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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