Saturday marked the maiden voyage of the collaboration between NYRA and the Madison Square Garden network, the first of six scheduled broadcasts devoted to New York stakes racing.
Saturday’s show was broadcast on MSG+, as will be this summer’s shows; the channel is available throughout much of New York on regular cable, and nationally on satellite television, though my understanding is that the Wood telecast was not shown nation-wide. This summer, the show will focus on five of the six Saturdays of Saratoga racing; ESPN will cover Travers day.
The racing gods lobbed NYRA a softball for this first show, which aired from 5:00 – 6:00 pm and featured the Wood and the Carter, two terrific races that gave the three hosts—Jason Blewitt, Eric Donovan, and Andy Serling—much to talk about, for both the betting public and the general racing fan. Overall, I recommend both conception and execution, with two caveats: I come to the program as a fan of the NYRA studio programs, and execution will undoubtedly get better as the whole team does more shows and works out the kinks.
One of the oddities of Talkin’ Horses and the usual NYRA TV program is the focus on the table at which Blewitt, Donovan, and Serling sit in the studio—for some reason, it is intensely foregrounded, and the table, with its curiously prominent grey covering, takes up too much room, pushing the hosts to the back and top of the frame. Poor Eric Donovan’s head is generally hitting the top of the screen, and watching him (on other broadcasts—he wasn’t in the studio on Saturday), I am nearly as uncomfortable as I was when I had to give ex-NHL-er Sandy McCarthy a ride in my VW, and I felt like I should open the sunroof to give the guy a little headroom.
A variety of technical glitches made intermittent appearances: Audio wasn’t synced with video, so the way people’s lips moved didn’t match with what they were saying; more than once, the studio hosts’ audio had to compete with track announcer Tom Durkin’s announcements and race call. This happened most notably as Serling and Blewitt were about to replay the Wood with post-race commentary.
This broadcast called on the three NYRA guys to do something a little different from their usual mission; in their daily shows, the emphasis is clearly on betting, for bettors. Their job is to offer handicapping analysis, while in this program, they discussed racing history and past winners of the Wood, creating a context beyond the pari-mutuel. In the first portion of the program, in fact, there was little discussion of betting. The odds were shown two minutes into the program, and not again until twelve minutes later.
A pre-Wood interview with Jeff Mullins (in those distant, pre-detention barn, innocent days) reviewed the Gotham, effectively setting up Saturday’s race for viewers who might not have followed the road to the Derby or winter racing at Aqueduct (there have to be a few of you out there, no?).
A profile of Imperial Council, featuring an interview with trainer Shug McGaughey, offered the kind of “Up Close and Personal” look that racing needs in order to attract fans.
Following the running of the Wood, Serling said, “Anyone who knows anything about this game knows that we just saw something special.” Indeed. But what about those who don’t know anything about the game, those people who had tuned in and were unable to discern the details of the race evident to those with more experienced eyes? This telecast faced the same dilemma that racing in general faces: accessibility and attractiveness to both bettors and fans. Fortunately, when the replay of the Wood was shown without audio conflicts, Serling and Blewitt offered detailed analysis that could be instructive to new and veteran viewers alike.
Timing and transitions were occasionally off, and they will obviously improve with practice, eliminating some clumsy and obviously unintentional silences. These and other opening night gaffes are really only technical and can be worked out. Fans of New York racing who happen to live in the MSG+ viewing area can likely expect detailed, informed coverage of the races at Saratoga this summer—and we should be glad that, given ESPN’s virtual abandonment of Thoroughbred racing coverage, NYRA and MSG have stepped in to fill the void, at least in part.
Over the next couple of days, Brian will recap last weekend’s races and preview this weekend’s Derby preps as I make my way to Lexington, whence I will post in a day or two…