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Posted: Thursday April 30, 2009 7:31PM; Updated: Friday May 1, 2009 1:03PM
Tim Layden Tim Layden >
INSIDE HORSE RACING

Reduced coverage does nothing but reduce interest in Derby, racing

Story Highlights

ESPN used to show a mix of post position draw, previews and live racing

TV production company Winnercomm, Inc. felt that market couldn't be supported

ESPN's Len DeLuca said cutting the coverage "was not an economic decision"

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I Want Revenge, Kentucky Derby
I Want Revenge is the 3-1 favorite in Saturday's 135th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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LOUISVILLE -- They feel neglected. The trainers, the owners, the jockeys. The players in Saturday's 135th running of the Kentucky Derby are part of one of the great sports spectacles in America, and yet this year the stage feels a little smaller. The spotlight leading to the race feels a little dimmer.

Here is why: For nearly two decades, ESPN has broadcast some combination of a Wednesday post position draw, a Thursday night preview show and Friday afternoon show that featured live racing, culminating with the Kentucky Oaks, an important race for 3-year-old fillies that is regularly witnessed by a live crowd exceeding 100,000. None of these were broadcast this week.

Instead, the post position draw, which -- for the participants -- had become a combination of dress-up day in high school and the Oscars, was moved from downtown Louisville in the early evening, to a party tent in a parking lot at noon.

''It's a huge step backward for our sport,'' said Rick Porter, who owns Derby horse Friesan Fire. "No wonder we're in trouble. No wonder we don't have any fans.''

Trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Pioneerof The Nile and try to win the Derby for the fourth time, said, "It's disappointing. I really think ESPN and Churchill Downs dropped the ball on this. The draw and Oaks being on television, it created a lot of excitement around here.''

(Only around here, as it turns out, because ratings for both events were very low).

There will be national television on Oaks Day, Friday. It will be a one-hour show on NBC-owned Bravo, called Ladies First: Bravo at the Kentucky Derby. It is described by Bravo as "a one-hour special produced by NBC Sports . . . hosted by NBC's Bob Costas, Access Hollywood's Nancy O'Dell, and The Real Housewives of New York City's Bethenny Frankel, celebrates a day for women and gives viewers a history on the fashion and festivities before and after the Oaks race. Tiki Barber will check-in live from the Infield Club with Top Chef Season 5 finalist Stefan Richter, and Season 4 and 5 Top Chef winners Stephanie Izard and Hosea Rosenberg.''

In other words, not much racing. (Maybe, like minor league baseball, racing needs Top Chef to expand its audience. Or maybe not).

Back to Porter and Baffert. They are among the many dedicated horsemen who are feeling vaguely desperate about the state of their game and, in this regard, ESPN's reduced presence at the Downs (ESPN will still broadcast a pre-Derby show Saturday, with live racing, before the NBC telecast) has the feel of piling on. Magna Entertainment, which owns Pimlico, Santa Anita and Gulfstream, among other racetracks, has collapsed. Doping accusations are commonplace. On-track attendance has been faltering for years and, in the mainstream, racing has remained a major-league sport only because of compelling story lines (Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, etc.) that dipped into many demographics.

The story of racing's struggles on the broad sports landscape is not new. But every year the game would come to Louisville and clocks would spin backward. Trainers and owners were celebrities again. Horses were idolized. The Derby would come to life not just as a civic celebration (and, let's face it, a money grab; I'm paying $633 a night for my weekend hotel room, up from $99 on Wednesday), but also an international showcase on a level just below the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four. The televised ramp-up made it all seem even bigger and more important, even if the overall effect was minimal.

And it's not just the Derby. ESPN has also done post position draw and Friday shows in advance of the Preakness and will do neither of those this year. There will also be no Preakness day undercard show.

Why did this happen? It's complicated enough to give you a headache. But here are the basics:

The Derby week and Preakness week shows in past years were not strictly ESPN productions. Winnercomm, Inc. -- a Tulsa, Okla.-based television sports production company -- was provided with air time by ESPN and paid for the cost of producing the shows, which it paid for by selling advertising. (The Derby week and Preakness week shows were just a part of Winnercomm's event schedule). "We were the packager,'' said Jim Wilburn, Winnercomm's founder and CEO. "As ESPN and ESPN2 grew, it became a very a very good investment for us.''

Included in the Winnercomm/ESPN arrangement was a lengthy list of late winter and spring Derby prep races which were packaged under the title Racing to the Triple Crown. Derby week programming grew to 25 hours. However, about three years ago, as Wilburn recalls, ESPN began to broach the possibility of cutting back on racing programming.

Then, as with so many businesses, the onset of the recession last fall dramatically altered the landscape. ESPN came to Wilburn and expressed a willingness to continue with Derby week and Preakness week programming, but Wilburn found that the market would not support the status quo. National sponsorship, once built on pillars such as Anheuser-Busch, VISA and Citgo, has entirely dried up. Industry sponsors -- breeding farms, supplement manufacturers -- also pulled back. The title sponsor of the Kentucky Derby is Yum! Brands, which has not provided sponsorship of the accompanying cable television shows.

"We couldn't make it work,'' Wilburn said. "Look, I started this company based on horse racing. It's what I love most. It makes me sick that there's not more coverage of horse racing. ESPN was willing to do Friday coverage. ESPN was willing to do the draw, if we thought we could sell it. But ESPN wasn't taking on any of the risk and in this marketplace, we couldn't make it work. "We were doing everything we could to make the post position draw interesting,'' Wilburn said. "But the ratings were very poor, around a zero-point-two or a zero-point-three. The Oaks Day was a very low rating. All the work we did was based on what we could in the window before the start of the national telecast of the Derby and the Preakness.''

ESPN has not gotten entirely out of horse racing business. The network will broadcast 19 hours of racing in the summer and fall, leading to the broadcast of the Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which are carried on its air "We've refocused our horse racing coverage,'' said Len DeLuca, senior vice president for programming and acquisitions at ESPN. "Would we have liked to be at Churchill Downs and Pimlico on those Friday? Yes, we would. Is it a luxury we can live without? Yes, it is.

"And I can't speak for Jim Wilburn,'' DeLuca said. "But for us, it was not an economic decision.''

ESPN excels at promoting its own work, and it is logical that it would devote increased time to races approaching the Breeders Cup. It is equally logical that Winnercomm would take the economic pulse of the market and conclude that its previous approach to racing is no longer viable. What's left behind is silence. And for an entertainment business, there is no more terrifying sound.

 
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