DAN MASONSON: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s NBC Sports Belmont Stakes conference call. Joining us on today’s call are members of our on air team including host Tom Hammond; Hall of Fame jockey and two time Belmont winner Jerry Bailey; analyst Randy Moss; race caller Larry Collmus; Eddie Olczyk, who is in Tampa for tonight’s Stanley Cup Final Game 1; and analyst Bob Neumeier. Also with us with our coordinating producer Rob Hyland and our director Drew Esocoff. Before we get to the telecast, Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC and NBCSN has an opening comment for us.
JON MILLER: Thanks very much, and thanks to all of you for joining the call. I’m happy to announce that today the New York Racing Association and NBC Sports signed a long term agreement which will keep the Belmont on NBC Sports through the next decade. This is our 10th Belmont coming up so far, and we are excited to see this great tradition continue on NBC. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a great partnership with Chris Kay and the folks at Belmont, and the marriage and partnership will continue for many, many years to come.
This goes along with NBC Sports’ history of taking big events and making big events bigger, and along with our Kentucky Derby coverage, creates a very strong horse racing package along with the Breeders Cup. As you know, we also have the Preakness, and we’re hopeful of concluding conversations with them in the near term.
But, on behalf of NBC Sports, we’re thrilled that we’re going to be with the Belmont for many, many years to come.
DAN MASONSON: Now, we’ll get a brief comment from each member of our team. We’ll begin with our production team, Rob Hyland, the coordinating producer.
ROB HYLAND: Thanks, Dan. We’re all very excited to be a part of this event and perhaps just before 7:00 eastern we will all be part of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. This team has been here before. Jon mentioned this is our 10th Belmont. For many of us, this is our fifth Triple Crown event. The focus will be on American Pharoah, but we will make sure to tell the stories of the entire field of this year’s Belmont Stakes.
DAN MASONSON: Drew Esocoff?
DREW ESOCOFF: Thanks, Dan. On behalf of the rest of the production crew out here and an engineering crew that takes the Triple Crown very seriously and professionally, we are thrilled to have this opportunity to present an event that’s great every year, and we hope historical this year. We’re really looking forward to it, and I’ll turn it back over to you guys.
DAN MASONSON: Tom Hammond?
TOM HAMMOND: Well, this is the kind of event you get into sports television for. This is a chance to see history made, and a chance to bring the stories of all the horses and their connections to the world. I was here for the last Triple Crown that was won, 1978, and as Rob said, this is the fifth time we have had a Triple Crown on the line and have never been able to see one done.
I think the consensus of most people in racing, even those that will face American Pharoah on Saturday, feel that he’s the best horse. That’ll come down, as it always does at the Belmont Stakes, to whether or not he can handle the mile and a half, whether he can handle the configuration and composition of the Belmont park itself, and how much these five weeks of races as he’s gone for the Triple Crown have taken out of him. By all accounts he’s weathered it pretty well, kept his weight on and kept his energy up. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can pull it off, and a chance for us as a production team to bring his story to the world, if it happens, and if it doesn’t, we’ll be ready for the upset and for the story of those that will put end to the race and will have a chance to deny him history. So we’ll cover all bases we hope.
JERRY BAILEY: This is Jerry Bailey. This is like coming home for me, if you will. I rode many Belmonts as a jockey, was fortunate to win a couple, but this is my home base, and as strange and different as it is for a lot of jockeys, it was very, very comfortable to me, and in terms of broadcasting, this is my eighth Belmont I will have done. It’s interesting to see it from the other side of the fence and how difficult it has been over the years for favorites to win. We’ve seen a little bit of everything here. Certainly the longest of long shots, but so many disappointments, it would be wonderful to see it actually come true this year.
DAN MASONSON: Randy Moss?
RANDY MOSS: I started covering horse racing full time in the media the year after Affirmed in 1979, so I’ve covered either for newspapers or television all 12 of the horses since then that went up in flames trying to sweep the Triple Crown, never been around, never covered a Triple Crown winner. I’ve seen all the litany of reasons why they lost, horses that were worn out, horses that were doing poor physically like Big Brown in 2008, horses that couldn’t handle the mile and a half, horses that just got outrun in the Belmont Stakes by a horse that just ran sensationally. So it’s going to be fascinating, as always, to see if American Pharoah is going to be the exception to what’s been an unfortunate rule that we’ve seen now for the last 37 years.
DAN MASONSON: Larry?
LARRY COLLMUS: Well, this will be my fifth Belmont Stakes for NBC, and the first one as the track announcer for Belmont Park, so it’ll be a unique experience in that regard. But last year was the first time that I was involved with a Triple Crown try, with California Chrome, and although the Belmont Stakes is obviously a huge event every year, it just was a tremendous difference when a Triple Crown was on the line, and you could just sense how everybody felt leading up to that Belmont Stakes with California Chrome, and this year, of course, the same goes for American Pharoah.
To have the chance to call what could be an historical moment which hasn’t happened in 37 years is certainly something that I’m very much looking forward to and am very excited about on Saturday.
DAN MASONSON: Eddie Olczyk?
EDDIE OLCZYK: Well, hello, everybody, and from Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on primetime NBC at 8:00 eastern, I will try to keep my excitement at a low level tonight for the horse racing because I’m sure that at some point tonight we will promote our Belmont coverage this weekend on NBCSN and on NBC. It’s a grind for sure, not only to try to win the Stanley Cup but to see American Pharoah with the opportunity, and that’s exactly what it is, and we’ve been so close for so many years, and to have this opportunity and to be on this team getting ready to cover this event on Friday and Saturday is just going to be a great thrill. So, I’m looking forward to Game 1 tonight, and as long as we don’t have an over, over, overtime type of game, I will be on time and I will make all our meetings starting tomorrow and looking forward to getting up to New York and checking out hopefully horse racing history.
DAN MASONSON: Has Bob Neumeier joined?
BOB NEUMEIER: Yes, this is me. I just got through security at Logan Airport Boston, so glad to be on.
I think that just one aspect that you probably haven’t covered may be the possibility of a longshot winning this race, and history is littered with Birdstones and Da’Taras and Saravas and Lemon Drop Kids of the world, and you look at them afterwards and shake your heads and say ‘how did that happen?’ but it does. It does regularly at Belmont it seems, and I personally won’t be looking at them, but if they come in and one of the longshots came in and I speak about five or six that are in play, it wouldn’t shock me at all. That’s just the nature of horse racing, and the Belmont Stakes itself, which as we know is a unique event, mile and a half on dirt, nobody tries it, nobody does it, so if it happens, it won’t surprise any of us, will it?
DAN MASONSON: Thank you. Let’s open it up to questions, please.
- I have one quick question for Jerry and then I have a question for everybody. Jerry, what do you remember doing that helped you win a Belmont, and what do you remember you did that maybe you didn’t do the next year, kind of some dos and don’ts of getting around a mile and a half?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, I won on two distinctly different kind of horses. Empire Maker was just the best horse in 2003. That’s the key elephant for a jockey is getting on the best horse.
And he was the best, and he was going to win no matter, I think, how I rode him, even though I was up close.
Hansel, on the other hand, was maybe not the dominating horse of that year, but I tried to spread the race out early in hopes that it would take some of the finish out of Strike the Gold, and I think it probably worked. There’s different ways to win it, but the best way is on the best horse.
Now, as far as the don’ts, you cannot make a mistake in the Belmont Park when you’re judging pace. That is the most important aspect of a jockey’s job in the Belmont Stakes is to judge the pace correctly. If you do that and you have the best horse, you’re likely going to win because traffic is generally not an issue. There’s just too far to run, the horses spread out. You shouldn’t have any traffic problems at a mile and a half on the big, sweeping turns, but if you get the pace right, it sure helps. If you don’t, you’re likely to lose.
- Do you think racing moving forward will be better off with a Triple Crown winner or with the continued kind of anticipation of one? That’s kind of open.
TOM HAMMOND: Well, I’d say that, yes, racing will get a shot in the arm with a Triple Crown winner. It’ll call attention to it. The audience no doubt will be huge for this, and so it will be a shot in the arm for racing, I think, and I think it would be better than just to keep waiting, keep waiting. I know that that does have an attraction to it, but racing does have many problems, and a Triple Crown winner is not going to solve all those problems, but I think it will show people, our casual fans, how exciting the sport can be, and maybe shine a spotlight on the horses themselves and their unique personalities and the interesting things about them, and of course we know the scrutiny that the human connections get leading up to the race, and that’ll probably continue, too.
I think it would give racing a shot in the arm, but it wouldn’t be a panacea, it wouldn’t cover all the ills that beset racing at the moment.
JON MILLER: From a television perspective, obviously it’s been a great story and we’ve been able to tell that story the past couple of years with both California Chrome last year and then American Pharoah this year, but I think it just is a huge boon for the industry if you can have a Triple Crown winner to he show that it can happen. It shows the toughness and how hard it is to do it, and selfishly from a television point of view, just think how many more millions of people are going to be hanging around to watch Game 2 of the Stanley Cup game between Chicago and Tampa at 7:15. That’s a selfish television executive’s perspective.
LARRY COLLMUS: I think it would be a tremendous moment. I know every year it seems like people are so fired up about the fact that a horse is finally going to win the Triple Crown and then they all leave and say I can’t believe this, it didn’t happen again. It’s almost I’ve talked to some people outside of the racing industry who are almost sick of the fact that we keep throwing this Triple Crown chance at them and it doesn’t happen, and they’re like, well, when are you going to do it, when is a horse finally going to win the Triple Crown, so I think people are certainly ready for it, and hopefully this is the one for them.
- For any of the analysts, we saw that American Pharoah’s stud rights were sold a few months ago. Any chance any of you guys could take a guess and knowing his pedigree and the horse racer he is, what those fees might have been?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, there was an article in the Blood Horse about this. The Coolmore Breeding operation bought the rights to American Pharoah post race career, and I think that they averaged out what the stud fee would be in the range of $25,000 starting out, which is really rather low for a Triple Crown winner. But the essence of the article was he’s already garnered the lion’s share of his value by winning the Kentucky Derby. That in itself put him in the position that he is in, and a Triple Crown win in the Belmont would be advantageous, but it wouldn’t increase his stud fee substantially.
- And how about the total that Coolmore would have paid?
JERRY BAILEY: It’s unreported.
TOM HAMMOND: The number I’ve heard thrown around is $20 million. Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know, and with a cause that if he does win the Triple Crown, it might go up. But again, that’s just what I’m hearing.
- Understood. And knowing what you know about the industry, that sounds about right to you?
TOM HAMMOND: Yes.
JERRY BAILEY: I want to make a correction, in reference to the stud value of American Pharoah, I was referencing an article in Blood Horse, and the stud value is estimated to be $75,000, not $25,000 for breeding, so I just wanted to make that correction.
- Randy, last year California Chrome really had a lot of buzz, especially in southern California, and I remember you as someone on this conference call who really put things into perspective. It doesn’t happen even if the best horse is there in everybody’s opinion, there’s too many factors out there out of everybody’s hands. Having seen this situation come up so many times as you said as a reporter, do you go into this maybe trying to tamp down all the overhype about a race because of the track record and how you’ve seen it as a journalist? Can people see this almost like a Mayweather Pacquiao fight to where the hype never actually lives up to what happens?
RANDY MOSS: That’s a great question because I’ve found myself, especially this year, kind of wrestling with that in my mind. I mean, every year, every different horse is a unique type situation, so you want to try to go into each Belmont Stakes and each chance for a Triple Crown sweep looking at it just as a onetime deal. This Belmont Stakes, what’s the chance of the horse winning?
But it’s really difficult to separate the history and what’s happened in the past to horses with similar opportunities and not let that affect your mindset, because as we go into this one, I can’t say that American Pharoah is a better horse than Smarty Jones, is a better horse than Big Brown, is a substantially better horse than California Chrome, and yet those horses couldn’t pull it off.
It is a tremendous challenge. He’s got, again, some very worthy competitors in there who ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and now are fresh for the Belmont, a formula that’s worked exceptionally well in the last decade. So he’s got his work cut out for him.
BOB NEUMEIER: Just to follow up on Randy’s point, there’s an old saying in horse racing that there’s one way to win the race and 20,000 ways to lose a race, and when you go back in history, you think about great horses like Spectacular Bid, who was a cinch. He stepped on a pin. You have War Emblem, who was a cinch, who started off poorly. You have Smarty Jones, who was a cinch, and he got kind of got up in a speed duel and a jockey tiff when he was out finished. You have California Chrome, who was a cinch, who just got beat. On and on through history we can just go back to Belmont and see what can happen. On paper anyway, this is another cinch, but whether it happens or not is anybody’s question. So when you look at it, that’s basically where I stand and I look at it, and history is winning so far.
- Bob Neumeier picked 9:1 Tonalist last year to win the Belmont Stakes.
BOB NEUMEIER: I did. I’ve already spent the money, as most horse players do, but this is a little different story this year. Do you go with the favorite or do you go elsewhere, and you know, I’m a player, and I’m looking at the board, the board always tells us where to go, so I’ll make my mind up at the last minute, but I don’t see a Tonalist this year. I could go wrong and give you a Keen Ice or a longshot play. I mean, that’s come in. But I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I think American Pharoah will go to 3:5 or 4:5. That’s typically not my style. I do tend to go for longer shots. I’ve got my eye on a couple of others, Materiality for one, Frosted for another, so we’ll see what the board says and go from there.
- Rob, sort of a related question to what Tom asked. It’s evident from the opening statements that everyone on your crew is rooting for this to happen as is everybody in the audience who doesn’t have money on another horse or doesn’t own another horse. How do you balance that journalistically with everyone kind of wanting to see this happen but having to approach it where you don’t have people openly rooting for a certain horse as you’re doing the telecast.
ROB HYLAND: Yeah, no one is rooting for American Pharoah, people are rooting for a Triple Crown, and to me that’s the challenge, and I’ve challenged our entire production team as we’ve gone through the format over the last couple weeks to really make sure it is a balance to provide the viewer with the story of American Pharoah as well as the other seven horses in the race, and that is the challenge, but as you look through the format and as you watch the show on Saturday on NBC, you’ll see we weave the story lines of the entire Belmont Stakes throughout the telecast, so that is a challenge, but people tuning in will be constantly reminded of Pharoah as the audience grows throughout the afternoon.
TOM HAMMOND: Well, I think it’s only natural that you would like to be a part of history, but most of us are experienced enough to know that we have to be impartial, and I think that that’s the case. As Rob said, more rooting for the Triple Crown than rooting for the specific horse or the specific connections. I think we’re all professional enough that it doesn’t color our commentary.
- This question is for Rob and Drew. Obviously the Belmont is a bigger production with the Triple Crown on the line. What were maybe some of the lessons learned from last year’s race and is there anything you plan to do differently this time around?
DREW ESOCOFF: You know what, I think last year’s race obviously you did not have history made. You had an upset. And you know, the key was to cover both sides of the story. Our production plan, at least from the director’s standpoint going in, is pretty much the same. The challenge of doing a horse race, unlike a game of some sort, is that when you do a game you’re on script for two minutes and off script for three hours. Here you’re on script for three hours and off script for two minutes. We have the entire racetrack covered. It’s our goal in this race, other races and any other sporting event we do to have defining views of critical moments, and I think we have that all covered. We’ve added a couple of gimmick cameras that should add to the viewers’ delight of the show, and you have one of the great venues in all of sports. When Belmont is filled for a day when there’s a Triple Crown at stake, there is an electricity unlike any other sporting event with the possible exception of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
ROB HYLAND: Yeah, I echo what Drew just said. There are a few cameras we’ve added. We’ve got a pretty definitive look at the finish of the race from inside on the infield looking back at the grandstand as the horses cross the finish line. It’s a camera we had at the Kentucky Derby this year, a super slow motion camera from Sony. Enhanced coverage in the paddock, yes, but really nothing much different from last year in terms of our production philosophy and how we plan to cover the race.
- This question is for Jerry, I guess. Last year California Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn blasted the other owners because they don’t race in all three races, all the Triple Crown events, skipping the Preakness. Is that valid, and will there ever be a mandate to have horses one in all three races?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, the criticism was maybe correct in nature. There are horses that don’t race as much. There are horses that sit them out. Whether it’s fair or unfair is subjective, but all the Triple Crown winners historically have run against horses that sat out one or two of the first two races, so it’s not like California Chrome was the first horse having to face that situation.
RANDY MOSS: The comments made by Steve Coburn after the race were completely ridiculous. They had no validity whatsoever. Of all the horses that Triple Crown winners have faced in the Belmont Stakes, exactly one half of the competition had run in neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness. Certainly not both. They had not run in both the Derby and the Preakness. That criticism just doesn’t hold water.
It’s been one of the tests of horses throughout history of thoroughbred racing, the history of the Triple Crown, that they have to be able to go to the Belmont Stakes, take on all comers, including pressure horses. That’s part of the challenge. It would greatly cheapen the Triple Crown if they changed that particular rule or made a rule like Steve Coburn was suggesting.
EDDIE OLCZYK: It’s Eddie Olczyk. I think just adding to that, when you look at it, if that was the rule, you may get to this Saturday and have two or three horses running on Saturday. I don’t think any of us would want that. I don’t think the public would want that, and if that’s what would be suggested on what took place after the race next year…look, we all understand it’s an emotional time, and we understand that, but to think about it saying that, well, you have to run in all three races, at some point we’re going to have a two or three horse field, and that’s not good for the game. I don’t think it’s good for anybody. I think it’s just what Jerry and Randy have touched on, and it’s just unrealistic to think that we could get to that stage unless there was massive change going on amongst when these races are run, and I don’t see that happening, and I hope it wouldn’t, because this is so difficult to accomplish. We’ll see what happens in a couple of days.
RANDY MOSS: Coburn said that Tonalist took the coward’s way out. The coward’s way out would be to restrict the competition in the Belmont Stakes.
- One other thing real quick. Chance of rain: It looked like American Pharoah definitely benefitted from the downpour in Baltimore. Is there a chance of rain, and do you guys see that helping any horse specifically American Pharoah?
JERRY BAILEY: At this point I think there’s a 10 percent chance of rain. It’s pretty minimal. If it came up wet, it would certainly not hurt American Pharoah. He’s an excellent mudder. I can’t say that it would hurt anybody else, but he’s certainly proven in it better than anybody else in the field, but it’s a very slim chance.
- Let’s say that American Pharoah does win this weekend. Obviously the next time the horse races is going to be a pretty big event. Can you comment just on what we may see from other tracks like Monmouth or Saratoga, maybe trying to lure American Pharoah to be the horse’s next race?
JERRY BAILEY: I think logically, at least on the calendar, Monmouth Park with the Haskell would be certainly on the list of tracks that would want him to come and run. Saratoga with the Jim Dandy Travers would be another. Parks Racing with the Pennsylvania Derby would be one that traditionally tries to get Derby and Preakness winners to come. Any racetrack with a major three year old race would want to have him.
- Is it a matter of increasing appearance fees or trying to tailor the race a little bit more to make it a little more enticing for American Pharoah and his owners?
BOB NEUMEIER: I think you’d have to ask the owners.
JERRY BAILEY: That would be racetrack management and the owners of American Pharoah.
TOM HAMMOND: One would assume he’d be pointing for the Breeders Cup Classic to end the season, possibly end his career.