Matt Carothers was supposed to be in Dubai last week, watching the sport of kings in the company of royalty. Instead, he retreated to the lower level of his home in Palos Verdes, Calif., where he turned on his laptop and hoped his Skype connection wouldn’t be balky.
An analyst for the TVG horse racing network, the Minneapolis native worked his usual 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift in a most unusual way: from his house. He wasn’t complaining. With nearly every U.S. sport idled by the coronavirus, he felt thankful to see horse racing still in the TV listings, the only mainstream sports event still being broadcast live.
“Oaklawn and Gulfstream were racing, and there were four of us at our homes in different places, doing a show when we weren’t together,” Carothers said. “As long as there are tracks running, it’s our obligation to show races, if we can do it safely. I hope we can give people a little bit of a distraction.”
A handful of U.S. tracks have soldiered on through the pandemic, closing their gates to fans and running strictly for a TV and simulcast audience. TVG is providing a bit of balm for two bereft populations — people who watch sports, and people who bet on them — by continuing to show races on its cable channel and offering wagering via its website. Fox’s FS1 and FS2 networks also are airing some live horse racing.
With so few tracks still operating, TVG’s 24-hour menu has grown a bit eclectic. Last Saturday, it followed the prestigious Florida Derby with a race for $7,000 claimers from Golden Gate Fields in California. Even paint horses, a breed usually seen in cowboy movies, got a turn on the stage from Oklahoma’s Remington Park.
On Saturday and Sunday, NBCSN will simulcast TVG’s “Trackside Live” program for the third week in a row, dropping three hours of racing in among the taped monster-truck rallies and old NFL games. That will give another 80 million households the chance to see a sports event unfold in real time, lending a little slice of normalcy to a homebound nation.
“I’ve done a lot of shows at TVG, but I’ve never done anything like what we’re doing now,” said Todd Schrupp, a Minnesota native who has spent 21 years at the network. “Social distancing is a physical directive. We can still bond as a community, and sports is a communal event, even if you’re not at the venue.
“Most of our on-air people are doing live shows from their homes. It might not be our best technical quality of work, but to me, it’s our most amazing quality of work. Being on the air feels even more important now.”
Carothers was set to report last week on the $12 million Dubai World Cup, one of the world’s richest horse races. Schrupp had planned to go to Keeneland in Kentucky, where the spring race meet was scheduled to begin Thursday.
The World Cup was postponed, the Keeneland meet was canceled and California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on March 19. The following day, TVG continued to simulcast races without its on-air hosts as it sorted out how to respond. It worked out a plan to have most of them broadcast from their homes around the country, with Schrupp and a stripped-down crew in the Los Angeles studio.
Schrupp, who grew up in Chaska, said there usually are 350 employees in the building. Only about eight are allowed in now to produce his four-hour show, which airs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. As the studio host, he serves as the hub for each day’s action, connecting with other on-air personalities via Skype or live cameras.
The network has been forced to make other adjustments, too. With racing suspended at well-known tracks like Santa Anita and Aqueduct, TVG has reached farther down the list to places like Fonner Park — a tiny, five-eighths-mile track in Grand Island, Neb. — and given it a national platform.
“Fonner Park is not a track that would normally get airtime on TVG,” said Kip Levin, TVG’s chief executive officer and president of parent company FanDuel. “They’ve been thrust into the spotlight. And everybody likes the underdog. This gives them a chance to shine.”
Levin said TVG reaches 45 million homes, a number that nearly triples during NBCSN’s simulcasts of “Trackside Live.” With no other live sports to watch, he believes many new viewers are giving horse racing a look. Ratings of last week’s telecast of the Florida Derby on NBCSN were up 46% over last year, making it the network’s most watched program over the weekend.
To appeal to those novices, hosts are doing more explaining, while focusing less on intricate wagers or insider jargon.
“We’re feeling a groundswell of interest,” Schrupp said. “And with more time to fill, we can do more storytelling. It’s really nice to get back in touch with that side of the sport.”
He said it’s been nice, too, to hear feedback from sports-starved fans. Schrupp got emotional as he described e-mails from people grateful for a taste of life as it used to be, or for a chance to feel connected to others while confined to their homes.
Carothers said he’s mindful of the suffering coronavirus has caused. He’s wondered if he should laugh a little less on his show, maybe take a more introspective approach. That feeling lasts about as long as it takes to run a 6-furlong sprint under the Florida sun.
“I’ve heard from people who are thankful for the banter, for that little bit of an escape,” he said. “Nothing is business as usual right now. But we have a show to do. We’re just going to do our best.”