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Night racing a hit, but no plans for dark Derby

Wednesday - 5/2/2012, 2:44pm  ET

By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Thoroughbreds racing under lights with the famous twin spires aglow. Big, raucous crowds. Mint juleps as nightcaps.

Kentucky's Churchill Downs racetrack has dabbled with night racing since 2009 and the returns have been like hitting the exacta: with surging attendance and betting by nighttime crowds. So the historic track is kicking up its nocturnal schedule.

The last two spring meets at Churchill opened at night, including last Saturday. Its Stephen Foster Handicap, one of the top races for older horses, will be run at night for the first time in June. Several other stakes races are set for primetime.

But its signature event, the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, is decidedly a daytime spectacle. The most famous two minutes in sports will be raced more than two hours before sunset, in a time slot shared by the start of Super Bowls and Rose Bowls.

Speculation that the Derby would buck tradition and shift to primetime began as soon as lights were installed. It was the horse racing equivalent of putting in lights at baseball's Wrigley Field.

Track President Kevin Flanery said Tuesday the option of night racing wasn't done with the Derby in mind. Instead, lights were added with hopes of rejuvenating racing once the limelight of the Derby has passed.

"We'll never say never, but we've got a pretty good thing going right now with the way the day unfolds," Flanery said.

Some sports media consultants agree that Churchill and NBC, which carries the Derby, have a tested winner with the race's current 4 p.m to 7 p.m. time slot. Post time for the 138th Derby on Saturday is set for 6:24 p.m. EDT.

NBC's coverage is sandwiched between extensive coverage on its sister station, NBC Sports Network.

Len DeLuca, a former CBS and ESPN executive, said opening the starting gates in primetime "is not necessarily a slam dunk for the Kentucky Derby."

"This is the one in which any change to it has to have the highest amount of scrutiny," he said. "You're dealing with something that rates well, that is a tradition and is sitting in one of my favorite time periods of all time."

For a place that prides itself on its panoramic pageantry the first Saturday in May, an illuminated Derby could be spellbinding _ from the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" to the famous twin spires alight in the background.

"It would be a wonderful broadcast," said Mike Trager, a sports television consultant and former NBC Sports executive.

But a shift to primetime wouldn't necessarily result in higher viewership ratings or more lucrative advertising deals _ the two reasons needed to justify breaking with tradition and moving to a nighttime Derby, Trager said.

With its allure for railbirds and casual fans alike, the Derby is already a ratings heavyweight in its current time slot.

The past three races drew at least 14.5 million viewers, and the 2010 race was the most-watched Run for the Roses in 22 years with 16.5 million viewers. The 2009 race drew 16.3 million watchers.

The Derby runs in the same pack as several other marquee sporting events, outdrawing the Sugar Bowl and not far off the pace from the Masters' final round in 2011. It ran further behind the NCAA Final Four, Daytona 500, World Series and NBA Finals.

The NBC Sports Group is betting on the Derby as a ratings winner by presenting 14 1/2 hours of Derby coverage that began Wednesday. The coverage includes 8 1/2 hours during Derby Day on NBC and NBC Sports Network.

Jonathan Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, said the Derby's current starting time seems to be "the sweet spot" for maximizing the audience.

NBC Sports Group has upped its ante in horse racing coverage with 27 1/2 hours of Triple Crown coverage this season. The other two legs of the Triple Crown are the Preakness and Belmont stakes.

"I think we would have the conversation with them if they thought it made sense to do it," he said when asked about a primetime start. "But right now I think everybody's pretty happy with the traditional window, and nobody's looking to make that change."

Yum Brands Inc., the Derby's lead corporate sponsor, said it looks for a return on its investment, no matter the time.

"We prefer to follow the eyeballs and have the Derby appear whenever the most viewers would learn of Yum Brands' presenting sponsorship of it," said Jonathan Blum, a vice president of Louisville-based owner of the Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC chains.

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