07/29/2009 11:00PM

TV networks conspicuous by their absence


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - What a first weekend of August for racing: The gelding, filly, and colt who won this year's Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are all in action, heading for a possible showdown in the Travers; the 15-length winner of the world's richest race, the Dubai World Cup, makes his return to American soil; it's opening weekend at Saratoga, and the second weekend at Del Mar, the two biggest race meetings of the summer.

It's an extraordinary collection of talent, a showcase for the closest thing racing has to household names, and a fabulous opportunity to capitalize on the strong television ratings for this year's Triple Crown and the emergence of Rachel Alexandra as a national heroine. Instead, not a single one of these races is being broadcast by ABC, CBS, NBC, or ESPN.

Existing racing fans will probably figure out a way to see most of the racing, on simulcasts at the track or teletheatres or if they have access to TVG, which is unavailable in some major markets, including New York City. But for casual fans, who might have been attracted to the game by major national network coverage of this year's unusually compelling Triple Crown stories, it amounts to a blackout.

The most disappointing absentee from any coverage is ESPN, which promised a major new commitment to racing when it gained the rights to the Breeders' Cup more than two years ago. Since then, ESPN has has done little except slash its racing coverage to less than half of what it used to be before that new commitment.

This weekend may well represent an all-time low in racing's national visibility. Even as coverage has waned over the last two decades, there was a good chance that someone would find a way to get national exposure for a winner of a Triple Crown race, much less for a clash between two of them such as the meeting of Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird in Sunday's Haskell. The appearance by Mine That Bird in Saturday's West Virginia Derby would, just a few years ago, have been a virtually automatic broadcast for ESPN.

Beyond ESPN's virtual abandonment of racing, it's unclear where the blame lies or what could be done differently. The invisibility of this weekend's racing reflects the vacuum of authority or coordinated power at the top of the sport. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has much less money to work with than when it was founded a decade ago. The Breeders' Cup, running an operating deficit this year, is using its scarce marketing and television funds on fall races closer to its own events that it needs to promote.

In addition, individual tracks are playing off the various account-wagering companies such as TVG and HRTV against one another, taking whatever money they can get for exclusive rights to their top races in the absence of national coverage. Even if some organization in racing had the authority or willpower to seek wider coverage of this weekend's racing, it's unclear whether they could get the rights to these events away from simulcasting networks that the average sports fan has never heard of.

Bigger races at smaller tracks a growing trend

Mine That Bird is the first Kentucky Derby winner to race in a West Virginia Derby, which speaks to both his individual circumstances and to looming changes on the national racing landscape.

Since Mine That Bird is a gelding, his connections can have more fun with him than a group trying to establish his value as a stallion might. They can barnstorm with him instead of running in the races with the most prestige and tradition or highest grades.

But we also could be seeing the start of a shift in where those richest and most prestigious races are being run, and it's directly tied to the widening gaps between the haves and have-nots on the "alternative gaming" (slot machine) front. Tracks with slots, such as Mountaineer - which is running races worth $770,000 Saturday in addition to the $750,000 West Virginia Derby - are putting on stakes races with soaring purses that are going to attract better horses and higher grades in the years to come. Mine That Bird's emergence from the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico will probably make that race a Grade 3 next year. Philadelphia Park frequently puts on rich races that will climb the graded-stakes ladder once eligible.

With Hollywood Park's future uncertain, and tracks in California, Kentucky, and Florida cutting back on racing dates and stakes purses without slots, we could be looking at a very different set of "premier" tracks and races a decade from now.