16.5 million watch Super Saver take most famous horse race

Saturday’s Kentucky Derby drew 16.5 million viewers, making it the most watched horse race in 21 years.

The event, however, marked the last Derby in NBC’s 10-year contract. The Peacock took over from ABC in 2001, and now Churchill Downs will have to renegotiate with NBC or find another network to broadcast America’s most famous horse race.

The track is likely to stay with NBC, as the network is able to offer not just same-day race coverage on the Peacock, but also a handful of Derby-related programming on cablers such as Bravo to capture the celebrity nature of the race. For non-racing aficionados, the red carpet at Churchill Downs can be just as enticing as the horses in the starting gate. An American sports tradition since 1875, the Kentucky Derby might undergo other changes going forward beyond its network affiliation. There have been discussions the race could be moved to primetime.

ESPN saw a big ratings uptick when it shifted the NFL Draft to primetime a few weeks ago and, although the ratings for the Derby are strong, moving it to Saturday night could improve them even more.

Churchill Downs installed permanent lights last winter, and has run three Friday night programs. Moving the race to nights could draw in non-sports fans, i.e. women who may tune in for the celebrity aspect of the race.

The track might want to give night racing a test run at the upcoming Breeders’ Cup in November, racing’s biggest day in terms of purses and money bets. A Friday-Saturday event on ESPN, there has been speculation that a portion of the Friday races would be run at nighttime, and if all were happy with the results, the folks at Churchill may want to consider moving the Derby — always the first Saturday in May — to evenings as well.

With the win by Super Saver in Saturday’s Derby, NBC now shifts its production to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore where the second leg of the Triple Crown will be run May 15. ABC will air the final leg on June 5 from Belmont Park in New York. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.

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