Wednesday, June 6, 2018
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody, welcome to our Belmont conference call where on Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern on NBC Justify looks to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown and Belmont Stakes.
Joining us on today’s call are host Mike Tirico, analysts Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey, the Hall of Fame jockey and a two-time Belmont race winner himself, race caller Larry Collmus, and our coordinating producer, Rob Hyland.
ROB HYLAND: We’re all really excited to be part of this year’s Belmont and another Triple Crown attempt. I was just doing the math. I’ve been a part of four Super Bowls, nine Olympic Games and a number of other high-profile sporting events, but to be a part of an athletic event, an historic event where it’s only happened 12 times in the history of the sport, it’s truly an honor and responsibility that none of us take lightly.
We’ve thought a lot about how we’re going to cover this Belmont Stakes. We’ve got a very good plan in place, and I’m really excited to get the show going at 4 pm Eastern on NBC on Saturday.
With that, I turn it over to the rest of the gang.
MIKE TIRICO: Hey, everybody, I’ll be quick with you. This is fun. You get to the Derby, you know you’re going to have a great show. Derby winner gets to the Preakness, and you know there is that genuine excitement, and as soon as that horse that won the Derby wins the Preakness, you know three weeks later you’ve got the potential to be involved in a piece of sports and racing history. So we’re thrilled for that.
Get a sense of the place at Belmont right away, it’s just one of those big, huge venues that is all about New York, and as a kid who grew up here, there is nothing like a big-time sports event in New York City. We’re just a part of a great weekend on NBC.
I was at the Stanley Cup Final earlier this week, and we have Game 5 tomorrow night, and a possible Game 6 on Sunday. So we could have the Stanley Cup skated on our air this weekend, Triple Crown trophy handed out this weekend, and then you have the French Open. An American woman will be in the finals, Rafa could be in the finals on the men’s side.
So it’s a phenomenal weekend. We’re all thrilled to be a part of it and looking forward to every second of it. With that, I’ll turn it over to Jerry Bailey.
JERRY BAILEY: Thanks, Mike. First of all, I’m so proud to be part of this team. I think we’ve done an outstanding job and hopefully we can carry that over again to this year’s Belmont Stakes.
This is a day that we live for as we go through Triple Crown. Hoping a horse can win the first two and get us to this point. There is a lot of buzz around here. But this is a difficult feat and hopefully we can explain to the public how hard it is for horses. For my part, especially, how hard it is for the jockeys. It’s a mile and a half track. The jockeys typically don’t ride on, hardly ever run this distance. It’s very easy to lose your sense of place as you go around the track.
So it’s not easy for a horse or a jockey. But we’re going to attempt to explain the difficulties of it and how — what Justify has to do to win.
RANDY MOSS: The sense of place Saturday will be off the charts, with the crowd just being so into it, as they always are when there is a chance for a horse to sweep the Triple Crown. It just adds a whole separate element to what we do.
The Belmont is an historic race under any circumstances, but then you factor in the situation where a horse has the chance to sweep the Triple Crown, even after American Pharoah did it in 2015, it just ramps up the interest through the general sporting public, as well as the racing industry and the hard-core racing fans.
We’ve all seen so many top-class horses come to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to pull this off, only to discover that they’re not quite top class enough.
In the case of Justify, he’s got a chance to really do something extra, extra special in joining Seattle Slew in 1977 as the only undefeated Triple Crown winner. For a horse that didn’t run at all until February of his 3-year-old season, that would be quite an accomplishment indeed.
LARRY COLLMUS: Well, I’m certainly looking forward to this chance to call another Triple Crown. It will be the second opportunity for me, and having gone through it with American Pharoah, I’ll know what the sense of place is going to be at Belmont Park that day, because it was just so electric that afternoon that you just couldn’t believe, the place was shaking, it was so, so exciting. And here we are with another chance to do it with Justify.
It’s been an interesting Triple Crown already for me. I’ve been at the Kentucky Derby in rainy conditions and over at Pimlico, and here we are, and we don’t know what the weather’s going to be yet, but there is rain in the forecast, I hear. So there is a possibility that maybe we’ll have three sloppy tracks during the Triple Crown.
But to be honest with you, for me personally, as the race caller, I’d prefer rain to sun because of the conditions at Belmont Park when they turn for home with the horses at the top of the stretch, the sun sets right behind them, and it changes the silk colors of the horses and makes it a little more difficult for me. So a little rain is okay. Although I think just clouds would be fine so we have a crowd that doesn’t get wet and maybe enjoys another piece of history.
Q. Jerry and Randy, speaking of the fact that there’s rain in the forecast for Saturday, normally that might be considered kind of a wildcard because you don’t know how the favorite’s going to react. But in this case, does Justify establish that a sloppy track is not a problem, and maybe even a positive?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt Justify, for that reason alone. The reason he’s won twice over these kind of tracks in both attempts. But also rain has a tendency to a certain extent of making Belmont’s main course a little bit faster, a little bit tighter. It’s predominantly sand, and when water gets over sand, it has a tendency to compact, making it a little faster track, which would make it a little less demanding. For a horse like Justify who is trying to do this three races in five weeks, the less demanding the track, the better. So I think it would actually probably help the favorite.
RANDY MOSS: Yeah, I do too. You pointed out it takes the wildcard out of the equation. We know from what we’ve seen already in the last five weeks Justify handles it, Bravazo handles it, and Bill Mott is very confident that Hofburg handles it, and Tenfold handled it well in the Preakness. In the Derby, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy didn’t appear to handle it as well.
So looking at past performances is all we have to go on; that seems to be what we would look for if it does come up wet again on Saturday.
Since there isn’t as big a buzz this year as there was three years ago, obviously with Pharoah it had been a long time since there was a Triple Crown winner, but what is your sense? Is there a buzz around for the Triple Crown? Is it maybe a little less than when Pharoah’s going after it?
MIKE TIRICO: I think you’re right in some regard because it felt a little bit different with Pharoah, and I’ll defer to the people who were a part of it at this level to give you a definitive answer on that. But from the outside, I do feel that. But I will say this, if it happens, it’s twice in four years, that’s one thing. But to say it’s happened twice in 40 years, which would be accurate if this happens, that’s a big deal. I can’t think of many things that happened in sports only twice in a 40-year span.
So while the recent nature of Pharoah doing it is fresh in our minds and it might not feel like that unreachable star which it tended to in the 36 years between Triple Crowns, it’s still extraordinarily rare in sport and very, very unique. I don’t think the currency of 2015 should take away from how brilliant it would be to happen in 2018. Especially considering all these guys were the experts on our air and elsewhere said the field of 3-year-olds getting to the Derby was the strongest and deepest they’ve seen in recent memory.
So I think it justifies — sorry for the pun — the interest going into this weekend for sure.
RANDY MOSS: Anyone that was here for the 2015 Belmont will never forget the level of the crowd reaction after the horse crossed the finish line. It was the Super Bowl-level roar that went on for minutes and minutes. It’s 37 years of pent-up frustration, basically, from the fans who realized they had really witnessed something historic.
We’re probably fooling ourselves if we think it will reach that level if Justify wins, but, I mean, hey, you can go back in the Google archives or any other newspaper archives to the 1970s, and what you’ll find is that after Secretariat in ’73 and Seattle Slew in ’77, there was talk about there not being as much buzz for the ’78 Belmont when you had Affirmed and Alydar, and especially the ’79 Belmont when Spectacular Bid had a chance to sweep. And we looked back at Affirmed and Alydar as one of the great Belmont Stakes of all time historically. So it’s still, obviously, as Mike said, it’s a tremendously historic moment anytime we can see it happen.
Q. A lot has changed in the 40 years since there were a string of or close to a string of Triple Crown winners. I wonder what you think the fact that newspapers, for example, don’t cover horse racing the way they used to, that other media don’t cover horse racing the way they used to, where you might have a call on every radio, news radio station sportscast, in terms of making this the cultural event that it was when you had horses like Secretariat running and Affirmed. How has the way it has been covered by other media, horse racing as a sport, affected the cultural impact of Triple Crown horse racing?
RANDY MOSS: Well, I started off in the newspaper business covering my first Kentucky Derby back in 1980. Back then I know that basically every sports journalist in the print business that was anybody was always at the Kentucky Derby, from Red Smith, Dick Young, Furman Bisher, Blackie Sherrod, Ed Pope — it’s like a who’s who, murderer’s row of newspaper sports columnists every year at the Kentucky Derby.
Now it’s not quite the same. Newspapers have scaled back their travel budgets tremendously. Horse racing isn’t as much at the forefront of the sports landscape as it was 30 or 40 years ago. So, yeah, it’s cut back on print space in the newspapers and things like that, but not as much for the Triple Crown as for your standard run-of-the-mill stakes races and big days you’ll find the rest of the year. I think you’ll see from the TV ratings and all that, especially when there is a Triple Crown on the line, that we still get a lot of interest in Thoroughbred racing over this period of time.
MIKE TIRICO: I just also would point out in that I’ve covered major golf championships, you see far fewer national columnists from newspapers around the country traveling to those events. You see everybody at the U.S. Open. You don’t see that anymore.
I’m going to bet you that most of the major dailies around the U.S. did not send a writer — or columnist, excuse me, or a writer to the NBA Finals. So I think as you guys know far better than we do, the business has changed. The one metric we have on our side of it is television ratings.
For the most part through the month of May, there are very few shows that match the Kentucky Derby for number of viewers. The Belmont ratings will go three or four times what it otherwise would have been because there is a Triple Crown on the line.
So the metric that we have on our end with viewership I think jumps out that these American Classics still retain their value. To that point, I know a heck of a lot of Kentucky Derby parties that happen every year, like at golf clubs and tennis clubs and fundraisers around the country. So there aren’t a lot of events in sports that are generating local parties around the country. It’s still a unique, special event, the day-to-day here’s the call of the 8th race at racetrack X. It doesn’t happen as much on the all news stations like you were saying 30, 40 years ago. But we’re a big-event country, and people still show up for the big events, especially on the TV side in terms of ratings.
Q. Rob, you guys used the aerial camera down the backstretch for both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Basically, my question is what should we expect this weekend production-wise since there is a Triple Crown on the line? Any new additions?
ROB HYLAND: In total we’ve added about five cameras. When the Triple Crown was on the line at Belmont, the energy to this venue is electric, and we really want to capture the sense of place. So I think the back camera will not only cover the backstretch of the race, but it will also provide dramatic reset shots of this vast facility that is Belmont.
So we have an additional RF handheld that’s just basically roaming the grounds to capture the scene. You may see it on the train platform adjacent to the venue as people get off the train to attend the race. You may see it in the paddock. But we’ve added cameras to really showcase all that goes into this day. We’ve added back Eddie Olczyk’s touchscreen technology with his betting touchscreen, so he can really explain and educate the viewers on how he’s planned specific races.
We’ll have a live pointer that tracks Justify during the race that our director will insert, if needed, but the horse will be tracked for the viewers at home watching. It will have a little arrow pointing to where he is at certain points in the race.
So we basically brought out all of the tools to showcase the Triple Crown attempt, including a number of remotes that will carry live shots from Churchill Downs in Louisville where it all began five weeks ago. There will be hundreds of people gathered around watching the race. We may have a live remote shot from a Yankees-Mets game just a few miles away. We’re working on a couple other fun ones as well, just to showcase this day and this athletic achievement, should it happen.
Q. I wanted to get the opinion of Randy and Jerry, where you all stand right now on Justify as a handicapper, and then if there’s one horse that you feel like is his biggest threat to winning on Saturday, and maybe why?
RANDY MOSS: We’ve been debating that all day.
JERRY BAILEY: Yeah, I still haven’t come to a conclusion. I think we both feel — well, I’ll speak for myself. I feel that Justify is going to have a more difficult time in the Belmont than he has in the first two. Is the tank empty? Does he have enough to finish it off? The most likely answer is it will be a challenge for him. I think the horse most likely to beat him would be Hofburg, trained by Bill Mott. He had some trouble in the Kentucky Derby and now he’s had some time off. So mile and a half suits him just fine. So those are my thoughts.
I still haven’t — honestly, I have not come to my conclusion on who I’m picking yet.
RANDY MOSS: My opinion is that in the Preakness Justify regressed by anywhere from two to four lengths from his Kentucky Derby win, despite a more advantageous pace scenario. If he runs the Preakness back again in the Belmont, he loses. So it becomes a question, as Jerry said, of how much gas he has left in the tank. Is he capable of now running for the third time in five weeks and stepping his game back up to where it was in the Kentucky Derby, or is his schedule of all of these races compressed into a short period of time going to jump up and prevent him from sweeping the Triple Crown or putting in the name of so many other great horses that tried and couldn’t get it done.
I agree with Jerry completely that Hofburg is the primary horse to look at, if not Justify. I would put Vino Rosso almost in that same category as well.
I think historically, when you’re looking for a horse to win the Belmont, you look for horses that didn’t run in the Preakness. We’ve seen the Derby to Belmont become so successful. Todd Pletcher has basically made it his personal playground, and I think those are the two you need to look at primarily, if not Justify.
Q. Larry, having had the pleasure of calling a Triple Crown winner before, is there anything you’ll take from this experience into Saturday?
LARRY COLLMUS: I think it definitely is going to help me, having done this before. The year before American Pharoah I had a chance to call California Chrome’s attempt on NBC, and that helped me a bit with American Pharoah the next year. Now having gone through the entire process and having it happen, I think that that definitely can be a benefit to me.
It’s going to be a bit of a different scenario in that it won’t be the 37-year drought between Triple Crowns and the three-year period of time since American Pharoah won. So that will make the race call itself — and of course every race is different, but it will make the race call itself different.
Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out and reacting to what does happen on the racetrack.
Q. Jerry, I hear the reference, the Belmont, the racetrack there is the Big Sandy. I’m wondering if you could speak to, as a jockey, what that does to the surface and how that plays out when you’re riding a horse?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, it’s different with different amounts of humidity, moisture, rain, lack of rain. The sandier the track, the more demanding it is, it becomes for horses with lack of moisture.
As most people know, the water trucks on any given racetrack will spread water on the track between every race. They have varying degrees and varying amounts. But with a sand-based racetrack, if it’s a windy day, if it’s a cooler, windier, drier day, it’s even more of a challenge for horses because it’s almost like running over a beach where part of the water covers the beach and part of it does not. It’s much more tiring on the top where the water has not come over than it is over the part of the beach that waters back out.
So if we were to have rain, per se, it would pack the track a little bit more and make it a lot easier for the horses to get over it and less demanding.
So the overarching view is that a sand racetrack is much better and tighter for horses when it has the proper amount of moisture. Who can be the judge of how much is proper?
Q. So would Justify benefit from this if you guys get rain?
JERRY BAILEY: Yes, he would. It makes it less demanding. The more moisture you get, the less demanding it becomes on a sand-based racetrack like Belmont Park. So, yes, it becomes easier for all of them, but especially for Justify trying to do this three races in five weeks.