Network renews deal to air popular horse race

NBC has reupped its deal to air America’s iconic horse race, the Kentucky Derby.

New pact, which also includes the Kentucky Oaks and day-of-Derby racing, has the Peacock broadcasting the Run for the Roses for the next five years. NBC and Churchill Downs have teamed on the Derby since 2001. Previously, ABC carried not only the Derby but the entire Triple Crown.

The 136-year-old race annually pits the best 3-year-old horses in the country on the first Saturday of May from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Last year’s race drew 16.5 million viewers and was the most-watched Derby in 21 years.

There has been an emphasis in recent years by both NBC and Churchill Downs to emphasize the celebrity component of the Derby. Drawing crowds from Hollywood as well as horse country, NBC has telecast red carpet-type coverage to draw more female viewers.

The Kentucky Oaks, which features 3-year-old fillies, is run the day before the Derby and has been shown on NBC Universal cabler Bravo in the past.

Last year’s Derby marked the last race in the 10-year-deal between NBC and Churchill Downs, which installed lights in 2009. There has been some speculation that the Derby could be run at night to make it a more high-profile television event in an attempt to lure viewers who normally wouldn’t watch a horse race.

Horse racing, which has seen a decline in on-track attendance over the last decade, has long been hoping for a Triple Crown champ to generate renewed interest. The last time a horse took home the Triple Crown — Kentucky Derby, Pimlico Stakes, Belmont Stakes — was in 1978 when Affirmed won all three races.

The horse racing community will be watching the box office with interest this weekend as “Secretariat,” arguably the greatest racehorse of all time, opens in theaters around the country.

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