To the many self-loathing naysayers who have been predicting horse racing’s demise for decades, the resurrection of a weekly national television program showcasing the best that the sport has to offer may not register as a momentous achievement, but it is.
Fox Sports Saturday at the Races has aired for the past few weeks and deserves public laudation for not only its top-notch production quality, but also for supporting the growth of horse racing. In today’s fast-paced, short attention-spanned society, people need to consume their entertainment quickly. Airing the best that horse racing has to offer in a two-hour window each week allows viewers to get their thrills before going on with their day.
A nationwide show highlighting the top races in a condensed viewing window on Saturdays? I’ve been asking for this for years!
It’s come at the best time of the year to attract new fans and eventual bettors. Remember, it’s not just Kentucky Derby prep season; it’s also a prime opportunity to attract new fans.
Attracting and Educating New Fans
When I was on SiriusXM’s MadDog Radio at the 2017 Breeders’ Cup, Patrick Meagher of “The Wrap” asked me, “What’s the best way to attract new people to horse racing?”
I replied, “Everybody knows the Kentucky Derby and a whole lot of people watch and bet on it. With the way the points system is set up, it’s kind of like the NCAA Tournament where horses can advance to the next round with each prep race. Sports lovers and people who watch the Kentucky Derby should start early in the year following the Derby Trail and learn the horses that are going to run in the Derby, so they are more prepared on the first Saturday in May when they bet. Once they learn the horses, they’ll fall in love with a few, and that’s the best way to hook in new fans and eventual avid bettors.”
My logic has always been to start with something that people know (in this case, the Kentucky Derby), grow out their understanding of how that race works, then expand their understanding of the whole game and its many intriguing nuisances.
There was a major flaw in my logic, though. Most of the Derby preps weren’t being aired nationally, so the average sports fan wanting to learn the game this way couldn’t even take the first step. If newbies weren’t willing to give up their Social Security numbers to get Advanced Deposit Wagering (ADW) accounts or have a sports package on their cable provider that included TVG, then they would have no way to see the Kentucky Derby preps.
That all changes now that we have Fox Sports 2 (FS2) airing the majority of the Kentucky Derby points races into millions of homes each Saturday. FS2 expanded its coverage this year to showcase races from Oaklawn Park (including the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby), a major addition to its coverage from Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park, and Tampa Bay Downs.
FS2 only aired six Saturdays to a national audience in 2018, but that will double to 12 episodes in 2019, providing more than 24 hours of HD coverage and in-depth analysis of major Derby preps and other stakes races.
It’s still the middle of the winter, a time when many people are home in the afternoons trying to avoid the cold and looking for entertainment on TV. The NFL season is over, basketball and hockey are midway through their seasons, baseball training camps are just starting up, and March Madness hasn’t yet taken over the sports landscape.
This is the time to grab new fans, educate them, and turn them into eventual bettors who drive track handles that keep the game prosperous. Many will “poo-poo” this logic and its simplicity, but to me, the importance of the industry rallying around this type of TV program can’t be understated.
Showing the Right Stuff
FS2 has taken the right approach with their Saturday at the Races program, producing it with NYRA and focusing on handicapping and betting on the races. Admittedly, the TV program’s true goal is to drive handle and push new users toward the NYRA Bets ADW platform, but ultimately, making it easy for bettors to watch races and educate neophytes is the way to grow the game.
Most people are scared by the daunting task of figuring out how to wager on a horse race. With sports betting already here and rapidly proliferating across the country, now is the time for horse racing to double-down and educate players on how to wager.
Everyone – not just neophytes – can learn from the show’s experts. I’ve been betting on horse races since I was 8 years old but I am still always learning. FS2’s broadcast has something for everyone, and the first few episodes this season were just the beginning.
The addition of Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens to the main desk at Santa Anita Park in the past two episodes has been a huge addition to the team. His knowledge and explanation of how a race unfolds can help anyone trying to get an edge. Along with host Greg Wolf and All-Star-catcher-turned-handicapper Paul LoDuca, the team has a good flow and a face (LoDuca) that sports fans will recognize, giving the show credibility to a broader market.
On the handicapping side, a mix of young talent blends well with veteran handicappers like Bob Neumeier and Andy Serling. One of those young talents is the 2015 NHC Tour champion Jonathan Kinchen, who gave out longshots with solid chalk in his first three episodes. FS2’s recruitment of a true horseplayer in Kinchen gives the show an added level of credibility with established bettors, plus it shows new players that they can be successful at a young age.
Once you add in coast-to-coast analysis from sharp female handicappers including Acacia Courtney, Maggie Wolfendale, Michelle Yu, and Nancy Holthus, and the possibility of attracting multiple new demographics becomes possible.
Let’s face it, horse racing is mostly known as an old man’s game to the younger generation. If the game is ever going to fully appeal to a younger crowd, then the images of fogeys wearing fedoras and smoking cigars at the OTBs will need to be debunked as the stigma of what a horseplayer is supposed to imbue. This ain’t your grandpa’s game anymore, sonny! This is a new day of online gaming. 20, 30, and 40-year olds with expendable income are seeking new outlets for their entertainment dollars. For them, FS2’s portrayal will either make or break the future of the sport.
It’s Just a Start
A TV show isn’t going to grow the game by itself, but it’s a start.
Some will say that there are overarching issues more important to racing than a national show; others will ask why this even matters. Yes, many aspects of the game need attention; takeout, breakage, uniform drug policies and testing, uniform steward rulings on inquiries and objections, computer batch wagering, super trainers dominating… the list goes on and on. A TV show ain’t solving all those issues, but it can preemptively address a future concern.
Horse racing has had healthy handle in recent years, so the core bettors are still there, but the next generation constantly needs to be recruited. Legal sports betting will eventually be available on everyone’s phones in the coming years, and with it the convenience of getting their gambling fix on the major sports leagues. Horse racing’s novelty as the only legal betting option (as it has been for decades) will no longer stand alone, so how will it compete?
The effects won’t be seen for many years, since the core bettor ain’t going anywhere soon, but if recruitment methods don’t change, then the backfill of new horseplayers will decrease as competition increases.
FS2 should take time every broadcast to educate the basics in ways that won’t bore existing bettors while still teaching newbies how to leverage their strongest opinions. Hearing experts like LoDuca, Serling, Neumaier, and Kinchen discuss how to use the full wagering menu as an advantage would be great for any player to hear.
The show’s intro currently displays a handicapper’s Pick 5 ticket as a way to highlight the races that will be shown during the program, and graphics usually show the handicappers’ top picks as races are about to go off. But why not show how someone like Kinchen would play an exacta, trifecta, or double? I have listened to Kinchen on podcasts for years, and his “Crush Their Souls” approach with his ticket structure should be a part of the show. Doing so would take the educational experience to a new level and enhance understanding.
Spread the Word
So we got this TV show going to millions of homes nationwide; what do we do now?
I got a challenge for everyone who has read this far.
You know those people who e-mail or text you on the morning of the Derby asking for your pick? Those people who know you as their only horseplayer friend. You haven’t heard from this person in months, but two hours before the Derby, they’ll text you: “I’m about to head out to the OTB to bet. Who do you like?”
Get ahead of the curve. This week, tell them to watch the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on FS2 this Saturday. Tell them that on March 9, there will be coverage of the Grade 2 San Felipe, the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, and the Grade 3 Gotham all in one show on FS2. Tell them that if you want to learn the Derby horses and be ready to bet, watch these races. If they can’t tune in either week, then tell them to watch the Grade 2 Rebel on FS2 on March 16. (See full schedule)
The best 3-year-olds in the country will run on one channel each Saturday over the next three weeks. Now is the time to reach out and tell them about it.
We gotta start somewhere.