Big Show - By Evan Hammonds

A few months ago we all looked forward to the first weekend in April. Students from the University of Kentucky would have flocked to the opening Saturday of Keeneland and its full slate of graded races, including the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1) and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2). Aqueduct had the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) on tap and Santa Anita would have capped the day with the Santa Anita Derby (G1).

Instead, courtesy of COVID-19, just four Thoroughbred racetracks ran live racing April 4. Let’s be thankful for that, considering all other major sports leagues and college sports have been halted. And, thanks to TVG, in an alliance with NBC Sports, live racing was broadcast on national television. According to industry figures, TVG is available in 45 million homes in the U.S.; NBC Sports has a reach of more than 80 million.

While many companies in the sports/leisure sector have announced layoffs, furloughs, and closures, horse racing is doing its best to hold its own. Horsemen don’t know anything else but taking care of their horses and hoping for the best.

The folks at TVG are still going full bore to provide programming, despite its array of tracks having been diminished to weekly programming that includes Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, and Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma, and Nebraska’s Fonner Park. In front and behind the camera, TVG is providing best practices.

“We’ve gone through a pretty rapid change as things have unfolded, but every decision we have made has been done with the safety of the employees in mind,” said Kip Levin, president of FanDuel and CEO of TVG Network Betfair US. “And we’re really busy.

“The biggest change has been around our television operation. We have more than 100 people working in television. Most have moved to work from home.”

A few weeks ago TVG was still broadcasting live from some tracks, but after the March 14 Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn, the company reassessed its position.

“We had a management team huddle on that Saturday night, and we said, ‘OK, we got through that day; what did we learn?’ We felt responsible for setting a good example.”

As information regarding social distancing and on-the-fly work-related protocols changed, other contingency plans have been put in place.

“On any given Saturday we would have 50 people in our television studio facilities, and right now we are running that with eight volunteers all in separate rooms or areas working within recommended guidelines,” he said. “The support—the rest of the production team—is working from home. We are proceeding with extreme caution.”

Anchor Todd Schrupp has been the only talent for TVG who is in the studio. The camera work is handled robotically. Everyone else has been broadcasting from home.

“I’m really proud of the team and their ability to be agile and to change as things are changing very, very rapidly,” Levin said. “Our first NBC broadcast was last weekend, and Todd was by himself on our outside desk at Santa Anita and Santa Anita announced they were shutting down 30 minutes before we went on air…so we had to switch quickly to ‘Plan B,’ with Christina Blacker opening the show from her house.

“I tip my hat to the whole television team and what they’ve had to deal with under unbelievable circumstances.

“Everybody is in good spirits. They are tired; they are working extra hours under very challenging conditions, and we are taking every safety precaution we can to try to make this work. This group of people is incredibly passionate about the sport, and so they are driven by the opportunity to take a horrible situation and create some new racing fans out of it.”

Everyone needs to buy in, pitch in, and execute to keep the ball rolling. So far the industry is looking at the big picture.

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