a game of "Survivor." TVG'S CLASSIC COVERAGE
TVG's one-hour broadcast of the Aug. 26 Pacific Classic from Del Mar -- shown on the Fox Sports West cable network -- was exceptional.
TVG was thrown a curveball just before going on the air with the injury to General Challenge's rider, Corey Nakatani, in a tragic spill that took the life of Madeleine Paulson's filly Candace in Paris. Their coverage switched smoothly into a CNN mode, with a hustling production crew and solid reporting getting breaking news to the audience as it happened.
It was the kind of broadcast that emphasizes TVG's commitment to quality.