THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to NBC Sports Groups Breeders’ Cup conference call. NBC Sports Group will present ten hours of Breeders’ Cup World Championships coverage this week on NBC and NBCSN from Santa Anita Park, including live coverage of all 13 Breeders’ Cup World Championship races. Coverage culminates with the 33rd running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic this Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on NBC.
Joining us today our NBC Sports Group commentators, Tom Hammond, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, veteran horse racing analyst Randy Moss, contributing analysts and handicappers Bob Neumeier and Eddie Olczyk, and race caller, Larry Collmus.
TOM HAMMOND: It’s beautiful here in Southern California, and being here I can’t help but think back to 1984 and the very first Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park across town. John Gaines had envisioned a year-end championship event for thoroughbred racing, and I remember at the end of that day when it seemed that everything that could happen in horse racing did happen, John Gaines bounded down the track and gave me a big bear hug, because he knew he had come up with a winner.
In the years since then, I think it’s proven to be a championship event in all respects. This year has a chance to be one of the greatest ever, with two races that really stand out to me. There are several, but the two that really stand out to me, the Distaff, the last race on Friday, and the Classic, the $6 million race that winds up the coverage on Saturday evening. With the fields assembled for both those races and many of the other races as well, it’s a year-end worldwide championship event, and I’m really looking forward to being a part of it once again.
JERRY BAILEY: Of all my Breeders’ Cup experiences, Santa Anita stands out to me because of the shocker that I was involved in with Arcangues. As much as we seem to think that races could be predetermined by how good a certain horse may or may not be, there is always a surprise in store because of the quality and the depth of the fields.
California Chrome in the Classic and the Distaff are two awesome races. It almost seems like Chrome is unbeatable in the Classic, but as we’ve seen time and time again, there are some surprises around the corner, and certainly this Breeders’ Cup may be no different.
RANDY MOSS: There are so many different reasons to be excited every year about the Breeders’ Cup. I’ll save the gambling aspect of it for Bob Neumeier and Eddie Olczyk. The opportunity to see California Chrome again run in his second Breeders’ Cup Classic is really appealing. This is a horse that we all fell in love with in 2014 when he nearly swept the Triple Crown. It’s unusual to have a horse of his stature still racing. If he had had a better pedigree, if he wasn’t such a blue-collar type of horse, he probably would have already been retired to stud. But, we are all winners in the fact that he’s still racing, and it’s going to be a blast to see him run again.
There is also the Distaff. In my opinion, that is the most attractive race of all the Breeders’ Cup Races. It’s a shame, almost, that it’s on Friday instead of Saturday right before the Classic. I understand why – they want to make Friday as big as possible. With Songbird, Beholder, and Stellar Wind all running in the Distaff, it’s going to be an amazing race – I can’t wait to see what happens in that race Friday.
BOB NEUMEIER: Like Tom Hammond, I was part of that first Breeders’ Cup, this time as a fan in the mid ’80s at Hollywood Park. I somehow weaseled my way to getting on air in 1990 with the Breeders’ Cup. That was the year at Belmont Park where Go For Wand and Bayakoa hooked up, and marred the tragic ending to Go For Wand’s life. Since then, I’ve been part of the NBC team, and as far as the Breeders’ Cup is concerned, lucky enough to be there.
This year, I was asked a question by producer Billy Matthews about who is my most likely winner of the event. I thought about it, and I thought about California Chrome, and then I said, well, what about Arrogate? And then I thought about Lady Eli, and then I thought about Songbird, and I think about Beholder, and Stellar Wind. So bottom line, I can’t really give him a definitive answer as to who is the most likely winner of the day. And I know that sounds like a wuss, and maybe that’s what I am.
I think the bottom line is that the story line should be, yes, these are classic horses. These are championship horses. But in almost every division there is a part A and part B. So who decides? Well, let’s flip a coin and see what happens.
EDDIE OLCZYK: It’s great to be a part of the best horse racing team that there is. This is just a huge day for all of us. A huge couple of days, I should say. But the preparation starts way before Friday and Saturday.
The depth of the field, I think as a handicapper, is something that you dream about on a daily basis when you play the horses. When you have depth, and you have talent – how will the race break, how do you see it playing out? It’s up to you as a horse player or handicapper, or somebody that’s got to put their neck on the line, step up and step out and say who you like.
I think there’s lots of value in lots of races. I might be on the side of the fence where I think it’s going to be a little bit more chalky than we’ve seen in the past, but you’re always going to have our comps from Jerry Bailey and have horses step up pay $30.
One thing I’d like to say for people who want get their feet wet and want to handicap and play, you don’t really have to invest a lot to make a boat load at Breeders’ Cup. That’s something I know. My wing man here, Bob Neumeier has been doing it for many years. We’re looking forward to hopefully giving a few winners out on Friday and on Saturday.
LARRY COLLMUS: I’m excited – this will be my fifth Breeders’ Cup calling for NBC. At the last one we got to see the spectacular performance by American Pharoah of finishing out his grand slam after winning the Triple Crown. This year, there are so many races to look forward to. I think the Distaff is the most exciting race. The end of the day on Friday when this undefeated Songbird, who has just been completely spectacular, gets to take on Beholder and Stellar Wind who are older and more experienced than she is – you have no idea what’s going to end up happening in this race. As a race caller, that is going to make it the most exciting thing.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have California Chrome looking to be the richest horse in the world. Obviously, a horse that everybody knows because he won the Kentucky Derby, and that could be more of a crowning achievement. Yet, there are other horses in there that have a chance. There will be plenty of champions crowned and plenty of exciting races to call. There’s just nothing quite like the Breeders’ Cup. It’s an honor for me to be able to call these races for NBC.
Q. Nyquist, that’s kind of a bit of a drag that we won’t see that horse this weekend…Bob Baffert has two horses in the Classic. How does that work with a trainer when he has two horses in the same race on such a big stage?
JERRY BAILEY: Regarding Bob Baffert and two horses, trainers shuffle and balance multiple owners all the time. When you’re lucky enough to have two great horses heading into the end of the year on the biggest races on the biggest stage, you can’t say no to both owners, so you say yes to both owners. I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest by any means. I don’t think horses will get in the way of each other. He just has two quality horses in the same race.
I don’t think it’s odd or different in too many ways.
TOM HAMMOND: It’s a juggling act, but Baffert is used to that, and he can do it easily enough.
As far as Nyquist is concerned, he hasn’t won a race since the Kentucky Derby, and while we’ll miss him, and while Doug O’Neill was saying he was primed for a big effort, certainly his health will be paramount. The puffiness on the ankle will keep him out and now retired to stud. We’ll miss him. He was a champion, after all, last year, and he was the Derby winner. But I think the quality of the field still shines through.
Q. Eddie, this is your third Breeders’ Cup. Your first Derby kicked off with American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run. Can you talk about what your experience has been like working on these races?
EDDIE OLCZYK: For me it’s just been a complete honor and privilege to be a part of, as I said earlier, this family and this horse racing team. Just trying to work my way into a role. It’s just been great. I’ve been a horse player and a horse owner and a horse lover for many years, and to get the opportunity to be here and be on the biggest stage, whether it was at the Derby or working the Travers or the Woodward and now being here at the Breeders Cup, it’s a great thrill.
There are always new things that come about over the course of any horse race, let alone covering 13 races in two days. But it’s something that is very important to me, and I try to pick winners for my role and hopefully make people a little bit of money.
But it’s just been something that I’ve hoped for for a long time, and I’m thankful that Sam Flood and Rob Hyland and Billy Matthews trusted to give me a chance a couple years ago. I don’t take it for granted. I’m just proud to be here and looking forward to this weekend.
Q. Larry, can you describe what calling horse racing has been for you in the past years? Some historic races over these last few years. Also, do you have any specific calls in mind if Chrome wins it on Saturday?
LARRY COLLMUS: Well, first part, I mean, I’ve been calling races since I was 18 years old, so it’s pretty much all I’ve ever done, but certainly in the last several years things have ramped up as far as me getting a chance to call some really great races. I don’t think anything really at this point could compare to calling American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown at Belmont Park. That was the most exciting moment for me, followed most likely by his win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year.
As far as this year, of course I’ve got a few things that I’m working on that you try to keep in the back of your mind if a situation comes up that you might want to save. But, the good thing about horse racing is you don’t know what’s going to happen until it actually happens.
So you do want to plan for certain things, what lines might sound good, but at the same time, there is nothing quite like a really great horse race that just develops and off the cuff whatever comes out of your mouth works with it. So hopefully we’ll see a little of both.
Q. Victor Espinoza is a Triple Crown winner with American Pharoah, and he could also win his second Breeders’ Cup with Chrome. Do you see this as a redemption with him and this horse?
JERRY BAILEY: With Chrome, I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s any redemption left for Victor. After you win a Triple Crown as a jockey, I don’t think there is, followed up by the Classic, I don’t think there is that much left to do or that much he feels he has to do. But it’s America’s richest race, so I’m certain that’s enough motivation for Victor without any other things coming into play.
Q. California Chrome could have more career earnings than any horse in history in Thoroughbred racing history. Could you compare his rags to riches story to American Pharoah’s incredible run last year?
TOM HAMMOND: Certainly he’s breaking new ground. He’s already North America’s leading money winner, and if all goes well, counting bonuses and counting the new Pegasus $12 million race in January, he could wind up with something around $24 million in earnings. Nobody’s ever even conceived that that would be possible.
He does have humble beginnings. His pedigree is looking better and better all the time. Every time he wins another race, his pedigree looks better. The people at Taylor Made in Kentucky thought he had enough pedigree.
American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown and adding the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I think, is a category that stands all by itself. It’s something we may never see again. We went 37 years without a Triple Crown winner, so I don’t think that’s outlandish to say we may never see that again.
But it was such an exciting moment, both when he won the Triple Crown with deafening noise at Belmont Park, then when he crossed the finish line at Keeneland first to win the Classic, the three wizened old commentators sitting there, Randy Moss, Jerry Bailey and myself, I look around and we all had tears in our eyes. That’s the kind of feeling he produced in us, and I think in everybody that witnessed the race.
Q. Billy, it’s a daunting task you and Jack Felling will be producing these two days of racing. So tell us about your approach?
BILLY MATTHEWS: Well, my approach is, this is pretty much the most difficult show I produce at NBC. I work with Eddie on the NHL, I do anything from figure skating with Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to anything along the lines that comes down. This championship race, and the toughest thing is every piece of information – you can’t reuse it. If you’re doing the Distaff, all that information and research and hours only plays into the Distaff. And when the Distaff is done, it’s like an Etch-a-Sketch, you shake it up, throw it out and move on to the next race. Nothing is reusable, which people probably at home don’t realize the amount of research that goes into knowing a nugget and information on at least 12 to 15 horses or 12 horses on average per race for two days. That’s the toughest thing.
Where you can prepare everybody knows about American Pharoah or everybody knows about Bob Baffert, but it’s the other stories that we have to uncover over the two days, and that’s the daunting task that I’m always looking forward to.
TOM HAMMOND: It’s interesting to think back to 1984 and at NBC, commentators and executives alike were worried about how we were going to fill that time with these races that last a couple minutes. What we found out that day and we have every year since, is you only have time to briefly digest what’s been a great, wonderful performance, and suddenly it’s time for another race to come up. It’s that hectic. You’re just an embarrassment of riches from one great race to the next. Having time, really, to switch gears and get ready for the next great performance.
So that’s the beautiful thing about the Breeders’ Cup. You’re going to see an afternoon of racing unlike any other.
BOB NEUMEIER: For those of you that write and report, there are a million stories on the racetrack to talk about, and many of them are interesting to chat about and write about. But there is one that really stands out, and that is a life or death experience involving a mare named Lady Eli. She was near death, has been a champion, and had a severe case of laminitis, which for a horse is almost a death sentence. She’s recovered not only to be alive, but to be in position to win a Breeders’ Cup Race, which is the creme de la creme of the world. When you’re talking about stories and you’re talking about life and death, and you’re talking about winners and losers, the story and comeback of Lady Eli to me is amazing.
I know that a lot of people will be rooting for her and we’ll see how she does. When you talk about life or death, it’s pretty amazing that she’d be in position to win a Breeders’ Cup Race.