Betting on box, TVG off to races

Horse racing: The sport and big money backing the mostly satellite broadcasts are counting on the betting public going along for the ride.

September 04, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - The broadcast is only half over, but executive producer Tony Allevato is already worried about tomorrow's show.

TVG, the all-horse racing channel, will air live something called "the All-American Futurity trials." A million things can go wrong. So Allevato calls a staff meeting.

Plug the analyst, he tells the anchors. Tease the favorite in the 15th. Stress that this is the playoffs for the quarter horse championship. Heads nod all around the conference table. Notes are jotted. A cell phone bleeps.

No one asks the obvious question: Who cares?

The Futurity is a big deal among quarter horse aficionados, but their numbers are small. In the ever-expanding constellation of sporting events, this is a twinkle from a far-off galaxy.

But for TVG to succeed, it can't just air the few prominent thoroughbred races that have been passed over by the big networks. It will have to create a national audience for Pimlico Race Course's work-a-day races, for the harness action at Ohio's Scioto Downs and for the All-American Futurity at New Mexico's Ruidoso Downs.

In short, it has to popularize a sport that had been a national favorite until it began to slide off the cultural map about the time television got color.

It's a big job, even for the channel's billion-dollar corporate backers. A recent ESPN Sports poll ranks the popularity of horse racing just below the Arena Football League, but above pro wrestling.

Racing visionaries once thought TVG, or Television Games Network, might revitalize the sport if it could get racing into lots of homes and find an easy way to take bets.

Expectations have dimmed, but there's still hope in racing circles. The channel can be seen in 7 million homes nationwide, most through satellite TV, but also on cable. Comcast recently began offering it to some Baltimore-area subscribers. Viewership varies by event, but Allevato estimates an average of 50,000 are tuned in at any given time.

"We have all been sobered by ... the complexity of it and how long it has taken," said Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a self-styled league office for racing. "In the long run, I think this could be potentially significant."

Can a sport that spent half of the 20th century resisting the flirtations of television - as track owners tried to protect attendance - find new life and love in the digitized, interactive medium of the 21st century?

Allevato hopes so. A one-time track announcer, he landed at ABC after college, working alongside sportscaster and racing enthusiast Jim McKay. Allevato takes inspiration from ESPN's uptempo SportsCenter and MTV, the frenetic music station that originates from a nearby studio. Each debuted to scorn, yet changed television.

"My belief is if you can get people to watch, they will become fans," said Allevato, 35, in an interview in his cramped office, decorated with a Sopranos poster and teetering piles of tapes.

"It's a passion and a challenge," he said.

Each broadcast begins with the TVG identification music, written by the same guy who created the Pentium jingle. Computer-generated graphics are as elaborate as any on television. Ads hawk products such as arthritis remedies and thoroughbred stud services. A two-person announcing team sits behind a faux marble and aluminum desk.

Covering angles

To the left is a telegenic anchor, such as Ken Rudulph, a funk-hip-rock musician and former host of Good Day Sacramento. The horse sense is provided by the analyst on the right, who brims with handicapping tips and the congenial banter of a TV meteorologist.

The duality reflects the two audiences TVG covets: hard-core race fans and channel surfers who don't know a tote board from a tout.

Under pressure from racing traditionalists, who continue to grumble about TVG's chatty approach, Allevato canceled Trackside Lite, an irreverent show with an ex-MTV personality as host. But he defends the educational pieces and off-beat features, such as one about a lovesick swan on Hollywood Park's infield lake who had refused to eat until the track returned a wooden swan boat.

The varied fare distinguished TVG from its major rival, a dish-only broadcaster of simulcasts called The Racing Network, which pulled the plug July 30 after failing to land enough subscribers.

On TVG, viewers can watch six to 10 races an hour, live and tape-delayed. They are urged to bet on the races, or on others that aren't aired but run at a participating track, using TVG's affiliated telephone, Internet or cable-box wagering system.

It's that last method - based on the remote control - that has intrigued investors, chiefly Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch. He controls Gemstar-TV Guide International, the Pasadena, Calif.-based parent company of TVG, and the Fox network, which co-produces TVG.

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