Since its first running in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has remained one of those tribal, celebratory events that bring our ever-fragmented viewing populace together.
Even if you've never placed a live bet on the ponies, or if you consider pitting highly inbred animals against one another a form of medieval cruelty, odds are that you've at least seen the first leg of U.S. thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby is our equine Miss America pageant, the first Saturday in May devoted to the Sport of Kings and the beautiful people who attend the annual behatted, bespoke gala at the famed Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
While the odds are long that we'll see another Triple Crown winner this year, Churchill Downs, broadcast partners led by NBC, and the thoroughbred racing industry still have ample reason to celebrate ahead of the 142nd Run for the Roses.
In the wake of American Pharoah's thrilling run to be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and the sport's first-ever Grand Slam champion after winning the Breeders Cup Classic in October, millions more casual sports fans than usual are expected to tune into Saturday’s signature race.
American Pharoah himself is out to stud – he's reportedly impregnated close to 100 mares, at a cost for each breeding session of $200,000.
But the legacy he leaves behind has reignited interest in thoroughbred racing. And the first stakeholders to benefit are Churchill Downs and the Louisville region.
Louisville-based gambling and racing company Churchill Downs Inc. recently reported what it called record revenue and earnings during the first quarter, due to gains in its computer gaming business, a surge of new players to its online horse betting site and boosts in racing and casino segments.
The company said net revenue jumped 15 percent to $288.4 million compared to the year-ago period while adjusted earnings rose 6 percent to $52.8 million. Net income was $2.8 million compared to a $1.6 million loss last year.
Further, the Kentucky Derby is an event whose horsepower fuels the state’s economic engine.
The most recent economic impact study commissioned shows the Kentucky Derby has a $400 million economic impact on the region. Statewide, the equine industry has a $4 billion impact, generating over 55,000 jobs.
The Derby has always stood for glitz and glamour, and NBC Sports Group adds sequins and feathers as well, as former figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski once again take part in coverage of this year's event.
The charismatic duo, who emerged as the U.S. media darlings of the Sochi Olympics, continue their gossipy banter in Louisville as they comment on parties, lifestyle, fashion, and trackside celebrity sightings in an effort to further appeal to the Derby’s largely female audience.
Last year, more than 52 percent of viewers were women.
Accordingly, NBC has turned its Kentucky Derby coverage into a full week of entertainment, not only on NBC Sports Network, but also tying in to its late night and primetime programming. The Derby is just the tip of the crown for NBC Sports’ horse racing coverage this year.
The cable network will broadcast more than a dozen racing programs in the next few months – “the largest single horse racing commitment that the company has made in the sport,” according to NBC Sports Group President Jon Miller.
Galloping into the celebratory spirit, NBC Sports Group is running its “most comprehensive social media plan ever” for the 142nd Kentucky Derby, according to the net.
The plan features the likes of a tweet-powered brooch worn by fashion and lifestyle reporter Weir, live streams of Churchill Downs via Periscope’s GoPro integration as well as Facebook Live chats on the red carpet.
Weir's tweet-powered brooch will gallop and illuminate as more conversation is generated on Twitter, while the “Peacock Paddock” will go live on Facebook and feature a 55-inch touch screen monitor to showcase social media trends and Kentucky Derby parties around the country, and assist Weir and Lipinski’s fashion segments.
Other elements will be housed at a “social center”, NBCSports.com/Derby to allow fans to access and sort social media content from Instagram, Twitter, and Vine via various streams including horse racing experts, horses, and more.
Fittingly – especially with Weir, Lapinsky, and the NBC Sports Group, home of the NHL, presiding over the festivities – the favorite in Saturday’s race is Nyquist, namesake of NHL standout Gustav Nyquist (the horse’s owner is a rabid Detroit Red Wings fan).
Regardless of which horse wins, it’s a safe bet that come Saturday, America’s Triple Crown fever will return before the ice has a chance to melt in your mint julep.
(Editing by Larry Fine)