Will the 2011 Kentucky Derby be the last contested in daylight?

It’s been a long-held view of mine it would have to happen eventually:

When the field enters the gate this coming Saturday (May 7) in the Kentucky Derby, we may be very well looking at the end of an era for the Derby, which has always been contested in daylight. There has always been a resistance for many reasons to move the Derby to prime time, a lot of it being from traditionalists who think some horses would not like the lights.

A lot of the myths about horses “not liking the lights” have been broken over the past 15-16 years, dating back to the first running of the Dubai World Cup in 1996, an event that has always been run at night due to the intense heat in Dubai. In addition, in NASCAR and other forms of auto racing, many drivers actually prefer to race at night as opposed to the daytime because the lighting for night races is much more uniform than it is in the daytime.

While my original views on why the Derby needed to go prime time was because of the attitudes of now two generations that have basically grown up with the championship events in the four major pro sports all being at night, what may finally cause the Derby to go prime time in 2012 are two other factors:

The first one has nothing to do with the US, but the Asia-Pacific region. Japan, Hong Kong and Australia can no longer be ignored as potential markets for new simulcast revenue, especially since such for both the Derby and Oaks (and undercard races) has the potential to reach the hundreds of millions of dollars, with the same also being true on the Breeders’ Cup, where the potential could actually be for $1 BILLION or more in new handle. Make post time for the Oaks on Friday night at 10:40 PM local time in Louisville and that translates to 11:40 AM Saturday in Tokyo and 1:40 PM Saturday in Melbourne and Sydney, while making the Derby post time 9:35 PM in Louisville on Saturday and that translates to 10:35 AM Sunday in Tokyo and 12:35 PM Sunday in Melbourne and Sydney. This is the main reason I think we could also very well see this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs wind up being the first fully contested at night.

The second reason has to do with the TV rating for the Derby itself. Since NBC first took over carrying the Triple Crown races from ABC in 2000 (excluding the period of The Belmont Stakes being back on ABC from 2006-’10), they have slowly moved back post time on the Derby past 6:00 PM, to where it usually now is around 6:30 PM ET for the most part. The ratings have risen considerably on the Derby, and the last few years, the Derby TV rating has completely bucked the trend of severely declining ratings for television programming overall (with prime time TV ratings in particular seeing as much as a 70% decline in ratings just from the end of the 2003-’04 TV season as choices on cable TV have greatly expanded). The 10.3 rating the Derby has gotten the last two years (2009-’10) have been the highest since 1992, and are remarkable numbers in an era where overall numbers have declined so much to where if the Derby had qualified for the prime time ratings each of the last two years, it would have been at worst in the top five TV programs for the week of the Derby.

For a network like NBC that has been severely ratings-challenged in recent years, the Derby suddenly has become ratings gold for them, so much so that this year, with Comcast having just taken over NBC, they are also taking over what had been previously the coverage that ESPN produced leading into all three Triple Crown events. If Comcast had not just officially taken over NBC a couple of months ago, it’s very possible this Derby coming up on Saturday would have been the first contested at night, and I would think the people taking over at NBC are going to insist that next year’s Derby at Churchill Downs is at night, most likely from 7:00-10:00 PM ET so the rating from the Derby qualifies for the prime time TV ratings. The Derby is now one of the few events that can generate ratings on a Saturday night, and if the 10.3 rating of the last two years held up in prime time, it might very well be enough for NBC to possibly escape the basement that they have occupied in the TV ratings outside of the Olympics in recent years for the “May Sweeps,” the last of three such periods that take place during the official TV season in the US that determine local ad rates (the others in the US TV season are in November and February, plus there is a fourth such period in July that is more for daytime and local programming).

Even without the situation with NBC, the fact the Asia-Pacific region can no longer be ignored is why I think we will see the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby at night for the first time in 2012, with the Oaks telecast likely moving to NBC in 2012 and airing on Friday from 10:00-11:00 PM ET and including a Derby preview. While people in Louisville may not like the idea of the Oaks and Derby becoming nighttime events, international simulcasting and major changes in television viewing habits I think are going to force those changes for 2012 no matter how much they like it or not.

Note: This post is also on the Too Smart To Fail Message Board at: http://www.toosmarttofail.com/forums/showthread.php?2452, and responses can also be posted to that board.

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