On the first Saturday of February, 91 days away from the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, thoroughbred racing’s marquee event, lights are shining brighter on the sport. Camera lights, that is. Horse racing is starting to gain some momentum and much-needed exposure starting with a new racing series on FOX Sports, a new reality television series and the anticipated release of the Mine That Bird movie.
With declining handle, track closings and negative articles regarding drugs in the sport over the past few years, a needed boost of enthusiasm and increased televised racing is just what the doctor ordered. Operating as a sport that has declined in popularity, industry leadership has been injecting marketing dollars in an attempt to return the sport into the nation’s visibility.
Typically, the Triple Crown Series, and to a lesser extent the Breeders’ Cup, have been the sport’s moments in the sun. This year, the additional racing series on the FOX Sports 1 network will supplement the Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Summer at Saratoga series on NBC. This means nine additional dates will showcase the race of the day and another top race from eight different tracks, including the Dubai World Cup (Mar. 29) from Meydan Race Course and the Woodbine Mile (Sept. 14) from Toronto.
The Donn Handicap will kick off “The Jockey Club Tour on FOX” Series next weekend on Sunday afternoon as the first major race of the year for older racehorses. Of the nine dates, seven will be conducted on Sunday afternoons and will include many of the top turf races of the summer including the United Nations from Monmouth and the Sword Dancer from Saratoga. Only two races in the series are focused on 3-year olds - the Blue Grass Stakes from Keeneland in April and the Saratoga Special Stakes in August.
In addition to the new racing series, horse racing is featured in a new reality television series on the Esquire network on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. “Horseplayers” kicked off its inaugural season two weeks ago to positive reviews of its colorful cast of characters that focuses on the gambling side of the business.
Peter Rotondo, Jr., a vice president of Breeders’ Cup Ltd., stars in the show with his 64-year-old father and best buddy as Team Rotondo.
“I think the hardcore fans of racing will like it to a point – I think they’ll want to see more handicapping strategy and wagering but the ‘reality’ is that the show needs to develop the characters before trying to explain handicapping and betting in detail. If the show takes off, you’ll see a lot of wagering and handicapping discussion. I think the casual fan or reality television viewer that knows nothing about racing may find the characters interesting. For the most part, the show destroys the stereotype of the typical horseplayer,” said Rotondo, Jr.
Another big moment on the road to Kentucky Derby 140 will be the unveiling of the newest horse racing movie, “50 to 1.” It will chronicle the journey of Mine That Bird from Canada to New Mexico to Churchill Downs and the stunning upset he pulled at odds of 50-1 in the 2009 Derby.
The movie will be released on Mar. 21, just when the Road to this year’s Derby will be starting to heat up. NBC Sports Network will broadcast the Florida and Louisiana Derby on Mar. 22, the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby on Mar. 29 and the Arkansas Derby on Apr. 5. NBC will also broadcast the Bluegrass Stakes on Apr. 5. The Kentucky Derby will be broadcast by NBC on May 3.
There are three official Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools remaining if you are looking to select the Derby winner before we even know who will be in the gate. The second pool will be held next week on Thursday and will run through Saturday. The final two pools will be held in late February and late March.
The Future book at the Wynn Las Vegas currently lists Honor Code (10-1) as the favorite with last weekend’s two big winners, Cairo Prince (12-1) and Top Billing (14-1), as the next two choices. Shared Belief (18-1), the 2-year-old champion who is undefeated in three career races, is pointed at next weekend’s Robert Lewis at Santa Anita to make his 2014 debut.
The lights are on the thoroughbred racing scene and the Derby trail is about to heat up, so its time to start searching for that Derby horse to root for through the vigorous prep schedule over the next three months.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.