Whenever a professional sports franchise’s season comes to an end, its broadcast team generally gets several months of rest before kicking off a new year.
But for the on-air talent, production staff, and executives responsible for the New York Racing Association’s “America’s Day at the Races” telecasts there’s been only a modicum of rest for the weary crew, many of whom are also involved with NYRA’s daily simulcast shows.
Six weeks after the curtain went down with the telecast of the Dec. 5 Cigar Mile Handicap card at Aqueduct, America’s Day at the Races’ 2021 programming will break from the gate Jan. 16 with a one-hour, 6-7 p.m. ET show on FOX Sports 1 that will feature both the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes and the $200,000 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds.
“We had some brief discussions about continuing the show throughout the winter, but it’s a lot to ask of everyone,” said Tony Allevato, NYRA’s chief revenue officer and president of NYRA Bets. “It was a rough year for everyone, and they needed a break.”
In retrospect, 2020 was a year filled with more emotions than starters in a maiden turf race at Saratoga Race Course. It was an exhausting time filled with logistical problems, a staggering amount of stress, and the natural fears of working at a time when the world was battling the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They were finding a way to do live television at a time when no one else had the capability or opportunity to do it. I don’t think you can say enough about the ingenuity and the determination that was shown by the crew just to get on the air,” said Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics for FOX Sports. “I think it was incredible that they could get a show on the air every day. Just being on the air was an accomplishment, and they were long shows. It’s hard to do a five-hour show under normal conditions, but when you are doing it as an extended zoom meeting, it takes a lot of effort. That was impressive.”
For the people who worked tirelessly to keep America’s Day at the Races on the air, there was also a tremendous amount of both satisfaction and success. Through nearly 800 hours of programming on FOX’s popular FS1 and FS2 cable networks as well as the regional MSG and Prime Ticket networks, the end result was the kind of visibility on a national stage that played a leading role in sparking surprisingly high handle figures that saved NYRA from financial doom during a year burdened with 80 days without racing and no fans on-track since early March.
In 2019, NYRA produced 385 programming hours on FOX networks, but in 2020 FOX aired 777.5 hours of coverage and with additional hours on MSG and Prime Ticket, the total reached nearly 800 hours. The most noteworthy jump was on FOX Sports 1, the flagship cable channel for that network, which presented 206 hours of NYRA programming in 2020 after showing just one in 2019.
As a result, NYRA’s 2020 all-sources handle checked in at $1.8 billion. The daily average handle of $11.5 million marked a 19% increase from 2019, and Allevato said NYRA Bets accounts and wagering tripled in 2020.
“Things that took place in January and February seem like three years ago, but adversity can bring out the best in people. It was amazing what our team, and horse racing in general, accomplished by keeping the sport going when other sports couldn’t carry on and by producing so many hours of television coverage under difficult conditions,” Allevato said. “I think it’s hard to imagine what the year would have looked like [for NYRA] if we did not have the television show and NYRA Bets in place to support the races. It’s a scary thought but it allowed us to not only keep the show going but to enjoy some success in a really difficult time. It’s a credit to [NYRA CEO and President] Dave O’Rourke and people who were here long before I was to have the infrastructure in place to do the show.”
While the show is a NYRA production, in a strong sign of unity in an often fractured industry, some of the daily programs incorporated a second track such as Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, Tampa Bay Downs, Finger Lakes, and Parx Racing, helping not only those tracks but adding to the growth and success of the NYRA Bets wagering platform. Aside from Fair Grounds, Turfway Park will be new to the rotation in 2021, and there’s hope of airing some Gulfstream Park races at some point.
“The television show was a blessing. It has been part of our long-term strategy, and it’s become more fundamental for us because of the distribution of wagering,” O’Rourke said. “Our online business has leapfrogged, and hopefully, when we can get fans back, some of the on-track business will come back, and the online business will stick. Tony has done an incredible job of creating a business model with some incredible sponsors. It’s a business in itself, and it has allowed us to broaden the audience for our sport. In the early summer, when we were the only sport in town, we picked up some casual fans, and we kept them through the Breeders’ Cup. From our viewpoint television is one of our best assets, and we’re thankful to FOX for the partnership they formed with us.”
After producing five- or six-hour shows on a daily basis in the summer and fall, the initial show of 2021 will seem like a coffee break with just one hour of air time.
We’re always looking for ways to improve the show. — Tony Allevato
But that will not last for long as the shows will expand from 153 in 2020 to a projected total of 176 this year.
Next week’s schedule will feature 13 1/2 hours of coverage spread out over three consecutive days, beginning with the Jan. 22 1-6 p.m. program that will showcase opening day at Oaklawn Park and the card at Aqueduct.
It will then be onward and upward for the show’s on-air talent, a popular group that included Andy Serling, Laffit Pincay III, Greg Wolf, Acacia Courtney, Maggie Wolfendale, Richard Migliore, Gary Stevens, Jonathon Kinchen, and Tom Amoss during various parts of last year. Wolfendale won the 2020 Fan Choice Award as Favorite Racing Analyst.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve the show. The production team, the talent, they never want to rest on their laurels, which is great. I think you’ll see a lot of new changes. Maybe not in week one, but as the year goes on,” Allevato said. “We’ll be rolling out a new graphics look that’s more in line with what FOX does on its NFL telecasts, which has been highly regarded. We want to incorporate more technology into the show.”
Looking ahead, Allevato also believes there are lessons to be learned from last weekend when the NFL playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears aired on both CBS and Nickelodeon, a network that offers programming for children and youth. In NYRA’s case, it could be coverage on Facebook geared toward an audience in their 20s.
“You look at what CBS did in putting the NFL playoff game on Nickelodeon. That was great. We’ve been bouncing ideas back and forth with The Jockey Club and FOX to do a couple of shows, not geared to a kid’s audience, but a 20-something audience that can be hard to connect with. Maybe it will be on Facebook or a different platform other than television,” Allevato said. “The great thing about the NYRA Board, our show’s sponsors [Claiborne Farm and America’s Best Racing in 2021], and our production team is that they never say no. They are open to trying new things. We’re keeping our eye on other sports to bring what they are doing to horse racing.”
While the pandemic has yet to be eradicated, the NYRA television team entered the new year with far more experience in working under the constraints of social distancing than they did a year ago.
“We’re looking forward to this year,” said Eric Donovan, NYRA’s director of TV and broadcast operations. “We don’t know when the pandemic will clear up, but we’re going into this year knowing a lot more than going into 2020.”
For Donovan, 2020 will be remembered for the way everyone involved in the show teamed to achieve what would have been virtually impossible a few years earlier.
Television production typically involves studios and people gathered in close quarters in production trailers. The pandemic turned that world upside down. People had to be spread out and work in offices. For a while, Kinchen provided his picks from a Texas restaurant. Quarantines cut into staffing. Laptops and Zoom sessions replaced cameras. Interviews were conducted with microphones on a boom pole. There was the ever-present concern that someone could fall victim to the deadly virus. Yet in true show business fashion, the show went on without interruption through the final nine months of the year.
“I’m proud of our work in 2020. It was a big challenge but being able to think outside the box and find solutions is one of the things I like about working here in this position. In March, it took a while to get people back on line but eventually they were working from home on iPads and iPhones for broadcasts. In the beginning it was tough to find Personal Protective Equipment and masks, and there was some confusion about what to wear,” Donovan said. “While we would normally have a big concentration of people in one area in a production truck, we had to separate people with no more than four in one area, and if they were close, we needed plastic dividers. Much of the credit goes to the crew in the trucks for being smart and staying safe. When they left work, they did the responsible thing. We had one person test positive and had to quarantine about a half-dozen people, but thankfully, no one else got sick. It shows that when you take the right preventive measures you can isolate these cases.”
Donovan was particularly thankful to Santa Anita Park for allowing the show’s California-based personalities to work from their studios when travel was restricted.
“The folks at Santa Anita, Amy Zimmerman and her crew, did an outstanding job of helping us,” Donovan said. “A lot of credit goes to them.”
Even with all of the obstacles hurled in front of them, NYRA’s broadcast managed to turn out high-quality shows that proved popular with fans, points that resonated with Mulvihill.
Support from FOX Sports has played a major role in the show’s amazing growth from when it started as “Saratoga Live” in 2016 to the nearly 800 hours last year with more on the horizon in 2021.
Though the figure is expected to drop sharply in 2021, getting more than 200 hours of airtime on FS1 last year due to the cancellation of professional and college sports was a huge boost. According to a Jan. 14 report in Sports Business Daily, the seven-year-old FS1 finished as the second most-watched cable sports network on a total-day basis for the first time, putting it ahead of rivals such as ESPN2, NBCSN, and the NFL Network in Nielsen numbers.
“Because there is a new emphasis on gaming and the opportunities presented by the legalization of sports wagering, it causes us to think in more depth about ways we can extend our relationship with NYRA to complement our efforts in sports betting,” Mulvihill said. “I think it’s been very beneficial for NYRA and the horse racing industry. I hope people in the industry see the advantages of all this national coverage. As challenging as 2020 was, it was a productive year. I hate to use the words ‘took advantage’ because it seems awkward to talk about taking advantage during a health crisis, but I believe horse racing navigated the situation as well as any sport. I hope people feel the television shows gave the sport some added exposure, because I’m a fan of the game and want to see it grow and be successful.”
Mulvihill also complimented the quality of the shows, which rates as high praise coming from a top executive at a network that airs the Super Bowl and World Series.
“I love that Maggie Wolfendale can tell you something about a horse’s conformation you won’t see in the Daily Racing Form, or you’ll hear Richard Migliore or Gary Stevens tell you about riding on an off-track or on turf that you may not be able to pick up on by just reading past performances. The handicappers’ perspective was great. It adds up to something educational, even if you’re a long-time fan. It’s a very professional production.”
That praise brought a smile to Allevato’s face.
“The best compliment we get is when people think that FOX is producing the show,” Allevato said. “It’s a compliment to us because FOX has such high standards.”
Mulvihill was especially pleased with the quality of the show devoted to the Runhapppy Travers Stakes (G1), which aired for the first time last year on the main FOX broadcast channel that airs the aforementioned Super Bowl and World Series.
“I thought the Travers show was frenetic (in 2019), and some nerves were involved. In August, everyone looked to be in total command, the pace was excellent,” Mulvihill said. “It was like Saratoga was their house.”
While the pandemic will prevent upcoming telecasts from being full-fledged home games, Saturday’s show will mark the NYRA team’s return from a layoff, which spoke volumes about the show’s popularity.
Just ask New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Joe Appelbaum.
“For the last few weeks, horsemen kept asking me when the television show was coming back,” Appelbaum said. “They love the show and have missed it.”
That absence, which has made hearts grow fonder, surely tells Allevato that all of the hard work and dedication that goes into each America’s Day at the Races show has been well-worth the effort.
“It’s a great compliment that people missed us,” Allevato said. “If you go away and no one misses you, you’re in trouble.”