THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to today’s Kentucky Derby conference call.
The 2016 Kentucky Derby, which is this Saturday at 4:00 Eastern on NBC marks 15 years since NBC Sports first covered the event with the debut telecast in 2001.
Joining us today are host Tom Hammond, who has been the voice of each of those Kentucky Derby telecasts; our analysts, Randy Moss and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who is a two-time Kentucky Derby winner; our analyst-handicapper duo, Bob Neumeier and Eddie Olczyk; our race caller Larry Collmus, and our coordinating producer, Rob Hyland.
With that, throw it over to Rob Hyland, the coordinating producer of NBC Sports Triple Crown horse racing coverage.
ROB HYLAND: You mentioned it, but 15 years ago, a few of us in this room were a part of the very first Kentucky Derby telecast at NBC and back then it was a 90-minute show with a small group of reporters, a few feature elements and a couple handicap segments.
On Saturday, I’ll be producing a three-hour network show, which is the culmination of more than 15 hours of coverage which begins today at 5:30 with the Kentucky Derby Draw Show.
This year’s Derby production will employ more than 300 production personnel, utilize 50 cameras, feature 15 announcers including two Olympic figure staters and a Stanley Cup winner.
So I think it’s fair to say we’ve come a very long way in the 15 years that NBC has been part of this great event.
TOM HAMMOND: It’s been my great pleasure as a Kentuckian to host the Kentucky Derby on NBC, and I’ve seen it grow from a pretty basic broadcast to the extravaganza that it is.
I give NBC really a lot of credit for making the Derby such a big event these days. It’s on everybody’s bucket list; wherever I go around the country, around the world, people say, “I’ve got to go to the Kentucky Derby, it’s on my bucket list.” I think the fact that Rob and all the powers that be at NBC have made it all-encompassing bringing in the food, the fashion, the celebrities, all the things that make it the Kentucky Derby, other than just the face itself. And hopefully we’ve continued to cover the race in first-class fashion, as well.
For a minute, I just want to go back to a year ago and revisit American Pharoah’s run for the Triple Crown. As many of you know, I said I was there 37 years earlier when Affirmed had beaten Alydar, and I was wondering if I would ever see a Triple Crown, ever be able to broadcast another Triple Crown.
And thinking back to when he won the Belmont Stakes, I’ve been in a lot bigger venues: Olympic Stadium in Sydney, the Big House in Michigan, Neyland Stadium in Tennessee, but I’ve never heard a sound as deafening as those 90,000 at Belmont made. Beginning when the horses turned for home and became apparent he was going to win the Triple Crown, and continuing all the way to the backstretch where they pulled him up.
And then I thought Victor Espinoza did a brilliant thing: Instead of taking him right into the winner’s circle, he paraded him the length of the grandstand to let everybody have a good look at the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
So I’ve had many, many thrills in all of these 32 years at NBC, but that ranks right up there with the best of them.
So here we are again, back where it all started at the Kentucky Derby and having had a little drink from the fountain, we want more. And who knows, it could be like the decade of the 70s when we had three Triple Crown winners, and that makes the anticipation for the Derby even greater than usual.
BOB NEUMEIER: I’ve been with NBC since the start, as well. Along with Tom Hammond, I have Eddie Olczyk, who will have a few words for you later on to give his thoughts about what he thinks about this race.
I think the beauty of handicapping itself is the mystery involved. It’s the who-is-going-to-win question. And everybody has an opinion, and everybody going into the gate, has the right opinion, except when they cross the line. And then most people have the wrong opinion, which is okay.
But that’s what we do. That’s the business that we’re in. And so, will we have another American Pharoah? Nyquist is the headliner. He’s unbeaten. He’ll be the favorite. I don’t know to what odds he will be, but I know that just simplistically, I will look at it and say, you’ve got to beat Nyquist if you want to win the Kentucky Derby.
And so will he win a Triple Crown? I don’t know. Will he follow in the footsteps of I’ll Have Another with the same owner, J. Paul Reddam and the same trainer, Doug O’Neill. Same jockey, as well. We’ll see.
So again, as a bettor, as an exotic player, as one who likes superfectas and all that stuff, I’ll be involved, don’t get me wrong. But my attention, at least to start, will go on Nyquist.
EDDIE OLCZYK: It’s great to be a part of the terrific horse racing team here at NBC. This will be my second year. My first year, I saw a Triple Crown winner, which I don’t know how you duplicate, but it was an incredible event.
As Tom had said earlier, I’ve played in a lot of great events, been to a lot of sporting events, which means that was the greatest sporting event I ever was at was the Belmont last year.
The handicapping of the Kentucky Derby to me, there’s so much value, and value doesn’t have to win and that’s why I know we have to put our heads together or at least communicate together and try and help some people out when they are watching the show; and to give our opinion and to maybe open up some eyes on some horses or to have some conviction and go ahead and stand tall with a certain area that I may want to explore.
But the value to me of Kentucky Derby Day, when you have so much money wagered, not only on the Derby but throughout the card, makes it such a great day for horse players like us and I couldn’t be more honored to be back for my second Kentucky Derby with NBC.
LARRY COLLMUS: It seems like it was only yesterday when I called my first Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011. But hard to believe that I’m now a grizzled veteran getting ready to call my sixth Kentucky Derby this year.
It was certainly the thrill of a lifetime last year following the saga of American Pharoah, and being able to call all three of those Triple Crown wins, and then the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the end of the year. But as Tom said and as others have said, nothing quite could compare to that day at Belmont when he won the Belmont Stakes.
This year, we start afresh with a new group of 20 three-year-olds, and for a race caller, there are new challenges. And this year’s challenges include several horses that like to come from well behind. So we are going to have to keep an eye on a lot of those late-running, closing-type horses that are going to be running in the Derby this year.
And other challenges include having horses with common ownership, which means you’ll be having the same silks like Shagaf and Mohaymen, and Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready.
Plenty of challenges, and it’s always the biggest challenge of us is that it’s the Kentucky Derby and you want to be the guy that gets that call right.
So we are looking forward to doing it for the sixth time this year, and it’s great to be a part of the NBC team once again.
JERRY BAILEY: I spent 19 years as a jockey in search of my first Kentucky Derby, and when I won it in 1993, I couldn’t wait to come back the next year to try and win it again. The feeling was overwhelming.
I kind of felt like that the whole winter. Experiencing the Triple Crown, my first real Triple Crown, watching it up close, and I couldn’t wait to get back here to experience that.
And the feeling is kind of going all week, because even when we leave on Saturday evening, there will still be a chance of a Triple Crown when we head to Baltimore.
And I do agree with Bob and Eddie, that Nyquist should rule the slight favorite. But aside from that, and it’s only a slight favorite, really; that there’s any one of ten horses that could win. And I think you could throw a net over a bunch of them, and if you told me one of those would win the following day, I wouldn’t be surprised. So it’s very competitive and I think it’s going to be a very exciting Derby.
RANDY MOSS: I think the sport of horse racing in general is still kind of riding along on an American Pharoah high after what we saw, not just in the Triple Crown, but to then close out our year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
And wherever you go, people ask us: “Do you think there could be another American Pharoah this year?” And that’s probably unfair of these horses to compare them to American Pharoah. I mean, who knows. Nyquist is certainly nothing to sneeze at, has a perfect 7-for-7. But when you think back to 37 years of Triple Crown failure, all the good horses, all the good three-year-olds that we saw in those years. I mean, there’s still a lot to look forward to in this Kentucky Derby.
As Larry Collmus alluded to, it’s a weird race on paper, because there are so many horses that come from way, way, way back in the pack. And as a matter of fact, Rob, our producer, came up with the idea of dedicating a camera just to the horses in the far back of the pack; not to be used during the live telecast, but for video analysis after the race is run. Because we are expecting some of those horses, they will be the farthest behind early to maybe potentially make some of the biggest noise.
Q. I’ll address to Tom and Randy, 37 years, finally got a Triple Crown winner, a lot of attention brought to horse racing. What does the sport now have to do other than maybe another Triple Crown winner to try to sustain this interest that got built up last year?
RANDY MOSS: I think we all agreed beforehand that a Triple Crown winner would give racing a bit of a bump, but it certainly wouldn’t return it to the glory days of the 40s and 50s and certainly wouldn’t cure all of the things that plague racing now.
But I think it did provide a bump that the sport could capitalize on and that would be wagering is up, attendance is up, television ratings are up. It is a little bit of a bump that we can build on if we handle it right. I think we have proved that good sport, top-class sport does attract fans.
It didn’t help and didn’t hurt, in fact, that American Pharoah was very human-friendly. He certainly had a personality that enabled everybody to get close to him, and the Zayats and the Bafferts shared him with America.
But I think if we take a lesson from the Triple Crown from the fact that Saratoga, Keeneland, Del Mar, places like that, where placing is still an event, still a fashionable event, I think racing can use this bump to its own advantage.
Q. In terms of the primary linear telecast, any highlights this year in terms of cool graphics, new cameras, any new production tools or anything you’ve loved in recent years that you guys are bringing back this year?
ROB HYLAND: Every year, we evaluate the Derby after the show has aired, and we are always trying to tweak it and perfect something that’s impossible to perfect.
We’ve done a lot of little things I think you’ll notice. One of the things we’ve added I’m looking forward to is we have added an RF camera mounted to the helmet of the Kentucky Derby outrider. So when the winning horse and jockey gallop out after the race, that great moment where the jockey meets the outrider and there’s a great scene, great audio, we’ve got him mic’d as well.
For the first time, we’ll be able to take an intimate shot of the outrider and the jockey for that moment of celebration, that would never happen for us. We’re excited about that RF camera that we’ve added. That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to see throughout this weekend.
Q. When you left Churchill Downs on Derby Saturday last year, did you feel anything special? Do you think that American Pharoah was going to be the one to finally win the Triple Crown?
JERRY BAILEY: Most definitely. Look, when I rode horses, if I didn’t win, which was most of the time in the Kentucky Derby, I started immediately searching for a horse that I thought I could ride that could win the Preakness.
So as an analyst, as soon as the Kentucky Derby is over, I immediately start thinking, not only for the Preakness, but for the Belmont, is this horse capable of a shorter distance and an even longer distance.
I had really felt that American Pharoah had overcome his biggest obstacle, and that was the Kentucky Derby, and the next two would probably be a little easier on him.
TOM HAMMOND: He showed a versatility, I think, that said to us that maybe he is the one to do it. Because he had won the Arkansas Derby just prior to the Kentucky Derby in front-running fashion, came from off the pace in the Kentucky Derby.
So he showed a multi-dimensional talents which I think augured well for the next two races.
RANDY MOSS: I as usual was a little bit more of a skeptic coming into the Kentucky Derby. Tom was all in. Jerry was all in.
I thought that it was going to be really tough for American Pharoah, given the trip he was going to get in a pretty average-paced race, to pull it off. But if he did, then he was going to be something extra special. People were comparing him to Seattle Slew. I thought that was a little bit over the top.
When he won the Kentucky Derby, the way that he won it, with the trip that he had, though, that’s when I had a pretty good feeling that he was something really special. So I was a skeptic but he won me over with this race.
Q. A friend of mine, not me, likes to bet the speed. And Exaggerator got a 103 Beyer rating when he won the Santa Anita Derby. How important is a speed rating like that when it comes to the Kentucky Derby?
RANDY MOSS: Well, I helped do those speed figures, Beyer speed figures, for Daily Racing Form.
I can tell you that whether it’s the Beyer’s speed figure or any other speed figure, there’s no better way to gauge how fast a horse ran in a particular race, but you have to view that number in the terms and the context of how it was earned.
In the case of Exaggerator, the horse that you brought up, yes, he got a big speed figure in the Santa Anita Derby, but he also had an incredibly beneficial pace set up in that race.
So as someone who is a big speed figure aficionado, I view that particular speed figure as being a little suspect. When you have used it to try to project how the horse might run in the Kentucky Derby. I don’t think, in other words, he is as good as he looked, and as the speed figure indicated that he might be in the Santa Anita Derby.
BOB NEUMEIER: I want to chime in and disagree slightly with Randy. Because I think that ultimately, this is about distribution of energy, and we really don’t know how it’s all going to play out, do we. We think we do. But until they actually get to the gate, at the half-mile pole, turning for home, we have an idea who will be on the lead and who will come from behind, but it’s just guesswork.
So ultimately, I believe the number is the number, and the number to me is that so far, thus far, that Nyquist and Exaggerator, to me, numbers-wise, are better than other horses in the field. That does not mean that some other horse, like a Brody’s Cause, or Creator, can run another number that would equal that of Nyquist or Exaggerator. Because after all, they are three-year-olds, essentially teenagers in the sports world.
So yeah, they are capable of improvement overnight and that’s the danger and that’s the beauty and mystery of trying to handicap three-year-olds.
RANDY MOSS: And there’s more mystery to handicapping the Derby in today’s era than there used to be. Back in the day, horses had run — like in the 70s, for example, in the 1970s, the average Kentucky Derby winner was making his 15th career start. In the last two decades, the average Kentucky Derby winner was making seven career starts.
In the old days, the three-year-olds had already seen off-tracks, they had seen inside trips, outside trips, on the lead, been off the fence, they had experienced all there was to experience. These horses are still learning. It’s on-the-job training for these horses.
So it’s tougher to gauge, really, exactly how much they are going to progress when they get to the Kentucky Derby.