Flatter: Here are 10 ways to turn racing into must-see TV

Flatter: Here are 10 ways to turn racing into must-see TV
Photo: Fox Sports / ESPN - edited illustration

The ideas on how to lure a new audience to an old sport like horse racing are myriad. Not myriad of. Myriad.

Putting cameras on jockeys was a dream going back to the days when that would have required strapping 150 pounds of equipment and a union operator on the back of the rider. It seemed impractical. Now the cameras are so small that a wad of chewing gum may be heavier.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Tom Rooney advanced the idea of televising the final table at the National Horseplayers Championship, although that would have been anticlimactic this year with Paul Calia carrying the equivalent of a 10-stroke lead into the last round.

Mind you, these are not game-changing ideas any more than a Triple Crown winner will save the sport. How has that worked out in the past eight years? But I trust these 10 things will be food for thought and grist for debate.

1. Bring in Gus Johnson. Starting in three months, Fox Sports has the next eight Belmont Stakes. I am sure this means the exquisite productions helmed by Michael Mulvihill and Tony Allevato will be the template. I was not the first to think of this, but how about adding the guy who put the passion in March Madness during his CBS days and does the same now with college sports on Fox? Johnson appeals to the young and the fan in all of us, especially the one jumping up and down with railbirds who are holding live tickets. I am not saying he should replace the actual, professional track announcer, but maybe there should be a separate Guscast.

2. Let’s play the family feed. Speaking of a second channel, let’s rip off the Manning brothers. The obvious choice here would be Irad and José Ortiz, but they probably have other plans for big races, perhaps with those micro cameras following their every move. How about a married couple like Tom Morley and Maggie Wolfendale? Maybe a father and son like Fox’s Hall of Famer Gary Stevens and his now-rider son T.C. Or a father and daughter like Peter and Britney Eurton. Or maybe, just maybe, Peyton and Eli. Heck, I would settle for Eli and Cooper.

3. Betting 1.0. Every race – underscore every – should have about 90 seconds devoted to explaining strategy to the game’s newcomers during the post parade. Randy Moss is really good at this on NBC. About 50 years ago, when hockey had to be explained to those of us living on the warm side of the 49th parallel, there was a cartoon character named Peter Puck. Either way, someone conceived or drawn should be called on to distill the basics faster than it takes to zap something in the microwave. The ideal candidate might be a precocious adolescent. Oh, wait. There still might be a minimum age to gamble. Not that that stopped most of us.

4. Make halftime post time. When I worked at ESPN in years starting with a 1, this actually had some traction among us racing degenerates who roamed the hallways in Bristol, Conn. Putting races on at halftime of prime-time football games never got very far with the TV and track bosses, because there was that whole issue of what happens if a horse got fractious at the gate. That is a legitimate concern, but if postseason football games can have half-hour intermissions, why not give it a try? Dare to dream of the Pegasus being run in the middle of the College Football Playoff Championship.

5. Gotta have a rules expert. If only Gene Steratore or Mike Pereira had been a steward. There are plenty of folks out there who used to be in those rooms. As often as there have been complaints about homestretch interference, a rules expert should have been in our sport long before becoming de rigueur for football telecasts. While I am at it, here is another plea to make like Australia and Dubai and put stewards hearings for objections and inquiries on TV track feeds and live streams. Make them truly transparent.

6. Seed the Kentucky Derby. I am not a fan of points being assigned to prep races before the Risen Star. Presuming that system is here to stay, change the Derby draw to reward the horses who finish at the top of the qualifying standings. Jody McDonald from CBS Sports Radio advanced the idea years ago to give the top point getter the first choice of post on the day of the Derby draw. Then give the second-best qualifier the next choice and so on. This may not be a ratings grabber on its own, but there could be a trickle down. It would add an incentive for horses to compete in what we now know as big preps that really should be seen as important events on their own.

7. Don’t treat allowances like classics. The glut of races we have in this country make them all look and sound alike to drive-by viewers. It feels like the most important race is always the next one. While that is all fine and good for in-house track feeds and hardcore players, that attitude translates to white noise for entry-level fans. Rather than getting breathless for $6,000 claiming races, it is better to tamp down that hype and build instead to a weekly Grade 1 crescendo.

8. Enough of the sing-songy patter. Hang with me on this one. There is a rhythm to the way racing commentators speak between races. It is like watching a local newscast on which the two studio anchors take turns with their rehearsed introductions to reporters in the field who start every sentence with the word “now” and end every story with “back to you.” In our game it is a hybrid of a “Pop Goes the Weasel” melody and a member of the wait staff reciting the menu specials. It repeats itself from the paddock to the starting gate, complete with stylized jargon and big pauses before the last two or three words of any given declaration. Frankly, newbies witnessing our little comfort zone must feel like strangers trying to crack the veneer of a cliquish conversation at a cocktail party.

9. Get rid of one and done. This never will happen, but it would be great if there were a moratorium on auctioning any horse before age 5, the better to let us enjoy the game’s stars on the racetrack. It would be the equivalent of making freshmen stay through their sophomore years before declaring themselves eligible for the NBA Draft. As with humans, the problem with that rule is that it cuts off the money spigots for the very commodities who fuel it. Absent a return to the barter system, this is at best a dream.

10. More Kenny Mayne. That should be self-explanatory. If the sport does nothing else than to give him a bigger platform, then that is a worthwhile start.

Top Stories

Having long since eclipsed legendary Charlie Whitt...
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Administratio...
Unbeaten since transferred to turf three starts ba...
Red Route One posted a half-mile breeze in 50.85 s...
Echo Zulu , the champion 2-year-old filly of 2021...