May 3, 2017
DAN MASONSON: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s NBC Sports’ Kentucky Derby Call. Highlighting this year’s live coverage is a five-hour Kentucky Derby show beginning Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Coverage begins tomorrow at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues with the Kentucky Oaks at Noon ET Friday also on NBCSN.
Joining us on today’s call are Mike Tirico, in his first Triple Crown assignment, analyst Randy Moss, two-time Kentucky Derby winner Jerry Bailey, analyst handicapper Eddie Olczyk, our race caller Larry Collmus, and the coordinating producer of NBC Sports’ horse racing coverage, Rob Hyland.
We’ll take an opening comment from each, and then we’ll take your questions.
ROB HYLAND: Thanks, everyone. 16 years ago I was part of NBC’s first Kentucky Derby, and, man, has this thing grown. It was a 90-minute show back then with a couple of taped elements, a handicapper segment, and a race. This year with the team of 14 announcers, a production staff of nearly 300 men and women, Dan mentioned the broadcast window; we’re going to be on the air for more than 15 hours and a record five hours on Saturday on NBC, which is the most network coverage the Kentucky Derby has ever received.
I think it’s fair to say this event has come a long way in the 16 years that I’ve been privileged to be a part of it. It’s not only in my opinion one of the greatest days in American sports, it’s really a unique entry in our sports calendar this spring and what we’re setting off to see this spring and summer and fall. I think it’s, for me, really hard to think of another event that combines atmosphere, tradition, and the competition so dramatically.
Every year I think it will get a little bit easier to understand and tackle this major show, and maybe I get a little bit more comfortable with it, but every year it’s just as exciting and the nerves are just as great because you never know what you’re going to get, and that’s what’s so special about this event to me. So with that, I turn it over to Mike Tirico.
MIKE TIRICO: Thanks. Hi, everyone. Lot of you on the call have covered a lot of different sporting events so we share that in common. For me, it’s a privilege over the last couple of decades to be at a lot of events. A few years ago if you asked me what’s my bucket list of events that I’d like to go to whether in person or get to cover, for me the list got down to three. I had never covered the Olympics, never covered the Kentucky Derby or been to or covered the Indy 500. What a great opportunity it is for me to cross off item number two after Rio this past summer to be here on the first Saturday in May. To be with this great team, which has won awards for the work that they’ve done, and they’ve made me feel part of the team right away.
I’m excited for it. And as many people come to the Derby for the first time to experience it, hopefully I can share a little bit of that with folks along the way during our coverage over the next few days. So looking forward to that. I’ll turn it over to Jerry Bailey.
JERRY BAILEY: Thank you. I’ve gotten to experience Derby Day on a couple of different levels. As a jockey, just getting here was awesome, but to actually win it a couple of times, the feeling is really indescribable. As a kid growing up, when I knew I wasn’t going to play the major sports and I got into horse racing, this was my dream and I got to live it. Now in broadcasting, I’m surrounded by a great team from producer Rob Hyland to now Mike Tirico and my close buddy Randy Moss. Hopefully I can convey and have been conveying the feeling and atmosphere of what it’s like here on Derby Day to the public at large. It’s just a great pleasure to do that.
RANDY MOSS: This will be my 37th Kentucky Derby, covering the newspaper business and the TV business. Yes, I started when I was five years old. Not really, not really.
Yeah, it’s always exciting and interesting, that goes without saying. This year is particularly challenging from looking at the Kentucky Derby because through the preparations this winter and spring, the horses have been very inconsistent, the races have been pretty unpredictable. So it lends even more of an element of uncertainty about this Kentucky Derby. One of the things, another thing that always makes this so fun is the undercard races that precede the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. Some of the best horses in the country run. So we not only get to focus on the fastest two minutes in sports on Saturday, but a lot of other really, really good horses we’ll get to see.
EDDIE OLCZYK: This is Eddie Olczyk. This will be my third Derby being a part of this really incredible team here for NBC and being a part of the hockey coverage as well. But these people here, men and women, are just so passionate about their sport of horse racing, and I feel right in my element. So I’m very honored and blessed to be a part of this team with my role.
Being a handicapper and an analyst and looking at this Kentucky Derby, and I was sharing this with Jerry and Randy earlier, this is one of — I always have an opinion on a horse race because I always like to get my feet wet — but for this Kentucky Derby I’ve had a really difficult time, and I think maybe Randy alluded to it, where it’s been inconsistent trying to find the value and obviously trying to find the winning horse, and I think that’s what makes it so great.
Again, we don’t know what’s going to transpire here weather-wise in the next handful of days. There is a pretty good chance, as our captain Rob Hyland mentioned to me a little earlier, my Derby pick, I might have to give that right on the fly because how is the track playing. Those are all the things that I’ll be looking at.
But I could sit here and maybe Jerry and Randy, Mike, Larry, and Rob would disagree, but you could probably make a case for eight horses. We know a 20-horse field. We know they’re going a mile-and-a-quarter. So I just can’t wait till we get to this day. Again, being a part of this team is just a great pleasure and looking forward to working with my pal, Bob Neumeier, and hopefully we can make people a little money, not only on the Derby, but as Randy said, there are some really good races.
I do have some strong opinions for tomorrow and Friday. So hopefully people will be able to follow that as well.
I’ll pass it over to the voice for NBC Sports, the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Larry Collmus.
LARRY COLLMUS: Thanks, it seems like just the other day I was here calling the Kentucky Derby for the first time when Animal Kingdom came roaring down the center of the track. But that was now six years ago, and I’ll be calling the Kentucky Derby for the seventh time on Saturday.
It’s going to be, as always, quite the challenge and quite the thrill, because there is no other race like it. Calling the Kentucky Derby is, not the easiest thing in the world, but it is the most fun race to do because it is the Kentucky Derby. And the challenges are there every year. This year we may be dealing with a few extra ones, including three horses owned by Calumet Farms, which means those horses will have the same colors the jockeys will be wearing, which adds another element. Luckily, they’ll have different caps, so that will help.
The possible element of mud is there in calling the Kentucky Derby because the forecast right now is a little bit shaky. So there will be, all the colored silks will turn brown by the time they get to the top of the stretch. So there are many things involved in calling that race.
Interestingly enough, last week I had a chance to sit down with the other guys who have called a race for network television over the years before me, Tom Durkin, Dave Johnson, and Mike Battaglia, and all of us were able to sit down with Bob Costas and talk about what’s involved in calling the Kentucky Derby, and that’s going to be one of the features on our show on Saturday.
Had a great time doing it and can’t wait to see how it all came out, because I think people are going to really get a kick out of that behind-the-scenes experience of actually calling this Kentucky Derby.
So it’s going to be a great one. It’s a wide open field. A lot of horses have a shot, and just have to see what happens on the first Saturday in May.
DAN MASONSON: Let’s open it up to questions.
Q. Mike, I know you’re kind of a sports junkie. I’m just interested if you had any childhood memories at all of watching the Triple Crown races? I was wondering if maybe Affirmed and that era was maybe when you were growing up?
MIKE TIRICO: You’re taking a guess because you know my age, aren’t you?
Q. That’s why. I know you’re a little younger than me.
MIKE TIRICO: I know your trick. That’s about right. Yeah, that area was spectacular to have been around that time. With Jim McKay, and Al Michaels, and that group at ABC. Watching that on Wide World of Sports, as Rob mentioned earlier, it was on from 4:30 to 6:00. It was very quick.
So watching that over the years and actually a few of those towards the end of that network run, I was covering the golf tournament that led into the Kentucky Derby. So I had watched a few Kentucky Derby’s later in my career from the Byron Nelson golf tournament in Irving, Texas. So over the last 14 years I’ve watched the Derby getting ready for an NBA playoff game on a Sunday afternoon. So that’s why I haven’t been able to get the experience it in person.
But those are my earliest memories. I would say for all of us, even if you watch one race a year, you know this is the race to watch. And I think no matter your knowledge of the game, this is the one race that brings you to the TV because of the setting and the spectacle. You may not know the horses before, but you’ll know one when it’s done. That, I think, is what attracts so many people beyond the people who loved this game to watch. I know that was true for me as a kid. It’s true for me now, and to be a part of that is extra special.
Q. Thanks for doing the call. Rob, I’ll bother you with a quick production question. The longer window, how does that impact the way you guys are heading into the race, both from an operations and creative perspective this year?
ROB HYLAND: You know, it doesn’t change our philosophy. As I’ve said to people before, horse racing is, in effect, a complex, outdoor studio show. Yeah, we’re going to broadcast 21 races over the next three, four days, but our production philosophy doesn’t change just the format changes. It gets a heck of a lot thicker. It looks like a phone book this week.
So the challenge really becomes what we do to engage the viewers in between these races that happen every 50 minutes, every hour, and we do that through videotaped features, in-depth race analysis packages that Jerry and Randy handle. Really, it’s no different than when the show started at four o’clock. It’s just there is more of it.
For our crew of 300, does it involve a lot more technical planning in terms of where to get engineers earlier in the day and how to get people fed and all that stuff? Yeah. But we’ve got the best technical crew in the business, led by John Roche, and Tim DeKime to make sure that gets done.
Q. Mike, it’s been a fascinating year for you. You just joined NBC. You did the Olympics. You were supposed to do Thursday Night Football but the NFL said no. But now you’re hosting the Kentucky Derby. What’s this been like for you the past year? To follow up, especially with what’s going on at your old employer, ESPN, how bad do you feel for some of the people that have been let go there?
MIKE TIRICO: Well, in priority order, I’ve been in touch with several of my friends who were part of that last week, and don’t feel anything but awful for them. Like this place, that place worked as a great family together, and those people helped make memories and helped make our lives, professional lives very successful for many years. I worked with several of them directly and have shared privately with them my feelings.
There are a lot of great people who get hired somewhere and continue to do excellent work over time.
As for me, this is part of the reasons I came here. One of the reasons this offer was so attractive to come work at NBC was the opportunity to do some of the best events in sports and be a part of primetime TV’s top two shows, and Sunday Night and Thursday Night Football. There’s nothing like the Olympics, and there is nothing like in this sport, a Triple Crown, and the chance to be on the best events in sports with a team that, from afar, really from across the street, if you will, I’ve admired the work done here, that was very attractive. Now that I’ve arrived here and been here for just under a year, it’s all that and more. The quality ties, you’re treated in a first-class way, and the people are exceptional.
I can’t tell you, not just the folks that are on this call, but the football group with Al, Cris and Michele, every sport I’ve had a chance to be a part of. The golf team I get to work with next week and so on, I won’t bore you with everyone, but they’re just great.
They’ve made me feel like I’ve been a part of the family for a long time, which is greatly appreciated, and I look forward to staying a part of this for a long time to come.
Q. I think it may have been Eddie that mentioned earlier with the rain in the forecast and how that could possibly affect the race. I guess for everybody, are there any horses that you think are better equipped for the mud and the weather that we’re thinking we may see? Is that going to open things up even more, as Eddie mentioned, or does it help narrow the field for you guys a little bit?
EDDIE OLCZYK: There are horses that have run on an off track. Some horses have run here, some have not. But I think for me more so than anything else, you look at breeding, you look at horses that may seem to enjoy off going, I mean, look at last year with Exaggerator, just an absolute monster on the off track as we saw at the Preakness. The rain maybe came a little bit too late here at Churchill Downs, right before Nyquist was able to win.
So I think for me it will certainly see how the track is playing. Is the track off? Is there a lot of moisture in there? So in saying that, and I think maybe Jerry can jump in here as far as a jockey’s point of view, is the type of horse that you have and knowing that that horse enjoys that type of footing and where you want to be positioned when it comes to the running of a particular race.
JERRY BAILEY: Yeah, six fillies in the Oaks and eight in the Kentucky Derby have never set foot in a race on a wet track. But if you like past performances of horses that have won, Classic Empire is the only horse in the field that has won on a wet track at this particular track. The first race he ever ran, his maiden race he won here at Churchill Downs in the slop. So if you’re a Classic Empire fan, then if it’s wet and rainy, go to the windows.
But just because a horse has not run on it, doesn’t mean he won’t like it. So you don’t have to have past success on wet tracks to be successful on Saturday. Some may love it, some may not. But we only have one that’s won in the wet here at Churchill Downs.
Q. How is your race shaped by the results of this morning’s post-position draw?
RANDY MOSS: I don’t think a lot of horses were greatly affected by the draw, which is honestly usually the case. Every now and then you’ll get a horse that was very adversely effected by it, but for the most part it doesn’t change our opinions a whole lot. The favorite, Classic Empire, had what’s generally regarded to be an outstanding draw.
Irish War Cry, the winner of the Wood Memorial actually got a post position in post 17 that no horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby from, but that’s pretty much a statistical odyssey, because 16 has been an extremely successful post position. So it really doesn’t matter. I know they like their post position.
Always Dreaming, one of the other favorites, is inside in post position No. 5. Probably not a particularly good draw for him, but it doesn’t really mean that it’s a deal breaker. Jerry, what do you think?
JERRY BAILEY: I don’t think anybody really was effected one way or the other adversely. Maybe one horse, Practical Joke, in the 19. He’s not one of the four top favorites, but I know his trainer Chad Brown really wanted an inside draw because they felt he was better if he could save ground and be covered up in the middle of horses. That might be a challenge for him. But I don’t think anybody was a real loser or a real winner in this draw.
RANDY MOSS: And on a somewhat light-hearted note, a horse that you’ll become very familiar with after Saturday, a very sweet, one-eyed horse by the name of Patch, drew post position No. 20, which is interesting, because he has no left eye. So he won’t be able to see any of the horses to his inside when he loads into the starting gate.
He runs just fine. He’s run just fine throughout his life with one eye. He has adjusted. But when he leaves the starting gate he may think he’s by himself in the race, if it weren’t for maybe the sound of the horses to his inside and the grandstand of 100,000 people to his outside. Yes, he’ll see that very well.
Q. Rob, any cool tech we’re going to see in the main event on Saturday or anything leading up to that, be it some virtual graphics, news, super slow-mo cameras, anything you’re excited about to bring into the telecast?
ROB HYLAND: Yeah, there are two things I’m excited about. One, I think with such a broad audience, for a lot of these viewers watching it’s the only horse race they’ll watch all year. I don’t think I’ve done a good enough job over the years of making sure people understand how easy it is to bet, how fun it is to bet, and how engaging it is once you’ve taken a piece of the action.
So we’ve created a touch screen for Eddie and Bob Neumeier, it’s primarily Eddie’s toy to play with over the next few days. But he can select the upcoming race and click on a horse. He’ll give you the odds for that horse, and then he can show the audience at home how he wants to wager using the money he has and the projected payout of that wager, and he’ll take the viewers through the whole process, almost as you would at the betting window. Using this touch screen to explain really what his goal is, the horse that he selected, and the potential outcome of it.
So I’m excited about that. I think that we can teach the audience how easy it is and how fun it is especially when we have five races on NBC on Saturday. Let’s give the viewers at home a reason to care about not just the Kentucky Derby but all the races we’re covering. And I think Eddie and Bob Neumeier will do a good job of that on Saturday. So I’m excited about this touch screen.
Second of all, we’ve converted our main play-by-play camera to a 4-K camera with high speed output as well, and we have the ability to zoom anywhere at any place on the track. So if there is some crazy issue that happens or a jockey loses a whip on the backstretch, we have the ability to find the small detail, and we’re excited about that.
In a 20-horse field, anything can happen, and usually it does. We have the camera now to help us locate when that does happen.
Q. Larry, we’ve asked about how the horses will handle the rain on Saturday, but how will you have to adjust your call for a horse in the rain or even heavy rain?
LARRY COLLMUS: I guess it all depends on how heavy the rain is. If it’s not too bad, then mostly you’ll just be dealing with mud on the jockey’s silks and the horses themselves. When there is an off track, I think I will do a little bit more studying and work on particular markings of a horse, which might help whether a horse has a certain color blinker or a wider face, hopefully that might help if the jockey’s silks are covered. Of course, that could be covered too.
So you want to try to get as much information on identifying horses as you possibly can. We had a situation back in my third Kentucky Derby call with a horse named Orb, that track was extremely muddy that day, and Orb had white colors with a red hoof in the middle, and when the horses made their move to the top of the stretch, that white and red was covered in absolute brown. There was like a sea of mud, and I saw this horse making a big move, but I was able to identify it as Orb. And I told people at the time I was 80 percent sure that’s who it was.
So hopefully I’ll be 100 percent sure of who the horse is that’s charging up on the outside or on the inside over the off going. But it does make the race call more difficult. And the other thing, you maybe might not go back as far looking at the horses on the turn. You don’t go all the way to the 10th or 12th horse because something might be happening on the front end, some lead changes are occurring, and you don’t want to miss that, especially in a muddy situation.