08/19/2011 2:31PM

Television initiative should focus on racing's best


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The most tangible and promising development to emerge from last Sunday’s Jockey Club Round Table here was a commitment by the Jockey Club to spend some real money developing a nationally televised racing series as soon as next year.

An expanded television presence was a key recommendation in a comprehensive report the Jockey Club commissioned from McKinsey & Company, which made a compelling case that the virtual disappearance of racing from the major broadcast networks in recent years has hurt the sport’s efforts to develop new fans. Whether or not you believe that this is as important an issue as the other usual suspects bedeviling the game’s efforts to grow – short fields, aging facilities, rising takeout, etc. – it’s hard to argue that more mainstream exposure can be anything but helpful.

The surprisingly high ratings in recent weeks for the excellent NBC/Versus “Summer at Saratoga” telecasts have buoyed enthusiasm for the idea and reinforced a simple concept: Good and important races, presented pleasantly and intelligently with strong production values to a national audience, will attract casual viewers and leave them feeling good about the sport. An NBC telecast of the Coaching Club American Oaks last month drew more viewers than most Breeders’ Cups have on ESPN.

The next step is for the Jockey Club to choose one of four programming options proposed by McKinsey, and this is where a good idea could go flying off the rails quickly. Three of the four choices are radically different approaches to presenting the sport that would squander resources in a misguided attempt to be “edgy” and “hip” and “unconventional” – not because such approaches have any record of success but because so many people are afraid of being branded fuddy-duddies if they don’t embrace those adjectives.

The four options were laid out on a sliding scale from what McKinsey revealingly labeled “Fabricated Product” to “Existing Product.” The most fabricated was underwriting a “dramatization” like upcoming HBO series “Luck.” While it’s a happy accident when a mainstream movie or serial with a racing theme comes out, there is no evidence that it moves the needle on public interest or participation. Remember how the “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat” movies were supposed to drive all sorts of new business to the game? They didn’t, and it would be folly to waste any money paying to illustrate that once again.

The same goes for the second most-fabricated option, presenting a “reality” show along the lines of “Real Housewives of Orange County” or the largely-staged “Jockeys” show that was cancelled after two seasons of low ratings on Animal Planet. As with a pure dramatization, if someone else wants to pay for such a series and the dubious benefits of it, fine, hold your nose and hope for the best, but why should racing pay for a fake and tawdry depiction of itself?

The third option is a tangential one that can be done in addition to other things, a live “Saturday Night at the Races” show on a minor cable channel such as Spike or truTV where “colorful” handicappers would pander to beer-fueled 20-something males. McKinsey calls it an “innovative and edgy strategy (e.g., “a real man knows his horses”) that tastemakers and editors will want to write and blog about.” No, they won’t.

None of these distractions should take a dollar away from the clear winner in this group: “The Best of American Racing” (new title needed), a live, weekly Saturday afternoon hour of the sport’s biggest races, emphasizing those leading to the Triple Crown in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. This is exactly what racing needs and has lacked – putting its best foot forward on a regular basis, leveraging its lynchpin events, and revealing that the sport doesn’t go away between spring and fall.

It may not sound sexy but it’s a simple formula that every other successful televised sport follows: Get broadcast-network exposure for your best and most attractive events, focus on presenting things in a first-class and professional manner, and educate newcomers without pandering and condescending. What do you see when you watch the NFL or NBA on network television? You get high-quality coverage of the games, not Morning Zoo attitude or fiction.

The one thing that needs to be added to this coverage is getting the word out that unlike the NBA or the NFL or even poker, you can legally bet on the races over the Internet from the comfort of your living room. This remains racing’s best-kept secret, and its biggest current failure has been failing to capitalize on this unique status. Whatever arrangement the Jockey Club makes with a network, it must include an understanding that offtrack betting will be not only be acknowledged but also encouraged.