When historic Saratoga Race Course opens on July 20 for the splendor of its 155th season, there will once again be 40 days of unparalleled racing with 69 stakes worth $18.8 million.
Yet for television viewers across the country, there will be much of more of Saratoga to watch and savor through Labor Day on September 3.
The New York Racing Association's popular “Saratoga Live” telecast will enjoy a larger presence on the FOX Sports 2 (FS2) national cable network during the upcoming meet with coverage of all 40 days totaling more than 93 hours of programming.
After presenting 38 days and 84 hours on FS2 a year ago, the additional hours and days represent a 10 percent jump in national air time and reflect the reasons why in 2017 the sports network signed a three-year extension to carry the show through 2020.
“The quality of the show has been tremendous. The job the NYRA people have done in terms of putting together on-air talent and production value has been very encouraging and satisfying to us and we're happy to expand the partnership,” said Michael Mulvihill, the Executive Vice President of Research, League Operations and Strategy for FOX Sports. “Honestly I think it's the best day-in and day-out presentation of racing that has ever been done.”
Launched in 2016, “Saratoga Live” – as well as NYRA's telecasts from Belmont Park and Aqueduct – still stands as the racing industry's lone live daily show produced by a racetrack. Combined with air time on regional networks such as MSG+ and Prime Ticket, the Saratoga show has an expanded reach of 75 million households and has more than satisfied the expectations of NYRA officials.
“I'm extremely proud of the men and women of the New York Racing Association and what they have been able to achieve with the ‘Saratoga Live' program,” said Chris Kay, NYRA's CEO and President. “My hat goes off to [NYRA Senior Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer] David O'Rourke for creating it and [NYRA Bets President and Executive Producer, Television] Tony Allevato for running it and I am extremely pleased that FOX and MSG both entered into 3-year extensions of our initial contracts. It speaks volumes about the quality of our programming and says that our talent is world-class, because they would not have renewed those contracts if it wasn't. It seems like every day that I walk around Saratoga, people tell me how much they love the show.”
Mulvihill said that the best barometer of the show's success in reaching and entertaining its target audience has been increased wagering at the Spa since the show's inception. Saratoga enjoyed a record all-sources handle of $676.7 million in 2017, a 4.5 percent improvement over $647.3 million the previous year.
“Racing is a different animal than any other sport we present,” Mulvihill said. “We focus less on the viewership statistics and more on handle. The point of the relationship is to help NYRA build its handle and get people to bet their races on a regular basis. It's unique. Over the last few years the handle numbers have increased nicely and we're happy with the way the show is trending. When you're talking about Saratoga, you have the premier racing meet in America, and perhaps the entire world.
“It's great that NYRA has made the investment to step up their production and present it like a premium event and did not put out just a traditional simulcast signal. They have turned it into a more robust program.”
NYRA spared little expense in elevating “Saratoga Live” far above the standard replay show others tracks offer and trying to put it on equal footing with the national television coverage of events such as the Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup. NYRA dedicated significant resources to assemble an experienced production team as well as high definition cameras and state-of-the-art graphics to create a show that would attract and hold the interest of NYRA's wide-spread fan base.
“NBC does an unbelievable job, and I don't think anyone can cover the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup as well as NBC,” Allevato said.”They cover the pageantry, the social aspect and the spirit of the sport, telling all the stories. Our show is geared toward a sports bettor and horse racing fan who follows the sport regularly. The motto for every Saratoga Live telecast is to educate, inform and entertain. We want to inform viewers about the odds, show them the post parades and give them the information they need to form an opinion. One of the beauties of horseracing is that it's a sport where there the opportunities to learn something new are almost limitless. In the end, however, the most important thing is for our shows to be entertaining.”
That job of captivating the audience rests with a colorful team of six personalities whose talents mesh during the typical two-and-a-half show each racing day at the Spa. Working as a unit are handicappers Andy Serling and Paul Lo Duca, host Greg Wolf, analyst Gabby Gaudet, paddock analyst Maggie Wolfendale and trainer/analyst Tom Amoss to provide expert commentary on each race as well as interviews with horsemen and pertinent features. Larry Collmus, NYRA track announcer and the voice of the Triple Crown, provides exciting race calls for every show.
“They have a core group of personalities who bring something unique to the show and the interplay between them helps to fill the time quite well,” Mulvihill said.”People like to hear what Maggie sees in the paddock or how Andy handicaps the race It's a new approach to racing and how to cover it on a day-to-day basis. They are doing something more specifically tailored to someone who will wager most days of the meet and will follow the meet closely and are active participants. It's really working well.”
Serling said that heading into the third season of “Saratoga Live,” the experience the broadcast team has gained from working together on the show as well as NYRA's daily simulcast presentations has created a cohesive unit that can provide both insightful handicapping information as well as a few laughs during their back-and-forth bantering.
“Right now there's a very positive level of comfortability among everyone. There's an easy-going feeling that comes through during the telecasts,” Serling said. “It's a great team. I've never seen anyone prepare better than Greg Wolf. The funny thing about his work is that the better job he does, the less people notice him.”
The all-around talents of the team are best reflected in the unique skill sets of both Wolfendale and Amoss.
Aside from providing commentary in the paddock – an especially valuable role at Saratoga with its wealth of 2-year-old races – Wolfendale will also put her equestrian skills to full use on Fridays through Sundays as she will be on horseback to interview jockeys on the track immediately after certain races.
“I had some warmups tries at Belmont Park the last two weekends on my horse so I'll be doing post-race jockey interviews pretty much every Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said Wolfendale, the daughter of trainer Howard Wolfendale and the wife of NYRA trainer Tom Morley. “Overall, the show is a big undertaking. A lot of work and hours goes into creating all of that programming and content and everyone works extremely hard both in front of the camera and behind it to put forth the best possible product. At the end of the day, we're doing what we love and showcasing racing at Saratoga so it's worth all the time and effort because it's the best racing in the country. It's a thrill for me for me to be a part of a very special show.”
Amoss has been training since 1987 and his horses have won 3,527 races and earned more than $95 million (through July 16). Based in the Midwest for much of the year, his hands-on experience often leads to lively exchanges with the always-opinionated Serling while they are analyzing a race.
“I love working with Tom,” said Serling, who joined the NYRA broadcast team in 2008. “I thought Tom and I worked well together last year. He'll challenge me and I'll challenge him and that's what you want to make the show better. It's a great opportunity for us to broaden what we do and move beyond a simulcast show. It's been great to have him with us. It's nice to work at a place that gives you an opportunity to succeed and that's what we get from NYRA.”
Amoss, entering his third year with the show, was at the center of one the most popular “Saratoga Live” segments last year when cameras followed him as he saddled one of his unraced 2-year-olds in the seventh race on Aug. 12. Viewers received a close-up look as Amoss saddled Lone Sailor and discussed strategy with jockey Rajiv Maragh for the colt's first start in a career that featured a victory in his next race at the Spa and an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and a fifth in the Preakness earlier this year.
“The reaction to that piece was great and it caught me off guard. I didn't realize it, but my wife pointed it out to me that what trainers do on an everyday basis is often times hidden from the public and that segment illustrated everything we do,” Amoss said. “I'm very proud of the show. The people I work with are committed and do their homework. You have to bring your ‘A' game when you do this show and I love it that everyone feels that way. I think that segment with Lone Sailor was the tip of the iceberg and I hope we do more things of that nature to show the fans everything that's involved in a race.”
Allevato said that among the new additions is a new wireless camera that will allow remotes from anywhere on the grounds, including “The Stretch,” a new area at the end of the grandstand that features 32 boxes for reserved seating as well as a bar and restaurant and amenities such as use of an iPad.
“You'll see our people there on a regular basis capturing the spirit and fun environment of Saratoga in this new area,” Allevato said. “It's going to be great addition.”
Besides some new features, he also points out how an even more important element in the growth of “Saratoga Live” and the expanded air time has been a relentless commitment to excellence.
“What's great about NYRA is that its a not-for-profit and we are always looking for ways to grow interest in horse racing. Not just in New York but nationally. It's important to build a fan base and we're doing it through creating a quality television shows that cover racing in a first-class manner,” Allevato said. “Moving forward we'll focus more on owners, and not just the big stables. It can be people who are in syndicates or first-time owners. What's hurting racing is that people talk about a horse shortage but there's also an owner shortage and if we can add to the experience of being a horse owner by letting people talk about what it means to be an owner, it really is a great message to deliver to people who are considering buying a horse.”
Allevato also pointed to the show's “I Am” feature, which is a first-person story of people who work at the race track in roles ranging from grooms and hotwalkers to the track photographer.
In addition, the 2018 season will see the debut of a historical feature on the legendary Dr. Fager to mark the 50th anniversary of his 1968 campaign.
“We're constantly investing in the show and trying to make it better,” Allevato said. “What's great about Saratoga is that there's a stakes every day and a crowd every day. There's a special feeling there. You know you are watching major league racing when you watch Saratoga. I'll admit it's a challenge and a grind on everyone to produce a 2 ½-hour show six days a week. Yet when you watch our show, I know people would be surprised to learn it's produced by one racetrack. I'm delighted with the way it has grown thanks to partners like FOX Sports and MSG+ and how it has been embraced by our fans, and I'm proud of the way it has benefitted NYRA, NYRA Bets and any other outlet across the country that handles Saratoga racing.”
For the 2018 “Saratoga Live” schedule, please visit:https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/tv-schedule.
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