On an otherwise uneventful Friday afternoon at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., TVG Network reporter Christina Olivares looked 17-year-old jockey-phenom Joe Talamo in the eye, shoved a microphone in his face and asked the question everyone within horse racing's insular universe wanted to ask.
“You and Ronnie Ebanks have decided to part ways or, rather, you've decided that you two will part ways. Can you tell me a little bit about the reasoning?” she asked.
Olivares was referring to the jockey/agent who, for more than seven months, had served as his agent, surrogate father, confidante and boarder.
Talamo had won 249 races worth more than $10.5 million. His run culminated with his acceptance of the Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice jockey — horse racing's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
“I decided to part ways,” Talamo said with the predictable mixture of confidence, regret and brio that's about what you'd expect from a prodigal teenager who now drives a Mercedes and receives rock star-like treatment from blue-blood owners and degenerate railbirds alike.
“He's a great guy, a great agent. It's just one of those things,” he said, looking and sounding as if he'd rather be gelded than respond to Olivares while staring down the TVG camera.
Unsaid was the fact that Ebanks had recently taken on the book of another slightly older, eminently talented yet troubled jockey, Tyler Baze, who not so long ago won his own Eclipse Award and won numerous races on the ultra-competitive Southern California racing circuit.
Talamo wasn't interested in sharing the limelight or first call on the best horses.
This was analogous to Alex Rodriguez's Warren Buffett-inspired end run around Scott Boras to return to the New York Yankees. It was contentious, complicated and emotional — a veritable equine soap opera.
GREW UP IN BIZ
Olivares knew all the sordid details.
How could she not? The 25-year-old sportscaster is the daughter of retired jockey and trainer Frank Olivares, who rode for 25 years and won the prestigious Florida Derby in 1983 aboard Croeso. She grew up raking sheds, mucking stalls and learning the nuances — good and bad — of a sport decades removed from its Golden Age. And the way she pursues her subjects makes it look as if the next superstar in the horse racing business may very well walk on just two legs.
“She definitely has the 'it' factor,” said TVG senior vice president and executive producer Tony Allevato, who hired her away from arch-rival HorseRacing TV. “We see a dramatic increase in terms of viewership and e-mails when she's on the air. Christina really knows her stuff and racing fans respect her.”
Perhaps that's why less than two years into her tenure as a reporter and host for TVG Network — the horse-racing channel in the process of being sold, along with parent company Gemstar TV-Guide International, to content-protection software maker Macrovision — Olivares let Talamo return to the jock's room and reloaded.
An hour later, she tracked down Ebanks to put a stake through the story's heart.
“As we talked more, Ronnie revealed that Joe asked him to make a choice. It was [Joe] or Tyler,” Olivares said.
With further prodding — a mixture of childlike curiosity and eloquent confrontation — Ebanks reluctantly acknowledged that he told Talamo he wouldn't make that choice.
“I was blindsided,” he said. “I didn't see it coming. He's a young kid. He's made a big mistake, in my opinion. I wish him good luck but I'm sad for him. I really am.”
There was nothing “amicable” or “in the best interests of both parties” about it. It was a divorce — raw, naked and painfully enthralling to viewers lucky enough to watch it unfold.
This kind of reporting is why Allevato hired Olivares in the first place.
TVG, launched in 1999, finds itself immersed in an on-going battle with Magna Entertainment's HRTV for the hearts, minds and bankrolls of both casual and professional horse racing enthusiasts.
And Olivares is coming around the turn at a fast pace, after what — for a 25-year-old — could seem like a slow start.
Olivares served as an intern at HRTV during her senior year as a journalism student at the University of Southern California, largely toiling behind the camera producing a couple of new shows — Target Louisville and Pursuit of the Cup — that would become mainstays of HRTV's programming lineup.
“I was pushed more into production than the on-air element,” Olivares said. “They were so small and needed help behind the scenes. The experience was great but, honestly, it was really discouraging. I was in the field but not doing what I wanted to do.”
She almost bailed on journalism altogether.
What Olivares hoped to do — lived to do — was parlay her familiarity and experience with jockeys, trainers and owners to become the most popular personality on the world's most widely distributed horse racing network.
And she did it.
Allevato saw her on-camera potential and hired her away from HRTV. And when David Nathanson, 31, assumed the role of senior vice president and general manager at TVG in May 2006, he relaunched the network with 11 new shows including Lady Luck, a roundtable-type show featuring Olivares interviewing prominent women in horse racing's inner circle.
The goal was to broaden the appeal of horse racing to women and younger viewers and Olivares was a lock to engender interest in the Sport of Kings with the Digital Natives.
Judging from TVG's growth since her arrival, the overall formula is working. In the second quarter of 2006, the three months following Olivares' debut at TVG in March 2006, TVG reported total sales of $14.7 million, processed $118.8 million in wagers through its online wagering system and had 18.5 million subscribers.
In its most recent quarter, TVG posted total sales of $15.5 million, processed $148.5 million in wagers and counts 28.1 million paid subscribers.
Clearly, much of TVG's bump in wagering proceeds is a direct result of its expanded distribution through satellite-TV providers DirecTV and Dish Network, international racing networks and regional sports networks.
But Allevato contends the Olivares effect is undeniable.
“I can't give you exact [viewership] numbers,” he said. “But when Christina is on the air, the number of e-mails we receive is significantly higher than for other shows. We did a focus group with big bettors and they all said Christina's interviews were very helpful when deciding who to bet on, especially in maiden races.”
A competitive hunter-jumper throughout her childhood, Olivares knows what it feels like to be bucked from a horse, intimately understands a jockey's sacrifice and possesses a fundamental understanding of the business of horse racing.
Horse-racing blogs with names like “Brad Buys a Yearling” and “Left at the Gate” chronicle her on-air exploits. Message boards such as PaceAdvantage.com are filled with entries discussing everything from her spot-on reporting to her dating life.
For better or worse, this is where the buzz is born.
There's nothing generic or canned about Olivares's style. She knows enough about the sport to ask the hard questions without effort—a prodigy who just plays without thinking about the notes.
She casually dodges lip-bound advances from 70-something trainers, ignores cat calls from lubricated frat boys and has the good sense to let her subjects — even 5-year-olds — be the stars.
“You can't fake it,” Olivares said. “You just react. I've learned to be patient, to wait for the really interesting stuff to come out.”
Because of TVG's relatively small staff — about a dozen hosts and analysts rotate through as many as 17 hours of live coverage each day — Olivares wears many hats and gets a ton of opportunities for live reporting, the type of training and experience that prospective future employers covet.
And there's precedent.
Long before he became famous as host of ABC's The Bachelor, Chris Harrison made his bones as a TVG host and reporter.
Olivares is positioned to follow in the footsteps of Harrison and other young broadcasting stars who took unconventional routes to the big time, including CNN's Erica Hill, via TechTV, and The View's Elisabeth Hasselbeck, from CBS's Survivor.
“She seems to have the whole package at a very young age,” said Tom Durkin, who has called countless Kentucky Derby and Breeder's Cup races for NBC over the years. [She has] knowledge of the subject, a clear, crisp delivery and, with TV being a visual medium, she has good looks. She seems to have the whole package at a very young age.”
Agent-less Olivares is under contract with TVG through 2008.
“We're pleased that Christina has been so well received by her peers and the TVG viewers,” Nathanson said. “We look forward to seeing her continue to grow within our organization.”
With each passing day — and sharp-as-a-tack interview — those odds could be getting longer.
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