Monday, July 04, 2011
Summer at Saratoga
(CHICAGO, IL – July 4, 2011) What is it about how much money a man makes that gets so many other men jealous or curious? Maybe some men don’t make what they think they deserve and kvetching about other men’s riches gives them some sort of weird satisfaction.
Regardless, the apology that NYRA CEO Charles Hayward gave for failing to re-iterate to the State guard dogs those pay increases that he and his colleagues gave themselves a bit ago has predictably become the primary news of last Monday’s pre-season Saratoga press conference. It’s a shame because there was news coming out of the Desmond Hotel confab that was infinitely more noteworthy than his compensation or memory loss.
Look, a person finds happiness only in what he achieves, how he lives his life and who loves him. So the whole matter of salary in terms of a public servant is only meaningful in relation to whether or not the public is getting its money worth. In any case, a more significant matter than compensation was discussed Monday that should be on everyone’s lips – and it has little to do with congruence.
NYRA did not pursue NBC Sports and VERSUS to televise races from Saratoga. But the networks are currently advertising a “Summer at Saratoga” eight-hour, seven-weekend series of live racing from the Spa on such widely-viewed programs as Wimbledon. Only a year ago, the best the Travers could do was the MSG Network. Horse racing, in the main, over the past couple years, has been streaming its races via the NTRA instead of televising them because of network recalcitrance. Now that's news worth talking about.
“It turned out that August, late July to early September, was a time that, if we got creative, we could put something together,” said Miller, who noted that Saratoga Springs is the kind of authentic slice of Americana that viewers everywhere would enjoy learning about. Horse racing per se is a niche product, attracting a loyal and passionate fan base, but a hard sell to mainstream sports lovers. Not surprisingly, Miller's credited for creating the wildly-popular NHL Winter Classic, which defies the belief that the interest in pro hockey was restricted also.
Notwithstanding the comparison, Miller acknowledges that Saratoga is basically an Eastern product as compared to the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, which have wider consumer awareness. On the other hand, he believes that NBC Sports and VERSUS can showcase the trainers and jockeys, the setting, the track itself and the historic nature of Saratoga Springs in such a manner that the provincial nature of the content will become inconsequential. Horse racing buffs, heed the warning.
What’s likely is that Saratoga’s dewy mornings, its Victorian homes and healing waters, the legends of Diamond Jim Brady and Lilly Langtry and Man ‘O War and Secretariat as well as the yearling sales will provide much of the programs’ subject matter. NBC Sports, much to the credit of Dick Ebersol, believes that the art of story-telling is vital to engaging people. The network’s producers know, for example, that the hat contest for “Hat’s Off to Saratoga” weekend will be, in at least some family rooms, a more interesting race than the Coaching Club American Oaks. “If this is successful," Miller said about leveraging the human interest, "I fully believe that we can do this at other places."
“Ratings are one measuring stick, but they’re not the only measuring stick,” Miller said about measuring success. The well-spoken television executive cited industry involvement, horsemen’s support (he wants trainers to step up and enter their best horses in his televised races not in races that offer the biggest purses), the sales marketplace and affiliate station reaction as factors that will determine what’s to become of the program.
That being said, the audience for televised horse racing, while not paltry or lowbrow, hasn’t been large enough or sufficiently demographically diverse to attract mainstream advertisers. Although NBC Sports and VERSUS were able to produce Triple Crown shows that were watched by women, the sport’s core following is middle-class, male-dominated and aging. Travelers Insurance, however, believes in the product and has stepped up already to become an advertiser on “Summer at Saratoga.” Miller didn't sound worried that others won't follow suit.
There were so many obviously beneficial aspects to the NBC Sports and VERSUS Saratoga programing that even a non-salaried NYRA intern could have seen the wisdom in moving forward with Miller’s proposal. That the highest-paid guy cemented the deal is merely a function of protocol. Yet, you wouldn’t have wanted a rube undeserving of Hayward’s salary, low in comparison to people who normally oversee assignments like this, to have been in charge.
If NBC Sports and VERSUS continue next year with Saratoga, they will be carrying the Olympic Summer Games from London during the Saratoga season and a horse racing lead-in, especially one rich in the same type of interesting stories that make the viewing of Olympics a joy as well as a ratings phenomenom, would help to create new fans not imagined. All of horse racing, which surely must realize that New York is the leader in the sport, will bask in the positive glow of the Saratoga telecasts.
The most heartening aspect is that NBC Sports and VERSUS team of top-notch broadcasters will put horse racing’s best face on to safeguard their employer’s investment. Such positive reinforcement for the sport will surely beat the belly-aching and nitpicking that goes on when its leaders are left to talk about pay stubs.
Vic Zast will be keeping Vic Zast's Saratoga Diary for bloodhorse.com for the sixth year, beginning with Saratoga's opening day - July 22.