THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s Kentucky Derby conference call. As a reminder, the coverage is highlighted by the 144th Kentucky Derby this Saturday, May 5th at 2:30 p.m. eastern on NBC for a record five-hour show, part of three days of coverage which kicks off tomorrow, Thursday, on NBCSN. With that we’ll take an opening comment from each participant and then we will take your questions. Rob, lead us off.
ROB HYLAND: Thanks, Dan. I kind of sound like a broken record every year we do this call. 17 years ago, I was part of our first Kentucky Derby on NBC, and I was talking to Mike Tirico about this earlier today. It was a 90-minute show with a couple features, a couple reporters, a couple interviews and a race. This year with a team of 15 announcers, a production staff of nearly 300 men and women, we’re on the air for, as Dan just noted, three days, culminating with the five hours on NBC on Saturday. It’s safe to say we’ve come a very long way. We’ve got a very good plan in place for this year’s Kentucky Derby, and I’m excited to kick things off this weekend.
MIKE TIRICO: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Biggest day in horse racing and the biggest show in horse racing. This is a very unique experience. It’s the Super Bowl pregame show wrapped around five horse races, which includes the biggest race of the year. So it’s worthy of the time, the attention, and last year was my first, and I benefit every second that I’m around our incredible team of folks who cover the races day in, day out, week in, week out, and continue to enjoy being around not just these folks but the people of horse racing. It’s a great opportunity to tell some stories about the sport, about the people who make the sport so vibrant, and so enjoy really one of those bucket list American sports events.
I’ll share this: A lot of folks have asked me, wow, you did the Derby; it must be fun. I said, I don’t know how fun it is because we’re on the air for about five hours, but I know everyone around us is having a great time, and there aren’t many places you go that you can say that. Honored to be back, and look forward to the rest of this week here in Louisville.
JERRY BAILEY: This will be, I think I was counting, Derby No. 33 for me in attendance, and as I was looking over the field, up until yesterday, it dawned on me that I think this is the best top-to-bottom Kentucky Derby field that I have ever seen. I mean, America loves excellence and perfection in sports. You have a horse in Justify that’s undefeated, so we don’t know what his potential is. You have an international horse, Mendelssohn, coming from Europe. So it’s got a little bit of everything. But as I counted, at least eight or nine horses could win, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Very, very deep field.
RANDY MOSS: Yeah, piggy-backing on what Jerry said, a very deep field, but a very, very fast field, as well. A lot of times when we say the Derby is competitive, it’s competitive because none of the horses have really separated themselves by running really fast races. They’re all just sort of fair to middling. This year there’s a lot of really good horses, and there’s also good story lines. Justify has looked like he could be any kind of horse, but yet he’s only run three times. It’s been a century and a quarter since a horse won the Kentucky Derby that didn’t run at all as a two year old, so he’s got a lot of history to buck.
And then of course the horse that Jerry mentioned, Mendelssohn, coming over from Ireland, arguably if you took an international poll, the best trainer in the world in Aidan O’Brien, the best jockey in the world in Ryan Moore, trying to win the Kentucky Derby for the very first time. They dominated European racing in England and Ireland specifically. And they’ve won Breeders’ Cup races over here on the grass, but they’ve never come close to winning the Kentucky Derby, so that’s another cool story line.
EDDIE OLCZYK: Good afternoon. As a handicapper in this race, and Jerry and Randy touching on it, there is a lot of value in this race, and that’s something as a horse player and somebody looking to make some money on Saturday at our biggest event, even if the favorite wins or hits the board, still there’s going to be great opportunity because it is such a wide-open race, it’s just a matter of coming up with the right combinations to be able to go ahead and put some extra money in your pocket, and that’s one thing as a handicapper you look at. You look at the full field and you try to break it down and come up with different combinations. So from that point of view, we’ll have lots of opportunity. I don’t think you’re going to have to invest a whole heck of a lot in order to be able to have a real successful day.
It’s great to be back on this team. We have incredible leadership with Rob Hyland. It is great to be a part of this team, as I’ve been here the last couple of years, and on a personal note, I would like to just say that this has been the best medicine I’ve had in a long time getting back to hockey and horse racing after my battle with stage 3 colon cancer, and this was one of the target dates I put on my calendar back in early September, that I was going to do everything in my power to be back and be part of our horse racing family, and I’d just like to thank them for all their support over the course of the last seven months.
When I talked to Rob back in September, I promised him that I would be back here for the first Saturday in May, and I was up for that promise, and I’m looking forward to my part, and it’ll be a real special day on Saturday.
LARRY COLLMUS: Hard to believe it was about seven years ago I got a phone call very unexpectedly from NBC Sports asking me if I’d be interested in calling the most famous horse race in the world back in 2011, so this will be my eighth Kentucky Derby for NBC Sports. It doesn’t feel like it, and I’ll tell you what, it never gets old, and it never gets easier. Every year it is the most challenging horse race there is to call for me because not only are there 20 horses, but you also are calling a race with just incredible magnitude.
We’re going to add a little something to make it a little bit tougher for me this year. Justify, who is the morning line favorite, will be one of three horses in the race that will be wearing the exact same jockey silks. They’re all owned by WinStar Farm, and that’s how I can identify the horses the easiest, so you throw all three of those into the mix together, and that’s going to make things even more of a fun challenge.
Everything will be fine, but we’re looking forward to Saturday more than anything, and we’ll bring on those three WinStar silks and the 17 other ones, too.
Q. This is a question for Jerry Bailey. Jerry, just as somebody who was considered maybe the best jockey in the sport for a long time, I was wondering if you could put into context Mike Smith, the level that he’s been riding at the last few years, and is there any particular ride or two that sticks out in your mind from him that kind of go down as among the best you’ve seen?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, it’s not that abnormal to see a jockey dominate big races like Mike Smith has for a period of three, four, five years, sometimes longer. But the fact that he’s done it in his last three, four, five years, the tail end of his career, he’s 52 this year, and that’s the strange part is that when most guys are getting ready to retire — I retired at 48. He has been completely dominant in the major races now consistently for at least four years, maybe five. They call him “Big Money Mike” because that’s when he shows up. He picks his mounts very carefully, but he’s typically very effective in the biggest races that we have. And I would say one of the races that interested me a lot was last year in the Dubai World Cup when Arrogate got away from the gate very poorly. Of course he’s a great horse, but Mike gave him every chance, just picking up pieces a little at a time, not asking for too much at any stage too early in the race and was able to get the job done.
Big effort by the horse, but also a very smart ride considering what happened at the start.
I know Bob Baffert sleeps a lot better with him in the saddle.
Q. Jerry, this is such a deep field; if you had a choice, which horse would you ride?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, since I’ve been on record, I truly believe that Justify has been the fastest horse in the field, and he definitely makes a jockey’s job a lot easier. He’s got great speed, doesn’t have to be on a lead, very tactical, and after talking with Mike Smith, it’s apparent that he has a lot of different gears, which makes it easier for a jockey to place him, let him idle, ask him again multiple times throughout any race. It would have to be Justify just because of the tools in his toolbox that I just mentioned and his versatility and adaptability.
Q. Does he remind you of any other horse?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, I’ll let you know after Saturday. There’s a lot of horses that come in here with big reputations, but he seems to have the right guy training him, so that moves him up another peg. You’ve got a lot of upside.
Q. Eddie, such a deep field; what longshots are you looking at to give you some value?
EDDIE OLCZYK: I think first off is looking at how the track is going to be playing on Saturday, so meaning in layman’s terms, are horses more apt to be closer to the lead or speed favoring type of horses, or sometimes horses have a really quick — sometimes on the day of the track where horses that are really quick, they can’t win on the front end, and a horse is coming from the back, so I’m not trying to avoid your question, but it depends on how the track is playing for maybe some of those longshots. Justify will be the favorite, and trying to figure out: is that going to be 5:2, is that going to be 2:1, and where is the rest of the money going to go, you could have maybe the sixth or seventh choice be somewhere in that 12 or 15:1 range, and we have a 20-horse field.
I think one horse would be My Boy Jack because he just always fights so hard to be able to pick up the pieces and get a piece of it. So that will be one horse that I’ll use that will probably have a pretty good chance at being somewhere in that 15 to 20:1 range, maybe even more than that.
Q. Are you intending to key Justify, or are you leaning towards one of the others?
EDDIE OLCZYK: You’re going to have to check back with me on Saturday night, but I am going to use Justify; there’s no doubt about it. Bob Baffert has been talking about this horse for a period of time. He looks like — I respect Jerry and Randy’s eye of horses way better than mine, but he just seems like he’s a man amongst freshman and sophomores in college. He just seems like he towers over everybody, has a great confidence about him, and I think there is something to that, and I think the psychological effort, Bob Baffert has talked a lot about it, I had a conversation with him while we were at the Santa Anita Derby about a month ago just talking about his mindset, and I think there is something to that because none of these horses are going to have a situation like they’re going to face on Saturday with the pre-race thing of 160,000 people and all the people in the paddock, so you have to be strong mentally, you can’t get all wound up because you don’t want to lose your race in the paddock.
Q. Rob, for the first time you guys will be debuting an aerial camera over the backstretch. Could you go into a little bit more detail on this camera and the decision to debut it and let us know what you really hope it will add to the production?
ROB HYLAND: Sure. I think as TV sports have evolved, every production team at any network is always searching to bring the viewer at home closer to the action. For example, in football, inside the huddle, and I think Sky Cam has really changed the game of American football and the way it’s presented, and I’ve constantly been in search to bring the viewers that watch our horse racing coverage closer to the action to help them appreciate how fast the horses are going, the decisions being made by the jockeys, and at most major races, at least the classics, with the exception of Belmont, I guess I’m pretty much singling out the Derby and the Preakness, the infield is a scene filled with thousands and thousands of people, with tents and parties going on, and our main play-by-play camera at times is as far as a half mile away from the horses.
Now, our director, Drew Esocoff, does an incredible job with the 50-plus cameras cutting around the race, but we’re never really that close to the horses, and for the first time I really wanted to bring the viewers closer to them, so we’ve installed a two-point cable cam system that travels along the backstretch in between the dirt and turf courses of Churchill Downs. It’s 1,400 feet in length. I was out there this morning with Mike, Jerry, Randy and Drew taking a look at it. It’s a pretty incredible undertaking that this group has pulled off. I just saw it for the first time in the control room. It’s going to be spectacular. It almost looks as if you’re watching a video game, a Madden video game of horses on the backstretch, and you really appreciate the speed of the horses, and it’s almost like you’re on the horse with them traveling along. You’re at about 18 feet above the ground, so you have better perspective than say a rail cam, but I’m really looking forward to showcasing this throughout this weekend’s coverage.
Q. You mentioned at the top of the call just how many Kentucky Derbys you’ve been a part of. How do you and the production team really look to improve upon and kind of one-up your coverage year after year and keep it fresh for viewers?
ROB HYLAND: Well, I start thinking about next year’s Kentucky Derby when I get on the plane on Saturday night at about 8:00. Listen, it is such a great opportunity to bring this event, this spectacle, this sporting event to America. It’s a celebration, but it’s also one of America’s oldest sporting events that has so much to it beyond just the sport. So every year we look at what we’ve done, the roadmap from the previous year. I’ll talk to Mike Tirico 100 times about the Derby throughout the course of the Winter Olympics and the spring — I know I bothered Mike while he was over in South Korea. I’ll talk to Jerry and Randy and Edzo hundreds of times throughout the spring to really say, hey, can we do this better, is this serving the viewer, are we inviting as many people into the show as we can, are we educating, informing, entertaining, is there enough lifestyle, is there enough racing? It’s sort of the constant tweaking of a plan that I’m pretty proud of, but every year I try to start with a new plan. I never work off last year’s format.
Q. This question is for anybody who wants to jump in on Audible. I think that’s another interesting horse in the 5 position, looks like that’s a spot where a lot of Derby winners have come from, and the trainer and the jockey are very popular. Can you guys speak to Audible’s chances for a win?
RANDY MOSS: Well, to my way of calculating, the three best prep races that we’ve seen by any of the horses were Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, Mendelssohn in the UAE Derby and Audible in the Florida Derby. I thought his Florida Derby was just outstanding coming off the heels of another really strong performance in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park.
The real interesting thing and sort of puzzling thing to some handicappers is that John Velazquez, the veteran jockey who won the Derby last year on Always Dreaming, rode Audible in the Florida Derby, had his choice of riding Audible or Vino Rosso, the winner of the Wood Memorial, and opted to take off Audible to ride Vino Rosso. Jockeys aren’t always right when they make decisions like that. It might have been a toss-up, but I know that’s had a lot of handicappers kind of scratching their heads. It probably honestly caused some of them to jump off Audible.
Q. Mike, have you ever heard the year 1882 mentioned as often leading up to a horse race?
MIKE TIRICO: Not really, no. The whole curse of Apollo thing is something we’ll get into throughout, and obviously you have the unique situation of when horses start racing and every horse that’s born in a certain year with a birth date given of January 1, so the classification for two-year-olds and three-year-olds. So in some ways there’s a little bit of a shading of the calendar by a few weeks here or there, but still, to have a couple of horses with a chance that were not raced as two-year-olds to break that long curse would be something interesting and will be mentioned a time or two from context of a historical perspective, but what’s most important is what they do or what they’re ready to do this week, and our experts will certainly give everyone the best opinion on that.
Q. Clerical question for Rob: As far as your cable coverage and the pre-race coverage, what live races are you showing before the Derby?
ROB HYLAND: Well, on NBC we’re showing all five that fall within our broadcast window, and on NBCSN we’re showing I believe it’s three races between 12:00 and 2:30. I’d have to look at the card, but we’re showing every race within our window.
Q. My question is specifically for Larry. How do you go about calling a field of 20 horses in bright sunlight? What’s your technique for Saturday?
LARRY COLLMUS: Well, I hope it’s bright sunlight. That would be good. There’s always a chance that it’s not, and that makes it tougher when it’s mud. But basically the Kentucky Derby to me is the only race as a race caller that you actually have to have a game plan, and what I do is when they come out of the gate, I’ll focus on the middle of the pack, meaning Justify, because he’s the horse that everybody is going to be the most focused on, so I want to see what his start is like, and I’m also going to be looking toward the inside where expected speed is going to be coming from Promises Fulfilled, and then maybe way on the outside and see how Noble Indy comes out of the gate because he’s another horse that will probably be up on the lead.
Once I get that done, I begin what I call the roll call because I want to give all 20 horses a call, and I want to do that by the time they ran the first half mile. So when the 20th horse hits the backstretch, and I’ll say, so-and-so is 20th probably Combatant, we’ll see, but whoever is 20th, I’ll say, and they ran the half mile in this, and then at that point, you call it like you would call any other horse race, other than the fact that there’s 20 of them and you’re trying not to be over the top because it’s the Kentucky Derby.
But there is definitely a game plan in the beginning, and then once things settle onto the backstretch, you stick with the front-running horses. You look back at horses that are favored or maybe are expected to make late runs and see how they’re doing, and then when they turn for home, you just call them home and see what happens.