01/11/2010 12:00AM

NBC to televise Derby preps

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Six major prep races for the Kentucky Derby will be broadcast live this year on NBC-TV and a sister network, USA, due to an agreement reached between Churchill Downs Inc. and NBC, the parties announced on Monday.

The six races will be broadcast during three one-hour programs: The Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds and the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park will be shown on USA on March 27; the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct will be shown on April 3 on NBC; and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park will be shown on April 10 on NBC.

NBC holds the broadcast rights to the Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The rights to the third leg, the Belmont Stakes, are held by ABC-TV.

Liz Harris, a spokesperson for Churchill Downs, said that Churchill had secured the television rights to the races and would spend "up to $2 million" in production costs on the broadcasts. Over the past decade, most television productions of major Derby prep races had been co-funded by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's television production arm, and those broadcasts typically appeared on ESPN.

However, ESPN's commitment to racing in the spring has begun to wane as the network seeks out highly rated programming while seeking to shift lower-rated broadcasts to its Internet platform. In addition, Harris said, Churchill believed that the broadcasts would not be co-funded by the NTRA this year.

"It recently became clear that they weren't going to" broadcast prep races, Harris said. "It was our understanding that the NTRA was not going to televise the races this year."

Keith Chamblin, a senior vice president for the NTRA, said the association had not planned to reach any production deals with ESPN on the prep races, citing Churchill's involvement this year.

"We knew there was a high degree of probability that [Churchill] was going to cover the races," Chamblin said. "We're delighted that the races will continue to be on television, and even more delighted that they will have a national platform, which has been a high priority for the racing industry."

In a release, Churchill said the broadcasts will "feature the races and handicapping segments in addition to lifestyle elements designed to broaden the audience for these races and drive viewership of the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown." Harris said that the lifestyle elements will include "fashion, food, celebrities, and entertainment."

Editorial control of the broadcast will be shared by NBC, Churchill Downs, and the track hosting the race, Harris said.