Back in racing’s glory days, which people my age call racing in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was little in the way of televised races. There was no simulcasting, no home computers and cell phones, and once a week during the ‘60s, TV viewers in New York would tune in to the affable and folksy Win Elliot broadcasting the races from Aqueduct, which was the center of the racing universe, where the likes of Kelso, Gun Bow, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, and Damascus could be seen almost every week. During the winter, you would tune in to Tommy Roberts from Hialeah. New York after its traditional March opening and Florida in the winter were the connecting points for racing in those days. California seemed like a world apart to Easterners.
In the 70s, TV coverage in New York continued with Frank Wright, Jack Whitaker, and Charlsie Cantey providing the expertise and color, with hardly any emphasis on wagering. They brought Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Alydar, and Spectacular Bid into our homes.
Back then, if you wanted to watch your favorite horses and wager on them, you simply got in your car or a bus (public or private) or the train and headed to Aqueduct, and later Belmont Park, when it reopened in 1968. As a result, Saturday crowds at the Big A ranged from 45,000 to 55,000, and holidays, mainly Memorial Day and Labor Day, would bring up to 70,000 to the track. Racing was both live and alive. This was the era of binoculars, sitting out in the cool breeze, with the aroma of cigar smoke, beer, and mustard wafting throughout the grandstand.
But as we are well aware, those days are gone, and other than the Triple Crown races, the sport continued to live on tradition and failed to forge new paths into the future, like other sports did, especially the NFL.
The 70s brought off-track betting in New York, and over the years, racing has tried to make up for time wasted and keep up with other sports, making great inroads in recent years through TVG and the former HRTV, and home betting, Ken McPeek’s Horse Races Now mobile app, and expanded television coverage of major stakes. On the internet, Xbtv has developed their own concept of racing coverage, with many former employees of HRTV, and providing daily videos of workouts, mainly from Santa Anita.
Nowadays you can watch just about any race on your cell phone or on your computer and iPad or tablet, and as a result, horses now race in front on vast empty grandstands. Gone are the cheers and that familiar hush and murmur that followed every race. Now many racetracks are being kept alive by connecting or neighboring casinos. Racing still has to find a way to lure people to the racetrack and provide fans with incentives to get them away from the slot machines for a while and give them something they can’t get on their computers…even if it’s just fresh air and getting close up to a live Thoroughbred.
As ABC, NBC, and CBS all vied for major racing coverage over the years, especially the Triple Crown, as well as ESPN, a new approach to racing coverage was being forged in Southern California, with Amy Zimmerman at Santa Anita and Tony Allevato at Hollywood Park constantly coming up with new innovative ideas for features and presenting racing in a unique manner. They continued to expand their horizons with Allevato heading up the TVG programming, which provided a wagering outlet, as executive producer and Zimmerman going to rival HRTV, which won numerous awards for their beautifully made features.
Following a brief stint with the NFL Network, Allevato eventually made his way back to racing, first as a consultant, then as president of NYRA Bets and executive producer for NYRA TV.
Like in his hands-on days at Hollywood Park, Allevato got the creative juices flowing and developed the highly acclaimed show “Belmont Live,” followed by “Saratoga Live,” which was recognized for Extraordinary Achievement in Daily Racing Presentation at the 24th annual International Simulcast Conference last September. Perhaps his biggest coup was having the show televised by the rapidly growing Fox Sports, which has put a major dent in ESPN. Now, racing fans could watch the sport presented in a way it had never been presented before, both on the MSG Network and Fox Sports2. It took only one show to realize this would be groundbreaking.
Belmont Live and Saratoga Live provided racing fans old and new with expert handicapping and pre- and post-race analysis that somehow was able to cater to both the novice and veteran horseplayer alike, as well as non-betting fans. It gave the sport life on an intimate level, with expert observations of the horses in the paddock and on the racetrack. By the time the horses were in the gate, you felt as if you knew them all and had a rooting interest even if you didn’t have a bet on the race.
Was Maggie Wolfendale correct about her assessment of the horses in the paddock? Was former jockey Richard Migliore spot on with his observations of how the horses looked and warmed up on the track? Would Andy Serling’s likes and dislikes based on pure handicapping be justified? Would he wear his dunce cap as punishment for being completely off base with his often bold predictions? It was a show that knew how to make fun of itself in a sport where even the experts are often wrong three-quarters of the time.
It was also great to see one of the winning connections interviewed following every race and showed how excited a trainer or an owner can get having won only a claiming or allowance race. All races took on importance, something we had never seen before in a medium that had been formerly comprised of Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, and grade I races. We heard jockeys, who were used to being interviewed only following major stakes victories, discuss their ride and strategy in cheaper races, and you witnessed how all victories are exciting to these riders, regardless of their stature.
Greg Wolf, formerly of TVG and with Fox Sports, will serve as full-time host this year with the departure of longtime NYRA host Jason Blewitt, with renowned racing analyst Gabby Gaudet and trainer Tom Amoss adding their voice on “Saratoga Live.” Amoss, as he demonstrated on TVG and last year’s Saratoga Live, is not averse to indulging in a sparring match once in a while, which livens up the show even more.
With season one a major success, NYRA has announced an expanded partnership with Fox Sports that will result in additional live shows. That is huge, not only for the show, but major network racing coverage on a national level, something it has never done on a daily basis, especially for 2 1/2 hours. In total, 46 live shows are scheduled to be shown on Fox Sports2, beginning on Wood Memorial day, covering racing from Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, with the partnership building on the success of “Saratoga Live.”
In addition, the iconic Claiborne Farm will be the presenting sponsor of the NYRA Live programming on Fox Sports2, which, starting in April, will air on Saturdays for both the Aqueduct and Belmont meets and will include a stakes race on each show as well as live coverage of selected stakes races from outside New York. Among those out-of-state races are the rich Charles Town Classic and the International Festival of Racing from Arlington Park that features the grade I Arlington Million, Beverly D, and Secretariat Stakes.
Last year’s launch was followed closely by the unveiling of NYRA Bets, NYRA’s national advance deposit wagering platform now available to horseplayers across the country.
So, you can see how limitless the potential is for a racing show such as this. Imagine similar shows at tracks across the country. I remember when I first started going to the racetrack, my favorite horses included claimers and allowance horses who I would watch run week after week. They became like old friends you looked forward to seeing. Those days are long gone, but have returned now, thanks to seeing these hard-knocking old horses once again competing week after week and getting to know them through the eyes of Wolfendale, Migliore, and Serling.
So, in many ways, for one person it is 1968 again. Racing can be viewed on an intimate level, the faces are all familiar, and the sport is just plain fun to watch. And I don’t even have to wait for the Pioneer bus on Flatlands Avenue.