Gural’s vision has helped expand harness racing’s TV exposure

This weekend, Fox Sports 2 will feature racing from The Meadowlands tonight and cover the Ohio Sire Stakes Night of Champions from Scioto Downs on Saturday.

by Debbie Little

For only the second time, harness racing will be featured on Fox Sports 2 (FS2) on back-to-back nights. What makes this weekend’s shows unique is for the first time they are originating from two different tracks.

The Meadowlands will kick off the broadcast doubleheader tonight (Sept. 8). On Saturday (Sept. 9), Scioto Downs will make their FS2 debut.

According to the New York Racing Association’s (NYRA) senior director of TV broadcast operations Eric Donovan, a weekend like this would not have been possible without their existing rapport with The Meadowlands president/chief executive officer Jeff Gural.

“If we didn’t have that first year [2021] with The Meadowlands, I don’t think there’s Breeders Crown coverage last year [at Woodbine Mohawk Park],” said Donovan. “I don’t think there’s the general appeal to the industry and then reaching across to the Caesar’s properties and then the Little Brown Jug, and possibly something at Red Mile, too.

“So, yeah, I mean, it all started with that relationship with The Meadowlands and we’re very, very appreciative of all the support we’ve gotten from Jeff and his team, and, I hope we’ve been able to deliver for him.”

Gural had felt for a long time that harness racing belonged on national TV more than just once a year and in 2021 his relationship with NYRA produced a two-hour Meadowlands Pace show on FS2 (detailed here in HRU).

Following the success of that inaugural broadcast, the next month there was a Hambletonian “look in” on FS2 and then three-and-a-half hours of Breeders Crown coverage on Saturday (Oct. 30).

It wasn’t until last year with the Crown from Woodbine Mohawk Park, that the broadcast expanded outside the border of The Meadowlands, opening up a slew of possibilities to NYRA and the rest of industry.

This year, the broadcast offerings broadened even further adding the Dan Patch from Hoosier Park in August to the eight shows — plus a cut-in on Hambletonian Day — already on the schedule with The Meadowlands.

“Well, we had the deal in place with The Meadowlands for select dates with major stakes action,” Donovan said. “So, that was already in place when we started to have the conversation with the folks at Caesar’s. And one of their properties is Scioto and one of the events they really wanted to focus on was Night of Champions [on Sept. 9].

“So, it was all part of the deal with Caesar’s to have the two nights at Hoosier. We already did the Dan Patch and we’re doing Sept. 22nd and then Joe Morris really wanted to do the Sept. 9 at Scioto.”

Part of the attraction of the Ohio Sire Stakes Night of Champions three-hour (8-11 p.m.) broadcast for Donovan is Tom Durkin.

The legendary announcer, who called both at The Meadowlands and NYRA, owns a 2-year-old trotter that’s competing in the sire stakes at Scioto and according to Donovan is expected to be a big favorite.

“I think he’s planning to be out there and I’m trying to get him to do a little something here before the race as well,” Donovan said. “So, it should be really cool. I wanted to try to get something that we could run on Friday’s show to promote his horse running on Saturday and it’s not the biggest race, but it’s still a really cool story.”

Durkin is a notable figure to both breeds and therefore a perfect person to tie the broadcasts together since both standardbred and thoroughbred races will be shown.

It will be a long weekend for The Meadowlands’ Jessica Otten, who will again be the main TV talent on both broadcasts.

Through these Fox broadcasts, Otten has become the face of harness racing to a thoroughbred-centric viewing audience and although she is so grateful for the opportunities these shows have given her, she had no idea it would progress so far so fast.

“I think in 2021 when we did the Meadowlands Pace show, I kind of just thought it was a one-time thing,” Otten said. “And then that year we had the Breeders Crown here [at The Meadowlands] and they asked me to do it again; I think it was on that Saturday. And then after that, in 2022, when they started talking about doing more shows, I thought it was cool but I had no idea that they would want me to be the person who kind of heads it, I guess you could say. And then, of course, Gabe [Prewitt] is with me on the big days.

“So, I had no idea it was going to take off like that and then this year has just been phenomenal for them to be able to work with other race tracks as well. I’m very grateful that it is me that they want, because it’s kind of cool for those thoroughbred-centric people to see a familiar face.”

Otten also pointed out that none of this would be possible without the support and encouragement she has received from Gural and The Meadowlands chief operating officer/general manager Jason Settlemoir, and, of course, the faith that they all, including NYRA, have in her. Especially since she initially almost passed on being a part of it.

“It’s funny to think that on my first show in 2021, I actually didn’t want to do it,” Otten said. “I actually declined being on it. The person that they were going to have on it couldn’t come. And so, then I stepped in and did it.

“I want to thank Jeff and Jason for allowing me to do this. And then, obviously, I want to thank Fox and NYRA for trusting a young female for the role because we all know that that’s not today’s world. For them to trust me without really having any idea of my background and knowledge, that’s pretty cool and I’m very appreciative of that as well.”

There will also be back-to-back broadcasts from different tracks on Thursday (Sept. 21) from Delaware, OH, for the Little Brown Jug and then the next night at Hoosier Park. So, again, Otten will be racking up the frequent-flyer miles.

“The travel isn’t what really bothers me; I’ve been doing that for a long time because of, you know, racing horses, getting up early, getting home late,” Otten said with a laugh.

It’s a pretty good bet that if she wasn’t doing the Fox broadcasts this weekend, she would be home in Michigan helping her dad with horses competing in the Michigan Sire Stakes Finals at Northville Downs tonight.

Since 2021, the national TV exposure for harness racing on Fox has increased exponentially going from two shows that first year, to eight last year and at least 12 this year with the possibility of a few more.

“I don’t know that I would have envisioned it being this many shows,” Donovan said. “I mean, I certainly think we thought maybe we could expand a little bit and cover some of the bigger events. I didn’t know that we would go to so many different properties and do the things we’ve done.”

Thinking about what they’ve already done this year and what’s possible for the future, Otten said: “I just think it’s a good opportunity for not just The Meadowlands but the sport as a whole.”