Thoroughbred racing on more than many think during TV's golden age

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 15th, 2016

A couple of months ago I briefly interjected myself into a Twitter conversation regarding racing's historic relationship with television. The conventional wisdom passed down through the generations is that the industry's failure to embrace the medium in the 1950s and 1960s caused irreparable harm to the sport's relative popularity, the effects of which are still being felt today.

The National Football League is, despite some recent downturns, still king and most everyone attributes much of its immense popularity to its embrace of television 50-60 years ago (though less attention is seemingly paid to its skillful handling of supply and demand). While undoubtedly true in the broadest sense, it doesn't follow that the NFL itself filled a void racing voluntarily left open. The simple reason is custom and/or law prohibited Sunday racing in nearly every major racing jurisdiction until the mid-1970s or later. You can't broadcast live racing on a day when there is none.

While some posthumous scolding of contemporary industry heads is perhaps justified, a closer examination of the facts and circumstances long ago led me to believe the criticism had been overdone. Not enough credit has been given to the industry's attempts to reach a wider audience in television's golden age that, for reasons known and unknown, didn't pan out.

While the Triple Crown events have always been network television staples, racing's presence outside the classics during the early years of television is less well known. For example, a not insignificant share of baby boomers were likely exposed to racing through the "Race of the Week" programs of the 1960s, syndicated every Saturday and hosted by Win Elliott in the east and Gil Stratton in the west. The typically half-hour shows were generally the feature races in New York (or Florida in the winter) and Southern California, depending on which region of the country you lived in.

Thirty minutes a week doesn't seem like much exposure for the sport, but then again how much time is necessary to dissect and show a two-minute race? We're also talking about an era when there was a finite number of television stations in most places and thus limited time slots available on a Saturday afternoon, the most important racing day of the week, not to mention possible technological limitations in transmission at the time.

Even before racing was banished to syndication, personal research has shown that racing had a regular footprint on network television for at least three years in the latter part of the 1950s. Assuming the veracity of news briefs found in contemporary editions of the Thoroughbred Record, here's what viewers nationwide watched, or should have been able to watch, in addition to the Triple Crown:

1957: Seven Saturday broadcasts from Hialeah on NBC, plus six Saturday broadcasts in August and September on CBS. Also, regional racing coverage extending to four mid-Atlantic states from a Wilmington, Delaware, station.

1958: Seven Saturday broadcasts from Hialeah and three from Monmouth Park on NBC, plus 24 Saturday broadcasts from April through October on CBS.

1959: Thirty-one Saturday broadcasts on CBS and three from Monmouth Park on NBC. Also, regional network coverage of Saturday features during the Hollywood Park and Del Mar meets.

Then as now, racing was not immune to being "bumped" for a sporting event that ran over its allotted time, as the Thoroughbred Record reported about the 1958 Met Mile.

Now, this might be just the tip of the iceberg regarding racing's presence on television in the 1950s. After all, I doubt Native Dancer became a nationwide TV star earlier in the decade by virtue of his Triple Crown appearances alone. More of his races surely were broadcast to a very wide audience. For people with real time on their hands, I'm sure answers can be readily found in the TV listings of various newspaper archives around the country. Amateur sleuths like me await your findings.

Why did racing's frequent network presence not continue into the 1960s? A good question with no easy answers. Since networks are in the money-making business, perhaps the broadcasts weren't ratings winners. After all, a large chunk of the potential audience may have been out at their local track trying to make a buck rather than watching a single race from home they couldn't legally bet on.

One significant problem was that not all affiliates seemed to carry these network broadcasts. For example, a brief perusal of the Chicago Tribune archive shows that even the second (or was it the third?) largest TV market at the time didn't always carry the network telecasts noted above. Whether the stations themselves clamped down due to pressure from advertisers, from local racetracks, or simply chose to show baseball, college football, or a boring western instead, is not completely knowable. The bottom line is that it's hard for such broadcasts to be successful, or for the sport to gain needed exposure, when all the conduits, especially very important ones, don't always play ball.

Were the broadcasts themselves not entertaining enough to attract a faithful audience? As most are either lost to history or (more hopefully) gathering dust in vaults somewhere, it's hard to give a definitive answer without having seen them. Of course, modern eyes used to the slickly produced programs of today would not necessarily be objective judges to what constituted appealing TV entertainment by 1950s standards.

After sharing my findings on racing's forgotten TV presence in the 1950s with a friend, he offered this possible explanation as to why racing might not have taken off as a product during TV's golden age, referencing the structural and legal obstacles of the time in exploiting the sport's main asset:

The gambling thing is huge. Without being able to play that up, what's the point? That's racing's revenue stream. There's no central body that can earn revenue for the sport off the back of sponsorship dollars or television contracts. Again, if it's not augmented by local coverage saying "this is in your backyard, come out and play!," I'm not sure what good it can do except keep it in the stream of consciousness.

The often-told story is that racetrack proprietors of the time didn't necessarily want racing on television because it might keep people away from the track and divert dollars to illegal bookmaking operations. In their eyes, it was competition.

The structural and legal prohibition on wagering outside track grounds in that time perhaps had a negative impact on the overall appeal of televised racing. Sure, individual horses are loveable and it's fun to follow their careers as a non-betting fan, but an opportunity to participate in what you're watching certainly could have attracted a lot more eyeballs and a more stable audience.

Whether the sport would have been much different today with more television exposure back then is hard to say. What should be more widely known is that racing was on TV a lot more than most people think and that the sport's inability to win a greater audience through that medium wasn't necessarily due to a lack of trying.

(Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images)