Harness racing returns to Fox Sports 2 starting Saturday

Races from The Meadowlands will share the bill with thoroughbreds six times in 2022.

by Debbie Little

Just a week before the Kentucky Derby, all eyes will be on Churchill Downs and its entrymate, The Meadowlands.

The Big M will share the spotlight for the first time with Churchill on Saturday night (April 30) as part of the “America’s Day at the Races” broadcast from 7-11 p.m. on Fox Sports 2 (FS2). The two tracks will also team up on May 14 (9-11:30 p.m.) and June 18 (9-11:30 p.m.).

“I think for the first three shows, it was kind of a natural fit to say, ‘Hey we’re doing shows for Churchill, let us incorporate The Meadowlands in there and kind of go from there,’” said Eric Donovan, senior director of TV broadcast operations for the New York Racing Association (NYRA).

Donovan led the team that worked with The Meadowlands on the three shows – Meadowlands Pace, Hambletonian and Breeders Crown – broadcast on FS2 last year.

“[NYRA president/CEO] Dave O’Rourke and [Meadowlands president/CEO] Jeff Gural have a good relationship and we wanted to try and do a little more,” said Donovan. “Unfortunately, we’re not a TV network, we’re a racetrack that does a lot of TV, so our ability to do a lot more is somewhat limited with the amount of manpower that we have.”

For years, Gural has wanted harness racing to have a national TV presence and has worked hard to make it happen.

“I’m very happy,” said Gural. “I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we would recognize that no one knows harness racing exists, which is why it was so easy for the politicians in Florida to decouple at Pompano with disastrous results.

“I’ve established a good relationship with NYRA and they do a terrific job of getting their product on national television with Fox Sports. And fortunately, we were able to come up with a plan to get six of our major races televised on FS2 this year with the hopes that we can expose our product to the public.”

NYRA’s “America’s Day at the Races” starts at 1 p.m. with coverage of Belmont Park, which leads into the Churchill/Meadowlands evening combo.

Just like with primetime TV show dramas, Donovan thinks the crossover can be beneficial to everyone.

“People that are watching Churchill might say, ‘I’ve never seen a race at The Meadowlands, I’ve never seen harness racing, this looks pretty cool, maybe I should give this a look, too,’” said Donovan. “There might be some harness racing fans that aren’t familiar with the thoroughbreds, that for some reason just stick with harness, so they get to experience a little bit of thoroughbred racing also. So, it works both ways.”

The importance of these shows is not lost on Meadowlands’ post-time coordinator Michael Antoniades, who will be responsible for making sure alternating the races between the two tracks is as seamless as possible.

“I think we showed on Breeders Crown Day that we could fit into the landscape fairly well,” said Antoniades. “I think it’s fair to say that anybody that’s playing thoroughbreds on Saturday night is going to be focused on Churchill. It’s an honor just to be associated with Churchill just before the Derby on their opening night. That’s the center of the universe right now.

“We had to defer to Churchill and do a couple of things that we normally would not do, but in all honesty, you’re getting on a national telecast, so those little things you have to do are absolutely worth it. If we arrange those races properly, they will have more time for their talent, more time for commercials, a better flowing show especially if they know if we tell them the race is going at 8:42, it’s going at 8:42.”

In addition to the three double bills with Churchill, there will be shows on July 9 (Meadowlands Pace elims) and 16 (Meadowlands Pace night) and, of course, Aug. 6 (Hambletonian Day).

The back-to-back Pace-centered shows will air from 8-11 p.m., while the Hambletonian will be shown as part of NYRA’s “Saratoga Live” telecast from 6-7 p.m.

Donovan thinks last year’s Pace show, even with the horrible weather, was well received and is pleased that FS2 was able to fit it into their schedule this year.

“I know they had some other commitments, looking like they might not be able to give us time for Meadowlands Pace night but some things moved around, so we’ll be able to do that and the Hambletonian,” said Donovan. “Any time you can incorporate a major event at another racetrack or another sporting venue, standardbred or thoroughbred, you’re going to get feedback. Not only from the industry stakeholders, but from the fans. You just hope it’s positive and it was. I know there were some challenges last year on Pace night with the weather and the DQ but we were able to navigate around that. I think for the most part, it’s been a big success.”

Gural wants these live shows to be an opportunity for all of harness racing, not just The Meadowlands, to be seen.

“Hopefully, we can get industry people to run commercials on the program, because if you watch, the thoroughbred breeding farms run commercials throughout their telecasts,” said Gural. “I’m hoping that breeding farms will take advantage and run commercials on the programs. I think it would be a good way to showcase their stallions.”