THE MODERATOR: Joining us on today’s call, NBC Sports commentator Tom Hammond; analyst Randy Moss; Hall of Fame jockey and two time Derby winner Jerry Bailey; analyst and Morning Line setter, Mike Battaglia; analyst Eddie Olczyk; race caller Larry Collmus; and our coordinating producer, Rob Hyland.
We’ll have a quick comment from each, and take questions.
ROB HYLAND: Thanks. I always start off with sort of an overview of the race. But for me, the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate bucket list sporting event, and our job over the next few days is to showcase all that makes this day and this event so special.
Our telecast will be a blend of sports and entertainment, but we’ll educate and inform the viewers on all of the major story lines of this year’s race.
As Dan said, our coverage begins today starting at 5:30 with the draw. We’ll begin our 15.5 hours of coverage, with 15 announcers. More than 50 cameras all set out to cover the near 140 acres of Churchill Downs.
TOM HAMMOND: As everyone knows, we look forward to this event every year. The Derby is one of the highlights of the sporting year for us, and we consider it one of the truly great sporting events of America.
And when I say “events,” it is all that encompasses the Kentucky Derby the food, the fashion, the celebrities, and of course the race itself.
All of us are more excited this year than normal because this has the potential of being one of the great Derbies of all time. I don’t think anybody here would argue with this. I don’t remember a field as deep in talent as it is this year. There are eight to nine horses in there that wouldn’t shock us if they were to win the race. And Bob Baffert, the trainer of the two favorites, has a powerful one two punch in American Pharoah, the favorite, and Dortmund, the second choice. I assume that’s the way Mike will make them.
And it’s probably the most powerful one-two punch that a trainer has had in 50 years or so, it is that good. But they’re no shoo-in, for sure. Todd Pletcher who has tried 40 times to win the Derby; has won it only once. He’s attacking with four horses in this year’s Derby.
And there are lots of good stories to go around. Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah, the favorite, has tried to win this Derby since he’s been in the racing game. And he’s finished second three times. The worst possible outcome, really. So he’s coming with three horses in this race to try to win it, including the favorite, American Pharoah.
So the overview is lots of great stories as always, and a Derby field that’s probably unlike any we’ve seen in recent years.
RANDY MOSS: A lot of times you get to the Kentucky Derby and you figure eight or nine horses have a solid chance to win, it’s because the field is not that accomplished. Maybe even a little mediocre, and no horse has been good enough to really separate himself from the pack.
This year we get here and with eight or nine horses that have a solid chance to win, it’s because they’re all accomplished. They’re all very consistent. It is, as Tom said, in my opinion as well, the deepest field of talented three year olds that we’ve seen at the Kentucky Derby in a long, long time. And because of that, I’m more excited to do this Kentucky Derby than I can remember ever being coming here.
JERRY BAILEY: To take off on what Randy said, some of those horses include the undefeated Dortmund, a pretty spectacular horse. And I think the horse that’s taken the breath of so many away is American Pharoah. He’s lost once, but he’s been spectacular of late. That would give jockey Victor Espinoza a chance to win back to back Derbies.
You also have Gary Stevens, another Derby after the comeback after another knee replacement. So the story lines are full. The horses and the humans are certainly special again this year, and I look forward to it.
MIKE BATTAGLIA: Well, we’ve all talked about how deep this field is, how good this field is. I’ve been doing this a long time. I cannot remember a Derby going in that I thought was as tough as this one is this year.
We talked about eight or nine. Just look at the top four horses in here. If you look at American Pharoah and Dortmund, and Carpe Diem and Materiality, they’ve started in their careers 19 times combined. They’ve won 17 of those races with one second.
If you look at what they’ve done as three year olds with the four of them combined have run ten times as three year olds, none of them have lost. I can’t remember when we had a race where three year olds were coming into this race undefeated like this. And I have Materiality at like 12-1. I don’t know how I can have him that high.
The top four, to me, are just outstanding. You talked about some of the others. If you like those, you’ve got to like Firing Line, who is right behind Dortmund in two of his races. It’s just an excellent field.
LARRY COLLMUS: Yeah, and this will be number five for me among the Kentucky Derbies since I’ve joined the crew here. I agree with what everyone said about the depth of the field. And that really comes into play with the race call, too, because not only do you have so many very good horses in the race, but a lot of those horses have an early speed front running style, so you really have to pay attention to how fast the race is going to be running, because there might be a big surprise when all of these horses go out there, and here comes somebody from far behind.
So, you have to be prepared for not only those top nine or ten favorites, but the other nine or ten have to be considered as well if the pace is really fast in the race.
Calling the Kentucky Derby, of course, is the biggest thrill there is, and I think this year is the most exciting one yet.
THE MODERATOR: The newest member of our team, Eddie Olczyk.
EDDIE OLCZYK: I’m just thrilled to be part of this team on this stage. I’ve been watching the Derby my whole life. Was only here once as a fan before when the No. 16 horse, Animal Kingdom, won the Derby a few years ago. I happened to have an off weekend, and thanks to the teams that swept that weekend, it sort of gave me the free weekend to get to the Derby.
But to be here on this team on this stage, I’m honored to be here. Looking forward to the field, as Randy and Mike mentioned. But for me looking at it, I think there is plenty of value. As a guy that loves to play the horses on a daily basis, but on a day like the Derby, the pools will be massive; that if you can split a couple of the favorites, you’ve got a chance to make some serious money.
That is my angle and my role on this show. I’m proud to be part of the NBC racing team.
Rob, you mentioned those 50 cameras that you’ll be using. How many of those are specialty cameras or unique vantage points? And specifically, how do you plan to use 4K this year?
ROB HYLAND: I’d have to go through the specific numbers, but 4K I’ll address first. 4K will be a play-by-play angle of the race that will be recorded into a Dreamcatcher system at a higher frame rate. We can analyze the start of the race, the horses going into Turn 1, the horses going into Turn 2, and the finish of the race. So, key moments in the race will be captured on this 4K camera.
We have an ultra-slow motion camera that we’ve added to the tote board at the finish line, a reverse finish angle that we’ve never had before in the Kentucky Derby. We’ve added an Akela Crane, which is essentially an 86 foot jib, in Turn 1. We’ve also added a camera in the video board structure, a hard camera, about 80 feet suspended in the air.
So now, for the first time, we have camera angles elevated, unobstructed at every position of the racetrack. We always love the blimp angle. There are years where the blimp may not be around due to weather. It looks like, knock on wood, we won’t have that issue this year.
But our director and I looked at the Derby after last year’s race and said what can we do to make sure that the race is covered from every angle unobstructed.
As you know, the infield at Churchill Downs is covered with thousands of people and tents and structures. This ensures that the viewing audience will have an unobstructed look at every point during the race.
Are there any changes to your production tools, specifically your on air look? And how do you plan to balance those with telling the story of the Derby?
ROB HYLAND: Yeah, our graphic presentation has changed a little. One thing I’ve really tried to do over the past year is to give the viewers a better sense of place, how this day actually works.
Like I said before, it’s 140 acres. It’s not a 100 yard football field. So Mike Battaglia may be at Barn 40, and Eddie Olczyk may be in the paddock or on the fifth floor balcony.
So, we’ve added graphic transitions that our technical director will trigger to visually orientate the viewers as to where we’re going, always passing through the Twin Spires on our way to the next destination. We won’t use those every time we go from reporter to reporter, but at the top of every hour, we’ll reorientate the viewers as to where our announcers are.
Mike, just talk a little about setting the Morning Line this weekend, especially what goes into that with all you’ve alluded to with how many horses can really win this race and how many great horses there are?
MIKE BATTAGLIA: I thought after I watched Dortmund win the Santa Anita Derby, I thought I saw the Derby favorite. I said this horse is going to be the favorite. Then I saw American Pharoah in Arkansas, and like so many other people, I was blown away. So I thought well, this is going to be close. Very close.
I still think it’s going to be close, but all the hype, really, the hot horse here at Churchill Downs has been American Pharoah. His work, I saw his work the other day, and worked in 58 and change, and didn’t even look like he was moving. I couldn’t believe he was going that fast.
So I think it came down to a pretty easy decision to make him the favorite over Dortmund. And after that, you have the couple of horses from the Pletcher barn, both of them like 8, 10, maybe 12 1 in there.
It was not a real hard line to make, I guess, after I sat down and watched.
Now, that being said, if American Pharoah were to draw the 1 hole, I would probably switch the favorite, because that 1 post has been depth. So I would probably make Dortmund the favorite, switch it, if he draws the 1 hole. But if not, we’ll keep it the way it is.
This is for all the on air guys. How do the races earlier in the day help you kind of lead into the big race of the day, the Derby?
RANDY MOSS: The undercard – that’s kind of what they call like a day of boxing or night of boxing – undercard races. Over the years on Kentucky Derby Weekend, Oaks Day Friday, Derby Day Saturday, the quality of the Stakes races has gotten better and better and better. It used to be you only had to go back 20 years or so, and the earlier races were primarily an afterthought. There were one or two lower level Stakes races. Nothing really major.
Now you get some of the best horses in America running in the supporting races. For example, Saturday before the Kentucky Derby we’ve got a horse named Bayern running in the Churchill Downs Stakes. He won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year.
It’s sensational. It helps us as an a announcing team – I think it helps us to sort of warm up, just sort of kind of get into a rhythm of watching the races and commenting on them, and seeing how the track is playing, which is always pretty big going into the Kentucky Derby. So that is the way I look at it. Jerry?
JERRY BAILEY: Yeah, I think dovetailing off what Randy says, the biggest thing for me as a jockey, what I used to do sitting in the jock room watching races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, was to see if the inside part of the racetrack was better than the outside, if Steve was holding better and then come from behind, any biases, as Randy said, that were developing throughout the day. It’s very important to watch that.
Typically racetracks across America will be a little speedier on big race days than normal days. As a jockey and as an analyst now, I’d like to see if that’s actually playing out.
RANDY MOSS: And if we’re going to screw up, we’d rather screw up on one of the undercard races and get that out of our system before the Kentucky Derby.
TOM HAMMOND: I agree with everything they said. It does help us warm up. Gets us into the rhythm. I think it is important for us to note as well as the jockeys, if there is a track bias that’s developed during the day, so we can figure that in to our commentary and let the fans know that this track is playing for the inside speed today more so than usual, and that may affect the outcome of the race.
JERRY BAILEY: What’s interesting this year is our set is in a new location on the first turn, and that affords us actually the opportunity to talk to jockeys after races on the undercard. They pull up, stop their horse, they come back.
I’ll actually have a conversation occasionally with jockeys to answer questions I might have about the condition of the racetrack, and if they feel there are any biases as well. So the new location of the set affords us kind of a unique opportunity.
EDDIE OLCZYK: I think from what Tom and Randy and Jerry have said, I think when you look at the buildup to the big day, and let’s not forget Friday and Ladies Day in the Oaks, that race is going to be a phenomenal race with lots of value there.
But I think looking at it and seeing maybe how a track plays one day compared to the next day, and you have the Oaks and Derby Double, so those are things that you take into consideration.
But for me, somebody watching the races and what’s happened here over the first couple of days at Churchill is to see where the riders are trying to get on the track. As Jerry mentioned, is it better to be inside or outside? And then use that knowledge that you have, and you have to apply it into how you’re going to play that specific race.
But that lead up to the race that Randy touched on perfectly -I mean, these races are incredible. When you can have a horse that won the Breeders’ Cup Classic running a much shorter distance than last year on the so called undercard of the Kentucky Derby, that is saying something. And it’s great to have a horse like that on Derby Day.
LARRY COLLMUS: For me in particular it’s good to have these races, and I’ll be doing a few of them before the Derby. I’m actually calling four races on Thursday during our show and on Friday as well. It gives me a chance to see all of these races from the vantage point where I’ll be calling the Kentucky Derby, which is really important.
Because normally you’re calling at all these different racetracks. You don’t have that particular same vantage point as you’ll have on the first Saturday in May when the horses leave the gate for the Kentucky Derby. So the more races I get to call from that booth, the better for me.
Like these guys said, there are some really, really exciting races, so at the same time, I have to save my voice a little bit, please.
MIKE BATTAGLIA: Yeah, they’re great races on their own. I just enjoy watching them. I like to see races like this, whether on Derby Day, Oaks Day, any time. Plus you can make a pick three and pick fours. It’s just a great supporting card, and I just love the great races.
Just wanted to follow up. You talked about how deep this group of horses is. Any long shots or value plays you see out there as well?
EDDIE OLCZYK: I think for me, I think you zero in on a couple of horses, and I think until we see where these horses draw, exactly the positioning as they exit the gate – and Jerry would probably be better able to elaborate on this – I mean, there is a lot of speed in this race. Now, how is that going to equate to times? We’ll find out.
But if you can find a jock that has great hands and be able to stick handle and make his run as we’ve in the past over the last couple years, there is an opportunity for some horses that have some incredible kick down the Lane. You’ve got to get lucky, and you’ve got to be able to maneuver out of traffic.
But I think until the line is set by Mike and we see where horses are, I think you’ll have to tune in Friday and Saturday to figure out where we’re going for a long shot. Because I like a long shot, that’s for sure.
LARRY COLLMUS: How many times have we seen horses come from way behind to finish second in the Kentucky Derby like Commanding Curve last year or huge long shots? The way this race sets up, you could see one of those big favorites go on and win the Derby, and then three long bombs that are 80 1 run second, third and fourth. It’s really a possibility the way this race looks on paper.
MIKE BATTAGLIA: It’s happened the last couple of years, as a matter of fact. And it could definitely happen. If Espinoza moves on American Pharoah and then Martin Garcia decides to go with him, and then a couple of them and Velazquez sees them, can’t let them get too far in front of Carpe Diem. A couple of them could just chuck it in that last quarter mile because they haven’t gone a mile and a quarter, and a mile and a quarter is the great equalizer.
RANDY MOSS: The way the parimutuel system works, the odds are calculated based on the percentage that each horse has of the overall amount of money waged. When you have a 20 horse field, and you have so many accomplished horses, the money gets spread out, so the odds on all the individual horses go up.
So you’re going to have a horse like Upstart, who was second in the Florida Derby and has run well all year long, he could be 20 1 and in that vicinity. Firing Line was beaten twice in photo finishes, and then Gary Stevens might be 15 1. International Star is 3 for 3 at the Fair Grounds this year. He’s got more points than any horse in the field. He could be 20 to 25 1.
So the prices are going to be fantastic if you’re trying to beat the favorites.
Jerry, I was wondering what your take was on Frosted?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, I think Frosted who looked like a winner at the top of the stretch in the Fountain of Youth and faded very quickly, actually. The training job that his trainer did on him from the Fountain of Youth to the Wood Memorial was amazing. He won the Wood Memorial.
But the things that were changed, he changed tracks obviously, he changed jockeys, he adjusted the blinkers. He did a throat surgery on the horse. All those things combined produced a pretty impressive win with a pretty fast speed number for Frosted.
Now with him changing styles and coming from almost last that day, and if the pace does set up fast in the Derby, he’s got a good chance if he can get some kind of a trip that he’s not losing a lot of ground.
I personally think he’ll have to run even better than that. If he can do that, he’ll be competitive.