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How Belmont Park-based horse racing show overcame coronavirus challenges

At a time when the number of horse races in the country was shrinking because of the coronavirus pandemic, the television program centered around those races expanded.

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And starting Wednesday, “America’s Day at the Races” will finally be able to show the ones in its own backyard again. The broadcast produced by the New York Racing Association (NYRA) in partnership with Fox Sports — aired on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and locally on MSG Plus — will be the only way to see the return of racing at a fan-less Belmont Park.

“Hats off to the production team at NYRA,” NYRA chief revenue officer and president of NYRA Bets Tony Allevato said in a phone interview. “The shows are difficult for us to produce as it is, and then to be able to do it during a pandemic with a fraction of the staff that we would normally have because of the social distancing protocols that are in place is really an amazing thing that the team was able to pull off. I’m really proud of them. It was very difficult, we were doing five to six hours of programming per day with a quarter of the staff that we would have for a normal two-hour show. But everybody really rallied.”

Since New York’s last race was run at Aqueduct on March 15, “America’s Day at the Races” has continued to air. It has filled the hours showing races from tracks that remained open through the pandemic, such as Tampa Bay Downs in Florida and Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, before adding in Churchill Downs when it reopened in May.

There were 10-15 people working on the production of the shows, according to Allevato, with talent working from home and remotely at other locations.

Last week, analysts Andy Serling and Maggie Wolfendale and former jockey Richard Migliore were able to return to the Belmont Park set — seated spaced apart — for shows. The broadcast team includes host Greg Wolf, Serling, Wolfendale, Migliore and Acacia Courtney, among others, with Wednesday’s coverage set for 1-6 p.m. on MSG Plus.

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“Even now at Belmont, we’re going to abide by very strict rules,” Allevato said. “Our talent will not be allowed in the paddock. When people aren’t on camera, they’ll be wearing a mask. Any interview that’s done will be done with a boom mic so they can maintain that 6-foot distance from the person we’re interviewing.”

Even though Wolfendale, a paddock analyst, won’t actually be in the paddock, she expects her analysis to remain the same.

“I think we’ll expose people to some rivalries that they never knew existed in sports racing for a casual fan,” Wolfendale said, referencing a matchup like the “blue-collar” Mind Control versus the “royally-bred” Performer in Saturday’s Runhappy Carter Handicap at Belmont Park. “That’s been lost over the years because horse racing’s kind of fallen to the backburner.”

Allevato said being on FS1, especially when most other sports are still shut down, has provided the show a chance to reach a larger audience. Because of that, it has tailored its coverage to keep in mind not all viewers are avid horse racing fans.

That has also included putting an extra emphasis on NYRA Bets, as the online betting platform has run promotions to encourage viewers to sign up for accounts. Typically their biggest day for account signups is Kentucky Derby day and that remained true this year, even without the first leg of the Triple Crown being run.

“On that day, we had triple the amount of people open up an account than we did the previous year on Kentucky Derby day, which is a remarkable number,” Allevato said. “So the audience has been very, very engaged. I think people are hopefully coming back to horse racing.”

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