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Horse Racing News: Breeders' Cup & Fox Sports

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A couple of significant news items hit the airwaves this week, one of which involves a new television partnership with Fox Sports.

Royal Delta winning the last Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.
Royal Delta winning the last Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.
Harry How

I'm going to be out and about most of the day today but wanted to highlight a couple of this week's major news items Also, Tribe is in Saratoga this weekend, so I'm guessing we can look forward to a nice re-cap of his Spa experience over the next few days.

First on tap was probably the least important news of the week, but a welcome change, nonetheless. The Breeders' Cup has decided to re-re-name the Ladies' Classic back to its original title: the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and it's about time. I understand why they made the name change (causal fans don't know what "distaff" means), but I still think that was a poor reason to mess with basic horse racing nomenclature.

The Distaff is the Distaff once more. Long live the Distaff.

As for the other news this week - and a much more significant announcement - as noted in the FanShot earlier this week, the Jockey Club and Fox Sports have teamed up for a multi-year agreement to televise graded stakes races from around the country on the new Fox Sports 1 channel. Fox Sports 1 launches on August 1st as a replacement for the Speed Network (whether or not you'll be able to watch Fox Sports 1 on launch day will depend on revised agreements with major cable and satellite carriers), with Fuel eventually changing to Fox Sports 2 at some later date. Fox Soccer Channel will also go through re-branding and become something called FXX, which is apparently FX on steroids.

Anyway, with NBC Sports owning the rights to the Triple Crown races and already in agreements with Saratoga and Keeneland for telecasts during the year,  we'll see most of the coverage geared towards Belmont, Gulfstream, Del Mar and Santa Anita, since that represents the biggest "gap" in national graded stakes coverage at this time. [Oddly enough, ESPN used to televise the major stakes from all those tracks back when they acknowledged horse racing's existence.]

As with most national television agreements, this new deal between the Jockey Club and Fox Sports is a good thing for the industry - more racing on TV is always better. However, I'll be curious as to "how" the product is presented on this platform. (Hint: no robots or glowing horses.) If Fox wants to differentiate their coverage from that of NBC (and ESPN/ABC before them), I would hope they are considering embracing the gambling aspect of the sport. Sure, analysis is nice and I think it's important for the telecasts to contextualize the importance of the races they cover. But, fundamentally, this sport is about gambling dollars, and that needs to be highlighted.

A kind of side note to this announcement is the reality that the impact of TV coverage on horse racing is completely different than TV coverage for other major sports in America. While the NFL, MLB, NBA, etc. generate billions of dollars from their TV rights - money that is shared amongst the various teams in the league and the players - TV serves a completely different function for horse racing for a couple of reasons.

Number one, handle, not ratings, drives the horse racing industry. The Kentucky Derby drawing an all-time high in ratings is great for NBC (and for Churchill when they negotiate the next Derby TV contract), but those ratings don't translate to direct dollars for other tracks. Additionally, since tracks essentially operate as independent "leagues", success on TV for one track is less likely to impact other tracks; Del Mar isn't going to raise its purses if Churchill signs a massive TV deal with NBC for the Derby.

On the other hand, and number two, creating interest in the sport (something that "hopefully" can increase handle) is of great importance to draw fans into the game. The decline of nationally televised racing over the last 10 to 20 years is significant, almost catastrophic. As mentioned previously, at one time all of the Derby preps were on TV (usually ESPN), along with many of the big graded stakes days. The Arlington Million, along with the Beverly D. and Secretariat Stakes, used to be televised nationally on ABC just a few years ago. Heck, even the Longacres Mile out here at little old Emerald Downs was broadcast on ESPN less than 10 years ago.

With the decline of national racing coverage (and the reliance on TVG and HRTV to provide almost all of our televised horse racing needs*), the viewing experience has declined, as well. High Definition television is one of the great gifts to televised sports in the last 50 years but the technology has, for the most part, failed to impact horse racing.

*I love TVG and HRTV, and I think they do an excellent job for us hard-core fans, but they aren't widely available (HRTV) and typically require one to subscribe to a sports pack, and they aren't in HD. All of those facts relegate them to the back of the pack in terms of sports television.

The on--track experience counts for a lot and it's an important part of drawing interest and fans to the sport. But, at the same time, we live in a digital age of HDTV, smartphones, iProducts, etc.; increasing the amount of horse racing broadcast on a national scale is always a welcome development. TV doesn't solve the major problems facing the sport but it's an essential part of presenting any sport in this country and it can't be ignored.