For racing fans, it’s almost post time

With the NFL Draft over, the Kentucky Derby steps up as the next major sporting event on the calendar — so horse racing will become relevant for the next few weeks.

Derby post time is 6:50 p.m. Saturday, with coverage on NBC.

Horse racing does not hold the mainstream lure it did a half decade ago, but people do care about the Kentucky Derby.

More than 15 million people have watched the race the last six years in a row, and the race’s ratings over the past dozen years have been the best in any such stretch since 1988.

The race comes with history and pageantry and, not surprisingly, its broadcast partner offers typically positive and superficial coverage.

It’s what almost all TV partners do with the major sports entities and events they broadcast.

Any news leading up to the race will be about betting lines and, perhaps, travel to the venue for the horses. More than likely, it will be stories about the people who train and ride the horses.

Do not expect many stories about the health of the horses — although it seems unavoidable this year with the spate of injuries and number of horses that have been put down in California, which led to a brief shutdown of Santa Anita Park after nearly two dozen horses died in racing incidents.

Racing works on TV and in general a few times a year because it comes with personalities and storylines, and because it’s easily consumed. In two minutes or so, there’s a winner and casual fans can move onto the next thing.

After the Derby, horse racing matters for at least two more weeks, though, as the favorite takes his roses and heads to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

That race then often makes or breaks the rest of what amounts to a brief major season for horse racing to the general public.

If one horse wins those first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes matters. Really matters — with upwards of 20 million people watching. On years without a horse that’s won the first two races, viewership drops to among the least of the three races, typically 5 to 7 million.

This year, NBC has again positioned the three horse races as a fixture in its “championship season” — an 11-week stretch beginning Saturday that includes the horse racing as well as the French Open, Stanley Cup Final and U.S. Open golf tournament on the network and its affiliates. It is a good time for year for the peacock network.

And for at least next few weeks, it’s a generally good time for horse racing as well.

Tiger time

Tiger Woods’ win at the Masters was not the most meaningful Tiger-related news in recent weeks.

Instead it was a deal he’s made with a couple of broadcast partners and sponsors to create more golf competitions and programming.

So his pay-per-view match against Phil Mickelson last November was the first of many such events in the future. Woods will have a strong creative hand over what types of events materialize, against whom he’ll play and when. So in addition to golf’s majors, expect a series of special events centered on Woods in the coming years.

Expect abundant behind-the-scenes access, with golfers wearing microphones as just the start. With interactivity and technology, interaction with those watching seems like a logical step. So maybe club selections by viewers? Or certainly shout outs to those watching.

In addition, expect betting to be a part of what happens. And, if they do it right, there should be some charitable portion for every event — to, if nothing else, make the programs that enable the rich to get richer to seem a bit more palatable for those who spend their money to make the events possible.

Tuner tidbits

n Ex-Miami and Georgia football coach Mark Richt was hired as a football studio analyst by the ACC Network, which makes its debut in August. He’ll be OK on TV and if he’s wise, he’ll enjoy several seasons as one of the faces of the network — enjoying the accompanying lack of stress — before returning to the sideline at some point.

n There’s nothing like the postseason for the NBA and NHL to remind viewers that ESPN has a relationship with basketball. In fairness, more people watch the NBA than the NHL, but highlights from the Stanley Cup playoffs never get the prominence of their basketball counterparts. That’s part relationship and part viewership.

Sampsell can be reached at stevesampsell@gmail.com.


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