PROJECT OAKS DAY - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report


By Ray Paulick

Can the cable network Bravo do for 3-year-old female Thoroughbreds what it's done for countless wannabe runway models or packs of shallow housewives in New York City, Atlanta or Orange County, Calif.?

Come to think of it, I'm not sure I really want that to happen.

But with Bravo — the sister network to NBC Sports in the NBC Universal family of media companies – televising this year's Kentucky Oaks for the first time on May 1, it's anybody's guess the type of programming we'll see. A press release from Churchill Downs says the one-hour telecast (5-6 p.m. Eastern) will focus on the “food, fashion and celebrity experience” associated with the Kentucky Oaks. The NBC Sports production and on-air team televising the Derby on May 2, led by host Tom Hammond, will be available for the Bravo telecast, so here's hoping they'll be able to find time to show the horse race, too. With a possible field that includes Stardom Bound and Rachel Alexandra, it could be one of the most interesting and best Kentucky Oaks in recent history.

First, though, let's give Churchill Downs management credit for hooking the Oaks with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer organization. It's a most worthy cause, and if Friday is still considered by some to be “ladies day,” there may be no better time for the horse racing industry to raise awareness and research money to help find a cure for breast cancer.

But let's be real for a second. The Kentucky Oaks is one of the best and most important fixtures on the Thoroughbred calendar, and a perfect setup to the following day's Kentucky Derby. It's been part of ESPN's Derby week coverage for many years. Moving the Oaks to Bravo — a network best known for shows like “Project Runway,”

“Top Chef,” “Real Housewives of …” and “Tabatha's Salon Makeover” – is a sign that Churchill Downs is giving up on growing the Oaks as a sporting event and making it more about fashion and celebrity.

That apparent shift in philosophy (the Kentucky Derby web site is also putting a great deal of emphasis on fashion, parties and entertainment) coincides with business developments involving the longtime horse racing provider to ESPN, the Tulsa, Okla.-based Winnercomm. Winnercomm, for years known as Winner Communications, the company founded by Chris Lincoln and Jim Wilburn, was purchased earlier this year by the Outdoor Channel.

Winnercomm has traditionally been horse racing's gateway to ESPN, but many of Wilburn's close associates at ESPN are no longer at the network, so he doesn't have the “juice” he once had. Winnercomm's deal with Churchill to provide Derby week coverage ended, as did his agreement with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to produce racing telecasts.

Churchill Downs opted to negotiate directly with ESPN for programming (without Winnercomm), and in this difficult economy they didn't really want to be on the hook for the cost of the programming without having assurances they would be able to generate enough revenue through advertising to pay for it. ESPN apparently wasn't interested in trying to sell the programming, and Churchill didn't want to work through Winnercomm. Thus, there will be no “Breakfast at Churchill Downs” programming on ESPN or ESPN2, and no “Kentucky Derby Draw” or “Kentucky Oaks” telecasts. ESPN will televise some of the Derby Day undercard, which traditionally has attracted a relatively large audience. The Oaks and other Derby week programming has not done very well in the ratings, though Wilburn always managed to sell advertising for them.

Sources have said ESPN will not have live programming from Pimlico during the week of the Preakness, either, though there may be programming from Belmont Park leading up to the Triple Crown's final jewel. The Derby and Preakness telecasts are shown on NBC, while the Belmont is on ABC, a sister network to ESPN.

Complicating all of this is the fact that Churchill Downs and Magna, which owns Pimlico, home of the Preakness, are partners in the racing cable network HRTV. If the Oaks and Pimlico's Black-Eyed Susan (which, like the Oaks is on a Friday), were telecast on ESPN or ESPN2, that network most likely would have wanted exclusivity, which would have prevented HRTV from showing the races live.

Like many things in racing, there is no central leadership here. The NTRA, which has its own deals with ESPN for prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, has never been given the responsibility of negotiating TV time for the Triple Crown tracks, which have done so on their own or through Triple Crown Productions. The Triple Crown itself is now divided between NBC (Derby and Preakness) and ABC (Belmont). Bob Evans, the CEO of Churchill, is widely viewed as someone who is more interested in technology than television. Magna, of course, has its own problems with bankruptcy, Wilburn, horse racing's former “go to” guy for getting the sport on ESPN, has lost his clout with the “worldwide leader in sports.”

Perhaps all of this might make a good reality show … on Bravo!

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More