TVG’s Schrupp Chats Early Years at Network, 20th Anniversary

The Life
Todd Schrupp and Dave Weaver celebrate the 20th anniversary of TVG, left, and the TVG crew at the Eclipse Awards. (Courtesy of Todd Schrupp/TVG)

Just last month, TVG horse racing television network celebrated its 20th anniversary. Launched on July 14, 1999, TVG was and still is the go-to source for fans and bettors who enjoy watching racing on TV — from around the U.S. and around the world — 365 days a year. Through two decades, viewers have developed strong relationships with the personalities who have served as hosts and handicappers on TVG.

Among the hosts who have been there since the beginning is Todd Schrupp.

America’s Best Racing had an opportunity to ask Schrupp some questions about his favorite moments through the years at TVG, how racing and the network have evolved, and what the future might hold.

AMERICA’S BEST RACING: What does two decades of racing TV coverage mean to you? What comes to mind when you try to distill all of the programming, all of the memories, and all of the hours into one overarching takeaway?

TODD SCHRUPP: TVG celebrating it’s 20th anniversary evokes a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment for those who have been a part of the TVG team from the beginning or contributed at various points along the way. That’s an internal view born out of stops and starts, ups and downs, progress and setbacks — that while you are going through it as an employee, you question whether two months is possible let alone 20 years. Then, after keeping your head down and focusing on daily goals, you look up and see 20 years have gone by and “the grand experiment” worked.

Externally, from an industry perspective, TVG’s 20th is a cause for celebration and inspiration for horse racing. We now have a generation of fans who have come to expect there is a channel dedicated to the sport they are most interested in. It’s important to remember TVG put horse racing in that spectrum long before many of these niche channels existed. The Golf Channel was the genesis of the concept, and horse racing was second into the burgeoning market when TVG launched in 1999. Establishing that foothold early was important, and the overwhelmingly positive ripple effects for horse racing are being felt today: new fans, year-round exposure, central messaging, promotion, revenue for the industry, etc. All of this was made possible by the racing industry coming together as a collective to accomplish the goal of putting the sport at the forefront of emerging technology, rather than being late to the marketplace or worse, not at all. In some ways, TVG provided a do-over for horse racing from years prior when the industry didn’t embrace television like other sports did. TVG’s success is an industry success and a great example of what horse racing can accomplish when unified and focused on a common goal.

ABR: Speaking of memories — and I’m sure a lot of them have been sparked during this celebration of two decades on air — can you share a story or two (maybe even something that went on behind the scenes) that viewers might find interesting?

SCHRUPP: From the very beginning to this day TVG at every position and department has a true team connectedness; it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a familial bond, especially for those who have been there since the beginning. This stems from a very rough start, TVG had some serious growing pains as we tried to figure out what we wanted our programming to look like and convey. Additionally, we had regulatory issues that were beyond our control and would determine our fate as much as any concept or show idea we put on-air.

The greatest example of this was the legislation that would allow citizens in our biggest market, California, to bet from home on our programming; essentially this would be the beginning of what is crucial to horse racing all over the country now, advance-deposit wagering (ADW). About a year into TVG’s launch, the legislation allowing ADWs was passed. Unexpectedly, it was vetoed at the 11th hour by California Gov. Gray Davis. This meant we would have to go another year until the ADW legislation could be brought up again, and even then there was no way to guarantee it would pass. Wagering revenue was a key component to TVG surviving and California’s market could sustain us for several years, suddenly that prospect was gone. I will never forget the day our CEO, Mark Wilson, called a company-wide meeting and gathered all the employees into our newsroom and delivered the somber news about what the ADW legislation being vetoed meant to our company. On that day, nearly half our staff needed to be let go, and those who stayed on took a 20% pay cut. The professional sacrifices made on that day, from those who didn’t continue on the journey and those fortunate enough to continue, are the reason there is a 20th anniversary. It’s also why there is a truly unique bond among the employees at TVG.

ABR: How about your top three moments on air?

SCHRUPP: 1. Wrestling Jerry “The King” Lawler — we would do just about anything to promote TVG early-on, this was my biggest contribution to that effort. It’s been 17 years since I went to Sam Houston and wrestled “The King,” and nearly once a week since that moment someone asks me about it.

2. Zenyatta’s Breeder’s Cup Classic win - the euphoria and absolute pure joy emanating from the crowd after her win is like no other day I’ve ever experienced at the track. It was not just a horse racing moment; it was an empowering sporting moment.

3. Laffit Pincay Jr. breaking Bill Shoemaker’s career wins mark - it was a breakthrough moment for TVG, our first big event to cover. With all of the other networks around the country taking TVG’s feed, it showed the industry the power and importance of having a centralized channel dedicated to the sport.

ABR: You were part of the original team that was there when TVG was launched. There was no real playbook to work off of. How nervous were you? What do you think about when you reflect on those early days?

SCHRUPP: The original strategy regarding who would be on-air at TVG was to pair people with a horse racing background with people who had strictly a television background and let them feed off each other. For example, one pairing was Chris Harrison who came from TV news in Oklahoma City, matched with Caton Bredar who has experience and deep roots in the sport. We had some very talented people. Chris, better known now as the host of “The Bachelor,” one of the longest running and highly rated shows in television history, is a prime example of that.

Claudia Simon and Todd Schrupp (Courtesy of Todd Schrupp/TVG)

I was matched with Claudia Simon who was a model and had been a host on “Top Of The Pops,” England’s version of “American Bandstand.” We were the last show each programming day, and the segment was called “Trackside Lite.” Because we were on late and had limited racing to show, we approached it more like a late night talk show, and had a loose, unpredictable format. I wasn’t nervous; I was excited. I had been in simulcast television at Canterbury Park and Calder Race Course for 12 years and was yearning to try something new on a bigger stage.

And then the racing media reviews came in, and it was unanimous … they HATED it. I went from anonymity in my safe simulcast television world to being front and center on the one show racing media members detested.

One particularly harsh review, in a major New York newspaper declared: “Todd Schrupp would prove to be so offensive, he might kill horse racing all by himself.”

I went from wanting attention, to wanting to hide. I didn’t completely unpack my apartment for nearly two years. If not for the unwavering support of TVG management and my fellow employees, we couldn’t have navigated those early days.

Looking back, I was obnoxious at times and trying to find my voice. Some of the criticism was fair. I’m a much better broadcaster now — experience and failure are great teachers — but some of the early critics based everything on the first two weeks of TVG’s existence, which was not the best example of what we were capable of as a group. As hard as the early days were to go through, it strengthened our resolve as individuals and as a network.

ABR: In the years that have passed since then, what’s one thing that you think TVG has excelled at and what’s another thing that you think TVG is perhaps still working on with an eye on the demands of viewers, bettors, and customers?

SCHRUPP: In our first year on-air, TVG changed how our biggest events are covered with the introduction of our show “The Works” on the 2000 Kentucky Derby. We had cameras following horses during their workouts leading up to the Derby. Some were shown live, others put to tape; all of them analyzed by our experts. In the rich history of the Kentucky Derby, this had never been done before; workouts were only written about and anyone who didn’t see them live had to rely on someone else's interpretation. The show was an immediate hit, and it helped when the favorite that year, Fusaichi Pegasus, had a dramatic incident where he reared up and rolled over one morning, all captured by TVG’s cameras. Now, horseplayers are accustomed to having workouts to view on-demand before big races. TVG was the innovator in taking viewers to a world only horse racing insiders knew.

We are always looking for ways to improve and we are always looking for the next, great creative inspiration. One thing we’ve tried to do is to help take horse racing from operating in an analog world to the digital age and beyond. The fact you can watch literally any race you want from your phone, and bet on that race, is derived from our investment in technology. And even when it’s not an original creation, TVG has changed the way the industry presents itself. Simulcast signals in standard definition will not stand-up against coverage of other sports being presented in HD. We have invested in a state-of-the-art studio and toward expanded HD carriage. TVG has been a catalyst for racetracks investing in their television departments with HD capability. In the end, these innovations and improvements are designed to benefit our customers and our partners, the racing-industry stakeholders.

ABR: Same question, but about racing in general; what has racing gotten right in the past 20 years and what does it need to work on as it tries to attract new bettors and grow its fan base?

SCHRUPP: One of our very talented original on-air hosts Ken Rudulph said it best with the very first words uttered on the network: “Welcome to the Home of Horse Racing, TVG …” TVG has become horse racing’s home, a network dedicated exclusively to promoting racing in more than 45-million U.S. homes. It is one of the things that racing has gotten right over the last two decades. Our network is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week commercial for horse racing.

There are lots of benefits to that, but let me give you one example related to engaging racing’s fan base. The first racetrack that stirred my soul was Keeneland, and it was one of the first tracks outside of our home base in California that wanted TVG to cover its races on-site. Keeneland’s President and CEO at the time, Nick Nicholson, was a driving force behind getting TVG to broadcast from Keeneland every spring and every fall.

Already a fan, I made sure I was sent to Keeneland as part of TVG’s broadcast team, which allowed me to tell our viewers: “If you haven’t been to Keeneland before, you need to make plans and see racing as it was meant to be. Find a way to be here for either the spring or fall. I promise you, you’ll love it.”

I’ve been saying that now for 19 years, and every day I am at Keeneland people stop by the set to say thanks for telling them they should visit.

Part of our mission is to increase fan levels of engagement and avidity. TVG is fortunate to have so many outstanding track partners to help in achieving that goal. Partnering with TVG has not just been an advantage for our individual track partners, it’s a benefit for the sport overall. All of us operate in the same ecosystem, and having a home for the sport where we can present everyone and tell their stories is incredibly valuable to our industry.

Schrupp, left, on TVG set. (Courtesy pf Todd Schupp/TVG)

ABR: What’s your favorite thing about getting up every morning and going to work at TVG?

SCHRUPP: I get to combine my two passions, horse racing and television. I’ve been asked over the years, “Have you ever thought about covering something else, or working your way up in local news ?” For me, it comes down to this. TVG is horse racing’s home, and professionally it’s my HOME. There is so much to be said and feel fortunate about when you work somewhere with people you are truly connected to and admire. Plus, I get to be around a sport that is unequaled in its stories and drama. I’m beyond blessed.

ABR: We touched on it a little but looking ahead, where do you see TVG in 20 years from now?

SCHRUPP: Our company is bullish on horse racing. I think TVG being part of the FanDuel Group and embedded in the expansion of sports betting in the U.S. presents a massive opportunity both for TVG specifically and for horse racing overall. Our company operates in markets around the world like the UK and Australia where horse racing is integrated seamlessly into the sports-betting marketplace and, as a result, is one of the most popular sports for its wagering customers. With TVG as a cornerstone, through FanDuel Group, we have an opportunity to market horse racing to millions of daily fantasy players and sports bettors — the vast majority of whom enjoy wagering but have not ventured into horse racing. Their demographics are attractive — they’re generally younger, affluent and more tech-savvy than prior generations of racing fans. Under this one umbrella we can promote horse racing symbiotically to these people. It will be very exciting to see what that ultimately looks like. Let’s plan on doing this interview again in 2039.

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