Saratoga Live returns with unprecedented coverage
by Tom Pedulla
More eyes will be on Saratoga's prized summer meet than ever before thanks to a landmark agreement between the New York Racing Association, Inc. [NYRA] and FOX Sports.
As part of the most expansive television programming deal in horse racing history, the critically acclaimed Saratoga Live will appear on FOX, FS1 and FS2 for an unprecedented 192.5 combined show hours, with 190.5 of those hours on FS2. The 150th running of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers, the famed "Mid-Summer Derby," will be showcased on the FOX Broadcast Network in a one-hour show on August 24 that begins at 5 p.m.
In addition to daily national coverage on FS2, Saratoga Live can be seen on regional sports networks including MSG, which will air 105 hours of coverage, in addition to FOX Sports Prime Ticket, FOX Sports San Diego and Altitude Sports.
Put them all together and Saratoga's world-class racing will receive almost a 100 percent increase in exposure to reach a total of 198 total television hours, the kind of breakthrough rarely seen by any show.
"We realize that, in order for the sport to grow, we have to find a way to reach a new audience. There never was any sport that was hurt by being on television," said Tony Allevato, president of NYRA Bets and executive producer of NYRA TV, adding, "It really speaks volumes to FOX's commitment and the success we've had with our shows."
Said Greg Wolf, host of Saratoga Live: "Fox has been just a tremendous supporter of the product and NYRA and getting these races seen and building an audience. We've really built a good audience. It's just getting bigger and stronger."
The number of on-air hours and the ratings have increased every year since Saratoga Live was established four years ago, an exciting trajectory no one could have predicted.
"We had high expectations, but we were guarded in that because it was a time when television ratings were down across the board and we were trying something new," Allevato recalled. "We weren't sure how it would go, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We feel it is a very positive thing not just for NYRA, but for horse racing across the country."
Saratoga Live offers quality in every regard, beginning with an incomparable 40-day meet that runs from July 11-September 2 and extending to the on- and off-air talent.
Wolf and Laffit Pincay, III will call on an array of experts such as retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, popular retired jockey Richard Migliore, Kentucky Oaks-winning trainer Tom Amoss, professional handicapper Jonathon Kinchen and retired All-Star catcher Paul LoDuca for unique perspectives not found anywhere else.
Then there is the analysis provided by two well-respected figures on the New York scene, Andy Serling and Maggie Wolfendale. Acacia Courtney, celebrated for her work on behalf of The Stronach Group, recently joined the star-studded lineup to add her expertise.
Larry Collmus, NYRA race caller and voice of the Triple Crown, calls the action as a worthy successor to Tom Durkin.
Serious handicappers receive information from Saratoga Live that can be invaluable in their wagering. Casual fans find the content approachable and build their racing knowledge by the hour. Serling said commentators are keenly aware of the fine line they must walk.
"You don't want to be talking over people's heads, but you also don't want to talk down to them," he said. "You have to balance those two, and I think we do a good job of keeping it fun and keeping it moving."
Those not seen are equally skilled and are recognized as being every bit as important as those who go before the cameras.
"It amazes me day in and day out what the people on the other side of the camera do to make the show successful," said Amoss. "There is so much work that goes into that. I would never, ever disrespect them by not doing as much homework as I possibly can for each of the shows."
Everyone remains mindful of the three objectives Allevato constantly lays out - educate, entertain and inform.
"When we say educate, it's not explaining the difference between a sire and a dam," Allevato said. "We don't want to oversimplify and alienate true fans."
As an example, he might ask Wolfendale to explain why one horse has the look of a turf horse while another appears physically to be better equipped for dirt.
The disparate talents and backgrounds of the on-air talent all but ensure a fast-moving show that is fun to watch. They were assembled with that in mind.
"There are a lot of options out there for viewers. We have to make the shows entertaining," Allevato said. "If the shows are not entertaining, people are going to change channels between races and we'd be lucky if they come back. So entertaining is the most important thing, for obvious reasons."
Keeping viewers informed pertains to nuts-and-bolts information that is essential for horseplayers such as the latest odds and track conditions, scratches, how horses are behaving in the paddock and post parade and how they are warming up. Thirty cameras are used, an amount comparable to an NFL broadcast.
Saratoga Live aims to turn casual fans into much more than that.
"Most people know the Kentucky Derby and things like that," Wolf said. "Once they watch our show, they learn some behind-the-scenes things. They learn more about these jockeys and trainers and what goes into taking care of a horse. That's definitely helped grow our audience."
Another reason for Saratoga Live's upward trajectory is the desire to innovate. Virtual graphic technology is being developed that will create virtual lanes during replays that should help to determine whether a foul occurred when stewards post an inquiry or an objection is lodged.
The set that was formerly on the roof of Saratoga Race Course has been moved to a new location on the apron to create an ESPN College GameDay feel and better capture the festive, fun-filled atmosphere of a Saratoga afternoon. This set is in addition to the one fans are accustomed to seeing overlooking the paddock.
In every sense, Saratoga Live has never been more alive.
To access the full 2019 Saratoga Live broadcast schedule, visit www.NYRA.com/saratoga/racing/tv-schedule.