The new TV show that will broadcast racing from Saratoga live across America

Advanced, state-of-the-art equipment puts the NYRA television production trucks on a par with those at major sports like NBA, NHL, NFL or the Olympics. Photo: NYRA

So much has changed in a relatively short amount of time when it comes to media and the dissemination of content. From Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and Periscope, there’s no shortage of new ways to communicate and deliver a message. Yet, even in an ever-changing digital era, there’s still a highly reliable way to reach and entertain a large audience through a medium that has roots dating back to the days when Dwight David Eisenhower was President.

Television audiences may be shrinking from its heydays, but in terms of delivering content to massive amounts of people it remains as reliable an outlet as ever – a point that apparently resonates quite loudly with the management of the New York Racing Association (NYRA).

When historic Saratoga Race Course opens for its 148th season on Friday, the curtain will also go up on something new and completely unprecedented in the centuries-old sport.

In May, NYRA first raised the bar when it launched Belmont Park Live, a two-hour television program filled with coverage of Belmont Park racing airing on MSG+, a regional sports network in New York.

Though the show might be produced in-house, NYRA has spared no expense in creating a high-quality program that can stand tall alongside national network broadcasts of horse racing – or professional sports such as the National Football League or Major League Baseball.

Available in 65 million homes

Now, with the shift to the Spa, NYRA will take its investment in television to even greater heights with the debut of Saratoga Live, an expanded 2 ½-hour program that will air on a national cable network, Fox Sports 2 (FS2), as well as regional networks Altitude and MSG+.

In doing so, clickers in nearly 65 million homes can channel surf to Saratoga Live, with FS2 alone delivering more than 50 million subscribers, and viewers can take in about 90 hours of coverage and 40 stakes during Saratoga’s superlative seven-week meet while being introduced to NYRA’s new national online wagering platform.

“NYRA is making a huge investment in this show and we’re happy to be a part of it,” said David Nathanson, the head of Business Operations for Fox Sports. “We believe in Thoroughbred racing and believe there can be a growth of the audience for the show. It should appeal to our audience.”

While there might be a racing network in TVG and national coverage of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and selected major races by NBC, NYRA’s Belmont and Saratoga shows comprise the biggest commitment to television – both financially and in terms of reaching a national audience – ever undertaken by an individual racetrack operator.

The impact of TV pictures on handle

“What we’re doing is a significant investment that’s unparalleled by any other racetrack,” said Tony Allevato, a former Executive Producer at TVG and now NYRA’s Executive Television Producer. “There hasn’t been anything else with a track offering such a large and consistent package of horse racing on a national level.

“From my years at TVG, I saw the impact putting races on TV had on handle for both the (Advance Deposit Wagering networks) and the racetracks. I’m well aware of the power of television and NYRA is as well, and that’s why we’re doing this.”

Saratoga Live will air from 4 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. Eastern time and present coverage of at least four races a day, some of them Grade 1 classics such as the Whitney, Alabama and Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks with the undefeated Songbird.

The show will air on MSG+ and Altitude on 39 of the meet’s 40 days, missing only Sept. 3, when the featured Woodward Stakes will be aired on NBC. FS2 will not carry the show on Sept. 3 as well as Aug. 5 and 17. On Aug. 27, Saratoga Live will air earlier in the day and supplement NBC’s national coverage of the G1 Travers by showing three graded stakes.  

Launch of NYRA’s national ADW platform

“We believe the launch of our new television programming will benefit all those horseplayers and fans who love and follow NYRA’s world-class horse racing, while also introducing them to our new, technologically advanced ADW platform – NYRA Bets,” said NYRA President and CEO Christopher Kay.

“The launch of Saratoga Live on July 22 means that, for the first time, the best racing in America from the most historic venue will be broadcast to a national audience of more than 65 million homes. The prospect of reaching experienced horseplayers where they live, while expanding our ability to develop new fans, is something about which everyone at NYRA is extremely excited.”

On one front, the timing could not better for NYRA to aggressively move into the television marketplace. The expanded air time and introduction to a national audience coincides with the impending launch of NYRA Bets, which will allow residents outside of New York to open NYRA online wagering accounts and gave Allevato a reason to seek out a new and larger TV partner.

“We started the show in conjunction with the launch of our national ADW. That’s a main reason why we did it,” said Allevato, who also serves as President of NYRA Bets. “The biggest growth area in horse racing is home wagering, and NYRA needed to get into that marketplace on a national level.

Showing big races from other tracks

“One ideal way to promote that we are becoming a national brand is through the TV show. We were going to go through a variety of regional networks, but when we approached Fox they loved the idea and they said let’s do it on a national level. That led to the expanded show for Saratoga.”

The creation of NYRA Bets also gives Allevato added incentive to add coverage of selected major races at other tracks during the Saratoga program. Belmont Park Live presented the Queen’s Plate on July 3 and Allevato said wagering on the race increased by 61 percent over 2015 figures at NYRA’s online ADW.

Yet, aside from the impact on NYRA’s handle, the association with FS2 and a new national audience for Saratoga Live also promises to provide tremendous visibility for the entire sport. Nathanson said Fox Sports will promote the Saratoga show across its studio programming on Fox Sports 1 and online through its social media platforms, meaning fans of sports such as baseball and soccer will be enticed to watch horse racing.

“The goal here,” said Nathanson, who worked alongside Allevato during Nathanson’s tenure as TVG President from 2005-2009, “is to get behind the races at Saratoga and the NYRA content and drive audience to FS2.”

Spreading the excitement of racing

Thanks to those invaluable plugs during Fox’s wide array of high-profile sports programming, the bond between the network and NYRA seems certain to introduce New York racing – and the sport in general – to a mainstream audience it has struggled to reach.

“Television is a powerful platform and everyone in the industry can benefit from what NYRA is doing,” said The Jockey Club’s Stephen Panus, Vice President of TJC Media Ventures and America’s Best Racing.

“It’s an opportunity for fans and soon-to-be fans from across the country to gain a better appreciation of Saratoga. It can also educate new players about the excitement of the sport, and it ties in with everything the sport is trying to do. Anytime you have a platform like Saratoga Live where they will analyze the races and talk about how they handicap and take viewers into that puzzle of how you look at a card and find a winner, that’s great. That’s what poker was able to do.”

For most tracks, a venture along the lines of the Belmont Park or Saratoga shows would be an impossible dream. Yet for NYRA, a solid foundation was in place both from its daily simulcast program and its many years of producing a replay show on regional cable channels in New York, giving it the capability to produce separate shows for television and its simulcast signal on a daily basis.

Incredible challenge

“For years NYRA has been doing a nightly replay show,” Allevato said. “It was a well produced show and hands down the best of its type in the country. But the ratings weren’t really here. When replay shows were created 20 years ago, if you didn’t go to the track they were the only way you could see the races. Now you can pull up a race a minute after the horses cross the finish line on your computer, phone or tablet.

“[NYRA Senior Director of Television] Dan Silver, through his relationship with MSG, said instead of a replay show, what if we did a live show that centered around the Pick 4, usually the last four races of the day and gave people live sports content? That’s how the show started on MSG+ in May and it’s been well received.”

Hiring Allevato set everything in motion as he came to NYRA with extensive television experience at both TVG and the NFL Network. A consultant prior to joining NYRA, he quickly realized the building blocks were in place to create programming as ambitious as the Belmont and Saratoga shows.

“NYRA CEO Chris Kay is really forward thinking, and I bought into his vision of what we’re trying to do from a television/fan experience/ADW-home wagering standpoint,” Allevato said. “And we had the foundation here with the talent, facilities and crew. I don’t think this can be done at too many racetracks in the world. It’s been an incredible challenge, but everyone here has really stepped up.”

Team on a par with anything in major sports

In terms of on-air talent, NYRA has one of the best and most well-known teams in analyst/host Jason Blewitt, acerbic handicapper Andy Serling and paddock analyst Maggie Wolfendale. Recently former jockey Richard Migliore was brought in to add a rider’s perspective to the mix, and his reports on how horses are warming up en route to the starting gate have proven to be a popular addition to both the television shows and NYRA’s simulcast feed.

“One advantage for us is that we have one of the strongest groups of on-air talent in the country and a terrific production team,” Silver said. “From that, it’s not a huge step to do a show like the one we’re doing now, which has analysis from on-air talent throughout the entire two hours.

“For Saratoga we’re adding Gabby Gaudet and [trainer] Tom Amoss to the fold, and it brings a level of analysis that handicappers will benefit from. They are also so good at explaining handicapping concepts and what you should look for in a way that will also appeal to fans who are not hard-core followers of the sport. We’re proud of the entire team we have in place. It’s on a par with anything you’ll find with a major professional sports league.”

In the charismatic Serling, the shows feature a bombastic, no-holds-barred handicapper who is never shy about pointing out which horse he likes – or doesn’t like. Yet, to fill a 2- or 2 ½-hour program, it requires more than handicapping content, explaining the emphasis NYRA has placed on building a skilled and well-rounded broadcast team and sprinkling timely interviews with trainers and owners into the mix.

‘You want guys banging heads’

“We’re trying to bring as much information as possible to people,” said Serling, who joined NYRA’s broadcast team in 2008. “You have a lot of different elements and we’re trying to bring different points of view to people, whether it’s me handicapping or Maggie’s visual in the paddock, Richie’s visual on the racetrack. It works well with Richie and I. We have different opinions because we come from different places, which is good. You want guys banging heads. You don’t want two guys agreeing all the time.

“There’s something for everyone in the show, and it works year round and now we’re bringing it to a mass audience. Yes, we’re showcasing what we do here and we’re showcasing the great racing we have, but we’re also bringing something to racing fans and even non-racing fans to show people what is out there.”

Helping matters considerably is the chemistry developed by the on-air talent while working together on NYRA’s simulcast show and learning how to interact on cameras and feed off each other’s expertise.

“No one is shy about suggesting things at production meetings and we know each other’s personalities. We all understand that it brings a positive energy,” said Wolfendale, who joined NYRA in 2010.

High-end production

“We know the show generates great exposure and it forces us to do our homework and acknowledge that sometimes we talk in generalities and jargon in this sport. New fans won’t understand those terms so we’re striving to make the sport more accessible with the talent explaining racing better, being transparent and recruiting new fans through the phenomenal exposure television is giving us.”

Aside from the on-air talent, what puts the NYRA shows on a new plateau is a focus on high-end production.

Each day, the program makes use of 14 cameras, six of them robotic and two hand-held. The production trucks, helmed by director Mitch Levites, producers Eric Donovan and Josh Abelson and Director of Television Production John Imbriale, are home to a staff of about 25 working on the television and simulcast shows, which share some content but are still separate entities.

The trucks and the equipment inside them are state-of-the-art and no different than the units at an NFL game.

Amazing camera angles

Inside them, the pace is as fast as it is on the racetrack, with Levites and his crew watching three large screens showing more than 50 camera angles. In the span of 15 seconds, directors might bark out orders to controllers to switch feeds three or four times. In one major difference between the simulcast and televisions shows, while simulcast feeds of races will show a single view of a race, on the television show numerous angles and close-ups will be used to focus on what’s developing in the race.

“Doing the show and watching the feed. I’m amazed at the different angles we get and all the cameras we use,” Blewitt said. “From pre-race presentation through the race itself and post-race, it’s incredible, even for someone like me who has worked here for nearly 20 years. It’s really cool.”

Added Silver: “We’re not a TV production clearing house. We’re a racetrack, however, not only do we have great talent, we have an amazing engineering and production team and they are the reason why we’re able to go into this with so much confidence.

Exceptional use of graphics

“Yes, there are challenges involved in trying to produce a simulcast feed and at the same time a live show for three different networks, one of them national. So we had to put considerable resources into personnel and equipment to make these live shows incredible. We purchased new graphic equipment that is on par with the NBA, NHL, NFL, the Olympics.”

Some of the cameras and animation equipment purchased by NYRA came with price tags of more than $100,000, yet they have allowed producers to make exceptional use of graphics for promotions and to better illustrate the action during replays.

New bells and whistles can, for example, superimpose the silks of a winning stable on the track after a race and animations have been created to highlight a hit or a miss by Serling with his selections. There are even plans to add lines – racing’s version of the superimposed first down markers during football games - during the replays of inquiries to show how far a horse drifts.

“We couldn’t have done any of this without a top-notch production crew,” said Serling. “It’s kind of unfair, Jason, Maggie, Richie and I get all the glory because we’re on TV. If we’re screwing up, obviously we get the blame, but we’re not. And one of the reasons we’re not is because we get such great help from the people behind the scenes. If we didn’t get the commitment we get from the truck we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t look good on the air.

Hub for NYRA’s other platforms

“It also starts at the top. You couldn’t get a commitment if Chris Kay wasn’t behind it. People like (NYRA Vice President, Chief Revenue Officer) Dave O’Rourke, Dan Silver, Tony Allevato, if they weren’t committed to this, we couldn’t get it done.”

While FS2 and Altitude will air only the Saratoga show, MSG+ will carry Belmont Park Live from Sept. 9 through Oct. 2 with a special presentation added on Oct. 22 for the track’s New York Showcase Day. Allevato is hopeful of adding more shows in 2017, and while Belmont Park Live and Saratoga Live might be television shows, they are also a hub for NYRA to make use of its other platforms, such as its HD mobile app.

NYRA races are also shown on Roku and in the fall there are plans to launch new apps for IOS and Android, Apple TV and Amazon Fire. In 2017, apps for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will be added.

It’s a comprehensive package for a digital era, yet at the center of it all there’s still and a tried and true outlet, television.

Even today, as much as things change, they sometimes remain the same.

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