Upper Crust - By Evan Hammonds

Leave it to the British to supply North America with its most compelling racing over the last week. One would think there would be enough graded stakes run in late June to satiate the racing public, but on June 24 there were but four graded races, including a pair in Southern California that gave us a four-horse field in the Affirmed Stakes (G3) and a five-horse field in the Precisionist Stakes (G3). The winners were 1-5 and 3-5,

Sure, the Ohio Derby (G3) delivered a handful of horses from the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), but there were no graded races east of JACK Thistledown Racino in North Randall, Ohio. With its stakes-packed Belmont Stakes (G1) day program and stakes-saturated Stars and Stripes day July 8 the three Saturdays from June 17 to July 1 at Belmont Park offer only the grade 3 Poker Stakes and the grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes.

While the U.S. schedule might have hit a dry patch, Royal Ascot filled the bill and then some during its five-day run June 20-24. We wrote in this space a year ago about Royal Ascot’s profile rising in the U.S. with each passing meet. The annual success of trainer Wesley Ward and last year’s exploits by champion Tepin and Lady Aurelia have been amped even further with NBC Sports deciding to cover Royal Ascot live on NBC Sports Network.

Ward was able to work his magic again, winning June 20 with Lady Aurelia in the group 1 King’s Stand Stakes and with Hat Creek Racing’s 3-year-old Scat Daddy filly Con Te Partiro. Making the presentation to Hat Creek’s Gatewood Bell at Ascot was Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports.

It was Miller’s vision for NBC to broadcast from Royal Ascot. For its initial outing the division just wanted to get its feet wet, but it looks like NBC pulled off a plum.

“This first year, we managed our expectations. I can’t tell you how many texts and emails I got saying, ‘wow, I had no idea,’ ‘this is great,’ and ‘I’m putting this on my calendar for next year,’ ” Miller said after returning home from England. “What you are going to find is more and more people in this country are going to want to go there.”

That’s something to the effect we said a year ago. NBC’s coverage figures to take that to another level.

“They loved the partnership,” said Miller. “Everyone from Juliet Slot (Ascot’s commercial director) and director of racing Nick Smith, to Johnny Weatherby, who is Her Majesty the Queen’s representative…we got great feedback. We had wonderful cooperation from the folks at ITV, who did the post-feed for us. We found they are unbelievably great people to work with, and we really enjoyed all of the interaction there.

“It’s very hard for American television viewers—and horse racing fans—to understand the enormity of Royal Ascot unless you are actually there and see it in person. The facility is one of the best sporting facilities I’ve ever been to. And that eclipses all of the tracks in this country and also all the new great stadiums and other venues that are out there. The way they treat the event, the spectators, the patrons as it were, is the closest thing to Augusta or Wimbledon.

“I would tell people if you are trying to equate it to a sporting event in this country, those are the two events that you could benchmark it to.”

This is not a one-off deal by NBC, as the network and Royal Ascot have inked a multi-year agreement.

“A lot of our people internally here were blown away by how great it looked on television,” Miller said. “We’ve got a road map on how we can get it out there so more people are aware of it. That is one of the things we do exceptionally well at NBC. We’ll focus on that going forward. I think we have a real winner here.

“My hope is this becomes a regular date on the calendar for NBC, and this becomes an NBC staple much like the Olympics, the Ryder Cup, and even the Kentucky Derby as well,” he concluded.

We hope so, too.

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