TV Triple Trouble - By Lenny Shulman

(Originally published in the June 19, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

The 2010 Triple Crown series is history, as are the five-year contracts with NBC (Kentucky Derby and Preakness) and ABC/ESPN (Belmont Stakes) to televise the jewels of 3-year-old racing. While all agree that returning the three races to one network would be optimum as far as marketing the series as a whole, the chances of that happening may be lessening with each passing day.

The now-defunct Triple Crown Productions was set up to handle contractual arrangements of the races, but that entity was de facto controlled by Churchill Downs. In 2006, when Churchill demanded 50% of the take from selling the three races to NBC, with the Preakness and Belmont settling for 25% each, the New York Racing Association balked and walked, cutting its own, more lucrative deal with ABC/ESPN. NYRA was coming off hosting three Belmont Stakes where a Triple Crown had been on the line (War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones), and the ratings for those Belmonts had exceeded those for the corresponding Kentucky Derbys. NYRA rightfully decided it could make more money on its own than with the crumbs Churchill was offering.

Of course, it is a more challenging economic environment now than it was five years ago, and NYRA cannot expect near the same deal it received then. But NYRA isn’t the only sticking point in reuniting the three races on a single network. In the past the Preakness went along with Churchill, and the Derby and Preakness were sold as a package. Today, with the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment Corp. and the emergence of MI Developments as the owner of Maryland racetracks Pimlico and Laurel, the Preakness is now being operated as a separate entity, no longer attached to the Derby. So, in essence, instead of two entities negotiating television rights, there are now three.

Charles Hayward, the president and CEO of NYRA, said in the days before the June 5 Belmont Stakes that talks were under way among the three hosts of the Triple Crown races and that negotiations with the networks would begin shortly. Asked specifically about the possibility of reuniting all three races under one broadcasting umbrella, Hayward acknowledged that was likely the best possible scenario, but when pressed about whether he thought that would eventually happen, he was not optimistic.

Nor could one argue with him, based on the way MID has gone rogue in its first post-bankruptcy action out in California. The entity, which owns Santa Anita Park, has basically told the Oak Tree Racing Association, a non-profit that has raced autumn dates at Santa Anita since 1969 while giving $20 million to charities and enriching Santa Anita’s coffers, to take a hike. If MID is willing to play this game of high-stakes poker at the risk of wrecking California’s racing calendar while the sport in that state is hanging by a thread, one would have to take naivete to new heights to assume it will be a great uniter of a Triple Crown TV contract. Could we see, or, to the point, not see, the second leg of the Triple Crown on the MID co-owned HRTV? Huge ratings potential there. Not.

Although we remain frustrated at many of the elements of NBC’s presentation of horse racing, there is no doubt that network has done the best job in bringing viewers in to watch major racing events on TV. And while Breeders’ Cup is to be commended for trying to ratchet up interest among younger sports fans by moving its event to the ESPN family of networks, that voyage has been an abject failure, with Breeders’ Cup losing half the viewing audience that NBC had been bringing to it. Aside from 2008, when Big Brown went for the Triple Crown, the Belmont has likewise gone the wrong way ratings-wise, with the 2010 version logging the poorest numbers in 50 years for the event.

Churchill Downs, which this year bankrolled NBC’s telecasts of three days of stakes action for 3-year-olds leading up to the Kentucky Derby, is likely to continue that series and hitch its wagon to the Peacock Network going forward. Like so much else in this industry today, however, the remainder of the equation is up for grabs, and fractionalization is likely to trump unity as its calling card. 

Lenny Shulman is the Features Editor of The Blood-Horse


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My worry is this: it looks like the telecasting of horse racing is going back to when I was just a little baby dinosaur and it was impossible to see anything on TV.

At least in those days, I could still read some copy in my daily newspaper (yes, paper ...brought to your door every day.. tactile) about some races.  Now, I can't even do that because they've moved all the racing news except for teeny tiny incomplete results to their on-line site.

More fractionalization is just what we need to kill this sport.  Bah!

15 Jun 2010 12:16 PM
Fran Loszynski

For the life of me I can't understand why there is such a debate over who covers the Triple Crown. It is the fastest two minutes in sport history. I enjoy the commentaries and watching Afleet Alex's son and Smarty Jones son walk down the Derby turf together grabbed at my heartstrings but when it gets right dowwn to it; it's the bugle call that captures my interest and my hands start to sweat when they are at the gate. Give me great coverage of that without commercial interruption and I'm happy for the rest of the year. Whatever station can do that should get the contract. You know we have such great coverage before the races in the news media and blogs like that we all know the racehorses, jockeys, owners and trainers like we lived with them-so by the time the race comes along  -as fans- "we" are "ready to roll"!

15 Jun 2010 12:36 PM

I so hope NBC manages to get a hold of all three races.  In our area, now that the bogus digital broadcasting is in place, we get one podunk channel -- backed by NBC.  If ABC or one of the cable channels gets exclusive rights, all my horse racing watching is going to be done after the fact and on YouTube.  Absolutely no excitement that way :p  Frustrating to have to pay through the nose for cable TV just to watch the big three (I'm content with radio broadcast or newspaper for all the rest, but if there's a Triple Crown in my lifetime, I actually want to SEE it happen!)

15 Jun 2010 1:00 PM

Your evidence on why the Preakness and Belmont should join up with Churchill and NBC is thin.

You say the ratings are the indicators that going with ESPN has been an "abject failure." What specifically about NBC and their coverage was different when they had all three races leads you to think there was a supposed exodus of viewers when Belmont and Breeders' Cup moved to ESPN/ABC? There were three Triple Crown opportunities when NBC had all three shows. ABC had one since taking back the Belmont. You think it was the coverage on ESPN/ABC that led to lower ratings for Big Brown's attempt as compared to War Emblem, Funny Cide or Smarty Jones? It couldn't possibly have anything to do with Big Brown's unsavory connections or Eight Belles dying in the Derby?

And regarding the Breeders' Cup, where was it written that that organization was attempting to reach a younger audience by moving to ESPN? That was never the intention. The reasons for the ratings drop on ESPN are easy to explain: the festival's expansion and the natural erosion that came from moving to a cable channel. It is not because some fanciful audience disappeared. The program is spread over more time and the shows must compete with hugely expanded college football options beyond what was available when NBC ceded away the Cup.

Breeders' Cup was looking for an enthusiastic partner and ESPN offered a very lucrative deal in addition to continuing a partnership that had been in place between ESPN and various racing programmers for more than 20 years.

The abject failure you describe won both the Eclipse Award and honorable mention in 2009.

That abject failure of a network also has the most to offer A SPORTING EVENT in terms of money for those rights. If the powers that be at MID or NYRA think promoting chefs and celebrities at the Derby will lead to greater coverage of their races, they should certainly sign up with NBC and Churchill Downs. But if MID is as money conscious as you indicate

(that somehow the Oak Tree lease matters to TV negotiations) doesn't it make sense MID should attempt to get as much as possible for the television rights they have to sell? Why should MID take a bad deal with NBC to achieve the fantastic notion that the Triple Crown on one network is somehow better for the game as a whole? Why should an embattled organization like NYRA get back in bed with a network that short-changed them in their brief time together? They owe it to the taxpayers of NY state to maximize those TV rights, and taking a bad deal from NBC and CDI would be a disservice to those taxpayers.

As a previous commenter posted, it doesn't matter what network shows these races. It's the horses that matter and determine how many eyeballs outside of racing fans tune in to watch. No amount of synergistic promotion would have improved the Belmont ratings this year - ratings that yes were historically low - but were also indicated the show was the most watched sport on television that day.

15 Jun 2010 7:27 PM

Does ESPN getcredit in the ratings for  every bar and restaurant in America that is tuned in? Do thr rating refelcts every racing fans are at tracks or otb?  As you know, because you do your homework, ratings on NBC fell 13 years in a row before the switch to ESPN. ESPN's coverage of the BCWC garnered an Emmy nomination in 2009 abnd the BC was up for 09 Sports Event of the Year due in largest part to ESPN's coverage. Not too shabby for an "abject failure."  The promotion in the weeks leading up to the event has been there - reality dictates that it can't start 60 days before the event - any event. NBC has done a great job the last two years promoting the Derby - no doubt about it but its only been two great years of promotion EVER on the network for horse racing.  Their race day coverage (minus the red carpet show) is stale as is their talent -old and gray.  

I believe racing will regret the day the truned their back on ESPN and stopped suporting their efforts. Take a look back when handle was at its peak and compare how many hours of ESPN coverage - maybe there is a connection? MORE TV = MORE HANDLE...shocking thought, I know

16 Jun 2010 7:15 AM

If I recall correctly, NBC broadcast Derby prep races and promoted the season INCLUDING the Derby/Preakness and even the idea of the Belmont. Once the Preakness was done, the Belmont was a non-story for NBC and ABC, coming late to the game without continuity did the Belmont as a one-off, not as part of horse racing's 2010 season.

Broadcast as a one-off, the Belmont loses some of its luster.  So what's my point?  Short term, parochial thinking doesn't pay off in the long run.

The trouble with racing's fractured, hydra-headed management is that no one is thinking about or planning for the good of the sport.  The various players think only of individual self interest.

I'm reminded of John Nash's theory, that systems function best when the players pursue what's best for themselves AND what's best for the group, concurrently.  Racing is failing precisely because its local leaders think ONLY about what's best for themselves.

16 Jun 2010 8:17 AM

While it would be great to have all three triple crown races on the same network; having them on separate networks is better than none at all.  This is the first year that NBC did a decent job presentng their races, I miss the old days when stories about past races and their history were more important than who is wearing what hat and what celebrity is wearing what outfit.  Actually the owners of the horses are part of the problem and the jockeys.  If the rules where changed so that only horses that competed in the Kentuckey Derby could compete in the next two jewels of the triple crown, Smarty Jones should have had it.  Instead it would appear everyone is out to make sure there is no triple crown winner.  In general there is not enough news on the sports section of TV broadcasts about horse racing.  Like I never heard a word about Zenyata being 17 for 17 and the history surroundng it.  Horse racing should be included in all daily sports news casts.  That would help get the public use to listening and learnng about the true sport of all time.

16 Jun 2010 9:33 AM

Just when you think it can’t get worse it does.   Amid the backdrop of problems – one reform failure after another, an Operator with key properties as certified as any asylum patient could be, scrabble-like organizations sucking available dollars required to actually do something constructive – was the triple crown.  Now, the greatest asset the industry has going is suddenly vulnerable.  Worse, most fail to recognize it.  Thanks to a variety of factors the chances of 3-year-old winning the Derby, two weeks later the Preakness and three weeks thereafter the Belmont are fading with each passing year.  You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate that horses with 5-6 lifetime starts at sprint and middle distances aren’t likely to run in all three much less win them.  Take away the synergy that a single broadcast partner brought to the table and you have . . . you have what you have now.

16 Jun 2010 10:29 AM

Jeannine Edwards was eye poppnig gorgeous on Belmont Day.  Just give her a contract with all three stations. Plus she's paid her dues actually reporting and has earned it.

But wait, there are races too and I agree once the horses hit the track it does not matter which station it's on - just so there are no technical glitches once the gate opens and we can just watch the spectacle unfold.

16 Jun 2010 10:54 AM
G. Kempton Moog

So let me get this straight. Unity in the television coverage is good but Stronach attempting to "unify" the California racing dates for his purposes is bad?

Is he just not your kind of emperor?

Maybe California racing needs less fractionalization, and since Stronach has the largest market cap and isn't rumbling about closing his tracks to build an office park, he deserves the chance to "unify" racing in the Golden State. I mean, if that theory works for the Triple Crown, it should work for California racing, right?

16 Jun 2010 11:07 AM

How could anyone laud NBC?  They pushed the Kentucky Oaks over to Bravo and spent most of the time, promoting NBC TV shows.  On KD day, they refused to allow either TVG or HRTV show any earlier races from Churchhill.  They did the same for the Preakness.  In addition, they never showed any of the earlier stakes races, which might have helped handicappers as to the condition of the track.  Most of the time prior to the actual big event was spent on "background" stories of connections.  Again, they, also, used their time to promote NBC TV shows.

At least, when ABC had the Belmont contract, they allowed ESPN to show the earlier card at Belmont.

In addition, the networks, especially NBC, uses people who know little about horses.  Costas, who once snubbed the great Jim McKay at the Kentucky Derby, does not know which end of a horse the tail is supposed to be.  The networks could care less about any horse player as they have never learned how to show horses in the paddock, in the post parade or going to the gate.  Of course, there could be worse and have TVG run the show.  Then, the screen would be filled with their in-house touts promoting their own Pick 3s, 4s and other exotics.  When I am trying to view the looks of horses, I do not need to see Mr B's Picks to Click or those of the Sarge, who, never served one day in the military.  Horse racing needs far better.

16 Jun 2010 12:12 PM

Sorry, but anyone that defends ESPN by saying that they have done even anywhere close to what was expected regarding their lead-up promotion of the Breeders' Cup is either deluding themselves or either works for the BC or ESPN.  The promotion has been non-existent.  Last year, I logged onto the home page during the BC and there was nary a mention ANYWHERE on the home page.  They have not at all leveraged their various platforms to promote the event as was promised when the BC/NTRA were selling that idea to the industry. It's been pathetic by any measure.  That's the BC's/NTRA's fault back when they signed the contracts for not contracting a certain level of guaranteed exposure, but in any case, it is absurd to even try and argue that  the switch to ESPN has been anything but a decided negative.  Who gives a rat's *** about Eclipse Awards or Emmys, totally meaningless.

16 Jun 2010 4:11 PM

I'll agree that some new talent would be welcome, but the red carpet show is tacky celebrity garbage. I would rather watch the jockeys or trainers play beer pong... with Mint Juleps. Somehow I imagine stoic Pletcher as the loudest, rowdiest guy with a few drinks in him. Streaking around the track, hollering like a fratboy as a shirtless, headbanging, mud-covered Nick Zito gives the devil horns with both hands--going, "Whooooo!" That's some Must-See TV right there. It doesn't have to be live, they can sleep it off and put their game faces on for race day.

I think the networks all do a pretty good job with the races, except that they'll perfectly frame every horse's behind that drops a deuce, but they won't leave the fractional times up for more than a blink of an eye. And it seems like they don't even show the final time at the wire or right after the race. When you check the fractions you'll feel more intensely that your picks have a chance or are in trouble. You might even streak around your living room, going "Whoooo!"

16 Jun 2010 11:53 PM
Stan Freedman

Do something that helps the industry and the race fans. The tracks should make a deal that puts all the races on both HRTV and TVG with the undercards. After that they each can make their own deal with whatever network they like. Network coverage of horse racing is dismal at best no matter which network you're talking about. There is no sense in itemizing everything that's bad but just remember this. The next time a horse breaks down in a triple crown race, it won't matter which network it is, they all will turn against the industry in a blink of an eye and support the radical animal rights people that their network news divisions cater to.

17 Jun 2010 12:05 AM
steve from st louis

Racing's Golden Egg has been chopped into three hermetically-sealed pieces, none of which is worth a damn by itself. And racing still thinks it's all that and a bag of chips while America yawns.

17 Jun 2010 4:52 PM

Steve from st louis:  here, here, you're right on point.

17 Jun 2010 7:12 PM

I hope NBC gets all the races, or shared with ABC like they`ve been doing, otherwise I`ll have to watch on youtube, which would completely suck.

They already did that with the Breeder`s Cup, not showing it on NBC has forced me to watch on youtube, wich sucks.

17 Jun 2010 9:53 PM
mike rullo


thankyou for bringing this topic up,

espn has the sports tracker running during the breeders cup classic how sad is this!

nobody can follow the race with all

camera changes during the race.

the main problem is you cant even turn the sports tracker off for even a 2 minute race, espn is a disgrace to horse racing.

Is a 2nd quarter football score more important than the breeders cup classic to the horse racing fan!

epsn needs to stop the tracker and get rid of the yard marks on the racetrack it completely takes away from the running of the race.

espn coverage was good in the early 90's, just keep it simple let the great horses sell your product.

18 Jun 2010 8:40 AM

Lenny, if you're going to discuss the morass of the horse business in general, you need anothr picture of you available with a frown. On second thought, nevermind, racing today is truly a joke!

19 Jun 2010 5:48 PM

Being 74, I wasn't aware there would be so much interest in this subject. Lots of good comments by most. I agree with some and not others, so will touch on what I think are salient points. Personally, I like ESPN (though they have lots of flaws as some have commented) because I believe they have three of the best as far as knowledge of horseracing -- Randy Moss, Jerry Bailey and Jeanine Edwards. Their worst are the so-called "Hammer" who can't pick his nose (I realize that's an old expression that may not be politically correct) and that jerk Kenny Maine. NBC has the little guy Costas who works all sides of the street the same. NBC thinks it's a parade they are covering and not a horse race. What I'm looking for is a real champion in the mold of Secretariat, not a cheap copy. It seems simple enough to say have the coverage about horses and their records and forget the hats --- so hats off to all of you for your interest.

20 Jun 2010 7:55 AM

What's the big deal about having different networks broadcasting the TC?

The NFL has its own network, as well as Fox, ESPN, CBS & NBC and they do just fine; they even take turns broadcasting playoffs & the Super Bowl. The NBA has TNT, ABC, ESPN & and the NBA network too.

I don't care whether it is one or 5 networks broadcasting, as long as the coverage improves; too many stories about personalities, celebrities, food and the like. I'd like to see horses in their workouts; I'd like racing analists to know why one trainer works his horse 6 furlongs by himself, while another trainer works him 4 furlongs and in company, and Id like to get more opinions from professional clockers regarding the horses behavior & attitude during workouts.

They should talk about who's hot and who's not...I could care less about a trainer who has won 4 TC races, but has not won a single race the last 3 months; and they should show more prep videos, and tough trips.

IMO, Stories about people are fine, but as long as they are balanced with detailed racing info. That's all I want.

20 Jun 2010 10:27 PM
John Huber

Lenny, you're column was very good on the telecasts. However i believe everyone is missing the point.  I , as a better, could less which network shows the races.  All I want is a passionate deliverer so to speak. We used to have shows that previewed the upcoming races days ahead of time.  We,as bettors or potential bettors, want to be informed well ahead of time on everything(remember espn's "breakfast at the derby"? )

This isn't football where a person listens to the analysis up to kick-off and then calls his bookie to place their bets.  We need a build up in order to attract new bettors as well as interest in the sport.  No network gets involved early enough to generate more interest in the sport.  The powers that be need to focus on this versus a view of how much can I make from a network for the broadcast of their event.  Seems like a very short sighted view and has no long term ideas.  "I got mine today hell with everybody else".  It's a microcosm of today's society.

25 Jun 2010 12:23 AM

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