By T. D. Thornton
Although the calendar (and weather) might dictate otherwise, racing enthusiasts know this Saturday’s five-stakes card at Aqueduct Racetrack signals the true return of spring to New York. And as the racing season blossoms, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) is unveiling one new media initiative while expanding upon a second.
NYRA Now, a free, high-definition application for iOS and Android devices, has recently launched. It allows users to pick and choose camera angles to watch races (with calls and commentary in both English and Spanish), see views from the paddock, access NYRA’s full package of coverage (including “Race Day Live” and “Talking Horses” segments), study race replays, and link to the NYRA Bets wagering platform. Already launched with Chromecast capability, NYRA Now will be available through Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, and Android TV in April, followed by Xbox One and PS4 later this spring.
On more traditional television, NYRA has expanded its broadcast partnership with Fox Sports (FS2), which will result in 46 live race-day shows broadcast from Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course. A Wood Memorial Day broadcast on Saturday from 3-5:30 p.m. (Eastern) will kick off the season, followed by Aqueduct and Belmont Park shows on the following three Saturdays. Additional Belmont shows are scheduled for May 27, May 29 (Memorial Day), June 3, and June 24. Later in the summer, “Saratoga Live” is slated to feature 36 shows, expanding on the 80 hours of telecasts that aired nationally on FOX last season.
The broadcast team for NYRA’s live programming will include handicapper Andy Serling, host Greg Wolf, paddock reporter Maggie Wolfendale, analyst and former jockey Richard Migliore, and track announcer Larry Collmus. Tom Amoss and Gabby Gaudet will join the team for the Saratoga meet. Claiborne Farm and Gallery Racing are sponsors.
Coordinating these “parallel path” endeavors is Tony Allevato, who last year was hired by NYRA in the dual roles of executive broadcast producer and president of NYRA’s new advance-deposit wagering company, NYRA Bets. Prior to that, he spent 14 years as an executive and producer for Television Games Network (TVG) and was a coordinating producer for NFL Network. TDN caught up with Allevato for a phone interview just after Wednesday’s Aqueduct card, and an edited transcript follows.
TDN: It’s been a whirlwind 14 months for you since taking the NYRA job, and during that time you’ve been known for being able to turn concepts into reality rather quickly. What stands out to you?
TA: It’s been since February 2016, but it seems like eight years in dog years [laughs]. Seriously though, when I came here, I just looked at it as a great opportunity in terms of talent that’s in place at NYRA, and I don’t just mean talent in front of the camera, but also behind-the-scenes people doing great jobs, day in and day out. So the infrastructure was already in place that I thought would allow us to take the NYRA broadcasts to the next level. That’s what’s been the most impressive thing–a foundation that’s been able to allow us to accomplish everything we have in such a short amount of time. I look back at the past year–the launch of NYRA Bets, the launch of NYRA Now, the national shows on FS2, the 100 MSG shows that we did—and it’s really a testament to the people who work here. The one thing I really learned was how strong the NYRA brand is, and how strongly it resonates across the country. That was very eye-opening for me.
TDN: Generally, “executive producer” is only a name and title viewers see scrolling on the screen at the end of a broadcast. You’re a little more connected to your audience, mainly because you have a reputation as a “racing guy.” What’s the feedback been like?
TA: I’ve been involved in thousands and thousands of hours of programming across different sports, and this has probably been the most well-received programming I’ve ever been involved in. Usually when you try something new, there’s going to be a lot of pushback. But the feedback that I’ve gotten from race fans and people in the industry is that this is a type of programming that people have been looking for. We started the FS2 shows last year as an opportunity to present to horse racing fans and sports fans across the country a show that was dedicated to the best live racing at Saratoga on a daily basis for a couple hours at a time. We looked at that as an opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, and as a result of that feedback and the critical acclaim, Fox came to us about expanding the amount of hours that we did last year.
TDN: What specifically did you learn from viewers that will help shape future NYRA broadcasts?
TA: We pride ourselves in our ability to cover a race really thoroughly, and by that I mean it doesn’t just end when the horses cross the finish line. Something that’s been lost in the shuffle of horse racing is talking to the winning connections. We have a rule on our show that we must interview one owner per show. And we established that early on, because–as I know as a person who’s owned horses in the past at a very low level–when your horse wins a race, it doesn’t matter if it’s the [GI] Kentucky Derby or an $8,000 claiming race. You are on top of the world. I once heard somebody say, ‘No one walks to the winner’s circle. The winning owners all run.’ And that’s kind of the approach that we have. To see some of these owners win a race at Saratoga, then come on our show, and the joy that they have in their eyes, it’s one of the best commercials that you can have to try and get people into the game. That’s the kind of feedback that we are getting in terms of what viewers like.
TDN: How about constructive criticisms?
TA: Other feedback we get in terms of improvements we can make includes the way we cut the races. We’ve got to be careful not to be over-aggressive in terms of cutting the camera angles mid-race so people don’t lose perspective of the horses. Some people gave us feedback that our [national TV broadcast] graphics were a little too ‘simulcast looking.’ It won’t be done in time for this weekend, but by our Saratoga shows we’ll be launching a new graphics look–again, not for the everyday simulcast shows, but for the ‘Saratoga Live’ shows. They’re going to be a little cleaner and have a ‘sports’ feel to them while still giving people information they need to make bets. We take the feedback very seriously. We know there are always going to be challenges. We know we’ve got a long way to go. But we like the shows that we have, and we know they’re only going to get better.
TDN: On the FS2 national broadcasts, how do you attempt to satisfy an audience made up of so many different levels of viewers?
TA: We have a lot of people that we need to please, obviously. We want to reach the hardcore fan, the person working in the horse racing industry, and we also want to find a way to reach that casual, general sports fan who was watching a soccer match or a baseball game on Fox and is now watching and trying to learn from us. So we’ve got to be careful not to talk too much over people’s heads, but not dumb it down too much where knowledgeable racing fans feel alienated.
TDN: Can you give an example of that?
TA: The way I always explain it is that I’m not a big golf fan. But if I want to watch the Masters this weekend, I don’t want them to be explaining to me the difference between a seven iron and a nine iron. So there’s that fine line that we’ve got to walk between those two levels.
TDN: Talk a bit about the ‘parallel path’ broadcast concept you’re trying to achieve by fusing television with other technologies.
TA: NYRA Now is the brainchild of [NYRA chief revenue officer] Dave O’Rourke and [senior director of television] Dan Silver, and it’s something they’d been working on long before I ever got here. If you look at where the world is going, people are watching television with a secondary device in their hand. So the future lies in an ‘over the top’ kind of television delivery enhanced by apps, and NYRA needed to be at the forefront of this. For years horse racing has been playing catch-up, and the decision was made that we were going to go on a parallel path, which means [creating] broadcast shows in addition to delivering [enhanced content] to fans all over the country via these new technologies. And we think it’s really critical for success, not just for NYRA, but for horse racing and where the sport needs to be.
TDN: NYRA seems to be a good fit for your creativity, at least in terms of sharing your mindset and allowing you a budget to innovate. What drives that?
TA: NYRA is a not-for-profit entity. When I was going through the interview process here, I asked the questions ‘What is our mission statement? What are we trying to do? What’s our model?’ And what was said to me by NYRA was really a pleasant thing to hear, as a person who’s been a horse racing fan my whole life: ‘We are here to ensure that racing succeeds and prospers in the state of New York and across the country.’ So a lot of what we’re doing is not for this year or next year, but trying to build toward the future. The investments that are being made in TV or technology are being done looking far ahead to help the game in New York.
TDN: The racing industry has a reputation for being slow to embrace new technologies, and customers aren’t exactly known as being fond of big changes either. How do you overcome those entrenched attitudes?
TA: The technology is here whether you like it or not. It’s now a part of our culture that we order groceries online and have them delivered to our houses the next day. The world is changing, and it’s important for horse racing to either get on board, or we’re going to get passed by–or worse, get run over by–that technology. At NYRA, we recognize that and we’re up for that challenge. But there are other innovators in the sport too, and I think you’ll start to see more people doing the types of things that we’re doing. Yes, horse racing in the past has been slow to adapt. But the perceived doom and gloom of technology and horse racing is not necessarily reality, and I think we’ll see some good work coming to light in the next couple of years.
TDN: So if you could peer into your crystal ball, what will be the ‘next big thing’ you’ll be implementing?
TA: I think that we need to get as much exposure on television as possible. Our audience skews a little bit older than mainstream sports, and because of that, a lot of these great technologies are going to be adopted a little bit slower. So the ‘parallel path’ thing is important. I think the big challenge for us is that in the past, horse racing has done a fairly good job of getting on television. But the real challenge is what do you do once you’re on TV, what do you do with those shows? The big thing for us moving forward involves offering free games, giving people the ability to play while they’re watching our races and have a real stake in the outcome; the ability to win something without having to risk anything. That’s going to be a terrific way to get people engaged in these programs, and then lead them to want to bet real money as horseplayers.