DAN MASONSON: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to today’s NBC Sports conference call to recap Saturday’s historic Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown victory by American Pharoah. Joining us on today’s call are Rob Hyland, the coordinating producer, and Drew Esocoff, the director, and our on air team of Bob Costas, Tom Hammond, Jerry Bailey, two time Belmont winner, Randy Moss, Larry Collmus, the race caller, Bob Neumeier, and on location in Chicago for tonight’s Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Eddie Olczyk. Before we begin with the team, we’ll have an opening comment from NBC Sports’ chairman, Mark Lazarus.
MARK LAZARUS: Thank you, Dan. What an exciting weekend right in the middle of NBC Sports’ championship season with the Triple Crown culminating in American Pharoah, who we want to congratulate him and his team for a truly historic performance, which Belmont then led right into a record setting Stanley Cup Game 2, and that Stanley Cup series does continue tonight in Chicago.
We also today announced a new addition to our championship season with the British Open coming to NBC Sports and Golf Channel for 12 years beginning in 2017.
But what we’re here to talk about is the Triple Crown. What we are tremendously proud of, and the reason I’m on this call, is to really thank our team of Rob Hyland, Drew Esocoff, and all of the men and women behind the cameras as well as the folks you’ll hear from today in front of the cameras who prepare for every eventuality, not just this Saturday but for many years, and then certainly from the Derby this year and the Preakness, culminating with this historic run by American Pharoah.
Without that preparation and understanding, what may surprise viewers, what could happen or not happen, I don’t think the documentation of this event would have been as momentous as it was. I just am here to thank them and to praise the coverage that our team developed in order to bring this historic moment to sports fans who have been waiting a very, very long time to celebrate this.
With that, let me turn it over to the leader of the group, Rob Hyland.
ROB HYLAND: Thanks, Mark. I was just three when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown, so I obviously don’t remember that moment, but I have been a part of a few NBC productions and prepared for the chance of another Triple Crown, and as you just said, each time we’d plan for a Triple Crown winner and each time the plan was filed away for another year. Well, the 37 year drought ended last Saturday, and it was truly a privilege to be a part of documenting this incredible moment in history, and while I hope to be involved with many more defining sports moments, it’s really hard to imagine that any will top this one.
DREW ESOCOFF: Yeah, I’ll agree with Rob. I’ll start out by saying I’d like to thank our tech ops group, headed by but not limited to John Roché and Tim DeKime and their staffs, Ken Goss, Mike Meehan. I was trying to put this in perspective, people have always asked me what are the greatest events you’ve ever worked on, and I’ve been in the business full time for over 30 years now, and I always said Michael Phelps’ swim to gold in Beijing headed by the Jason Lezak leg of the 4×1 relay, the last three of the Super Bowls that we’ve done since NBC got back in the NFL business, and the Belmont Stakes on Saturday with American Pharoah will go right into that group, and is not at the bottom of the group, it’s smack at the top with anything else.
Just thrilling to be part of. I mean, I’ll just put it in perspective, I’ve gotten texts from camera guys and camera women who said when that horse turned for home, they’ve never heard a volume like that at a sporting event before, and these are people that do 75 sporting events a year, so that put it all in perspective, absolutely amazing.
BOB COSTAS: I don’t know what I could possibly add to what Rob and Drew have just said, except that I was 26 when Affirmed won, and I do remember it, but I also recall thinking as they got into the starting gate on Saturday, if I have to wait another 37 years, I’ll be 100, so please get it done now.
TOM HAMMOND: Well, it’s hard for me to quantify exactly where that moment ranks, but it’s certainly right up there. I’ve done 11 Olympics, hundreds of football and basketball games, both pro and college, and it ranks right up there with the great moments, not only because of the crowd, because the crowd was unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sustained loud ovation roar as that, people throwing drinks in the air, people standing on tables, and it started when they turned for home because everyone sensed that it was going to happen, and it continued all the way past the finish line.
I was there in person when Affirmed won, but that was the third Triple Crown in the ’70s, and no one thought so much about the Triple Crown. They were talking instead about the great race between Affirmed and Alydar, where it ranked among all of the great events. It was an emotional time for me a little bit, just because I had been there before and waited so long and had hoped to be a part of the history. As most of you know, my background goes back a lot in thoroughbred racing, so to be a part of that historic moment was great for me.
What was almost as good was afterwards where all the people on the NBC crew both on the air and behind the scenes came up to me and gave me hugs and congratulations, and I said, well, I didn’t really do anything, but they knew how much it meant to me to be a part of that history making event in thoroughbred racing. It ranks right up there amongst the greatest events that I’ve ever done.
JERRY BAILEY: Yeah, it was, momentous for me, as well. Everybody is talking about the roar of the crowd. When you’re riding these races, when you’ve involved through the stretch and a possibility of winning, you don’t really hear them, but when you’re not, which I have been many times, you do hear them. But it’s different.
As a broadcaster, Big Brown was out of the race pretty early, California Chrome, he looked pretty well beaten in the middle of the stretch, so you have that, but what was amazing to me is how loud it was, and looking at the people from one end of the grandstand to the other, at almost the top of the stretch, the 3/16 pole maybe, everybody had their arms up cheering and it was deafening. This might not be the greatest sports feat of all time, but I’m going to guess it’s pretty much, at least this year and maybe in the last several, I was just glad to be a small part of it. Thanks.
RANDY MOSS: Yeah, well, I don’t want to echo what everybody else said, no pun intended. The crowd was incredible, and people have asked me just in the short period of time I’ve been home, about 24 hours now, about the horse and about where this puts the horse in the list of some of the all-time greats. And although it’s obviously pretty early, you know, I mean, he’s just through June of his three year old year, I’ve gone back this morning and I’ve looked at the past performances of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the last two Triple Crown winners, and I think we have a tendency in the sport, and even sports in general, to sort of romanticize famous athletes of past generations, like when you see a great baseball player today and someone wants to compare them to Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, it’s almost considered hear-say in some corners.
I think when you look back on Seattle Slew and Affirmed and you compare those horses with American Pharoah and look at what Pharoah has done so far, at this stage of their careers, I think it’s a fair comparison. I think American Pharoah deserves to be placed in the same conversation with all-time greats like Seattle Slew and Affirmed given what he just accomplished and the way that he accomplished it. He was at least as impressive as Seattle Slew when you look at his Triple Crown races as a whole, and maybe even more impressive.
So the horse, I think, has just been amazing all spring long and deserved obviously a tremendous amount of credit here.
LARRY COLLMUS: On June 5, 1985, I called my first horse race. It was a nondescript race at Bowie Race Track in Maryland, and if you had told me that 30 years and one day later that I would have the opportunity to narrate not only one of the greatest horse races of all time but one of the most iconic sports moments of all time, I would have told you, you were absolutely nuts.
But that race was the most incredible thing that I’ve ever seen, and everyone that’s talking about the crowd, and I was six levels up in a glass enclosed booth, and it was as loud as you could possibly imagine, even up there. And the enthusiasm of that crowd, it just did not end. It was just the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen, and just the fact that for years and years to come that people will be watching the replay of that race and that the race call will be the one that I made is pretty darned cool. I’m so happy to be a part of this.
BOB NEUMEIER: Yeah, I think we all personalize it in our own way. I’ve been known as a horse guy, but I’ve also been at the finish line in Beijing to report on Usain Bolt winning a gold medal. I was at Tampa when Pittsburgh and Arizona hooked up for a Super Bowl, and I was in Pittsburgh when Detroit and Pittsburgh played for a Stanley Cup Final. I was also in the stands on Saturday when I saw hard bitten race players cry, and 25 years ago when I first started with NBC back in 1990 doing the Breeders’ Cup, I saw many of those same hard bitten horse players cry again when Go for Wand broke down when she hooked up with Bayakoa in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup. Those were tears of sorrow in 1990.
In 2015, last Saturday, there were tears of joy that we finally had a Triple Crown. So I was there for both of them. Whether they’re horse races or track meets or football games or hockey games, I cherish them all. Personally it was a thrill to be there. It takes my breath away. Thanks for having me aboard. Thank you.
EDDIE OLCZYK: Well, I couldn’t be more proud of being on this team, the horse racing team at NBC. With our leadership, with Rob and Drew, I thought our crew, everybody, did just an amazing job on a very long weekend with the stakes being very, very high. I’ve been lucky enough to play at the highest level in the National Hockey League and lucky enough to be a part of the NBC Sports family as a broadcaster.
I thought I saw the greatest event at the Olympics back in 2010 when Team USA took on the Canadians at the Olympics, not only the pre gold medal game but also the gold medal game, and I used the phrase of tremendously tremendous. That’s what happened on Saturday and being a part of that, and the horse racing fan and handicapper and broadcaster came out of me on Saturday; that truly was tremendously tremendous what American Pharoah did.
Being here in Chicago, getting ready for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on NBCSN tonight, pregame coverage, an hour and a half before puck drop at 8:00 eastern, at the rink this morning talking to the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, from John Cooper, the coach of the Lightning, Joel Quenneville, who’s a horse owner and horse player, of the Chicago Blackhawks, everybody – and let me make it perfectly clear – everybody, teams, media, people working at the United Center, they wanted to talk about American Pharoah and what was accomplished on Saturday. And hopefully we can help take that momentum to another level, but it was just great to be a part of and something I’ll never forget.
- What can this mean to the sport in general, but let’s start with this year, how important is it for Pharoah to race a few more times leading up to the Breeders’ Cup to kind of build on this interest and momentum?
TOM HAMMOND: Well, traditionally thoroughbred racing has been hurt by the fact that we create stars and then the stars disappear because they’re worth more as breeding animals than they are as race horses. The Zayats have said that they’ll race him the rest of the year, and I think with the spotlight now on him and the fact that he’s become a name known to the casual fan, to take him away would be a tragedy. But hopefully we’ll see him in some of the races leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, and if he can race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, it would be a great thing to see. The Breeders’ Cup is at Keeneland this year. The people here in this area, they appreciate good horses and they would love to see him run.
You know, I saw a couple of people in the hotel after the race, and one lady said to me that it was her first ever horse race. She had the greatest time of her life, and she would be back a lot, and I think people in racing are hoping that that sort of happens, ripples across the casual fans.
EDDIE OLCZYK: I get this a lot, and I think it’s an opportunity, I know for myself and horse racing in general, is to do a better job of explaining what horse racing is all about. I mean, we’ve seen what fantasy sports has become to sports in general. Somebody sitting in their basement, somebody sitting at work, putting teams together, getting leagues together, playing daily games, playing weekly, playing monthly, playing yearly, that’s what horse racing is. It’s always been that way. I’m sitting at my house in Chicago. I have my buddy that’s sitting at the Red Rock Resort and Casino out in Las Vegas playing the horses there. Neumy is out in Boston playing. We’re all doing the same thing, and I think that we need to do a better job, and I try to do that and let people know, you’re not going up against the track, and I think we have some momentum here, continue to teach, continue to educate and let people know because I see where fantasy sports has gone in the big four, and I think that horse racing, we need to do a better job of telling people and teaching. It’s the same concept, and we all know how great this game can be.
So I think with this momentum, there’s other opportunities, whether it’s at local tracks, whether it’s seminars, whether it’s people like us continuing to let people know, and when you get a stage like we had, and it just wasn’t the Belmont, we had some incredible performances on Friday and Saturday, and then it was our job to break down and analyze and tell people what is going to happen and what just did happen.
So for me, maybe a little bit off the rail there, but I just think that this is a chance to really tell people about our game because when I tell people those things – oh, wow, I thought you were going up against the track. I thought you were going up against the house. No, it’s the complete opposite. They’re like a real estate broker, they get their cut. Same with fantasy sports. So I think that the door has been opened here for us to continue with this momentum and get more people on, and to Tom’s story, hey, there are a lot of those people out there. Now once they’ve seen it or they’ve been a part of it, it’ll be like wildfire because they’ll be hooked just like all of us.
- This question is mainly for Rob and Drew. You’re in the truck, you see American Pharoah starting to pull away. Can you describe what was happening and how the two of you kind of responded to what you were seeing, especially as you realized that he was going to win?
ROB HYLAND: I’ll start off, Drew. It wasn’t very different in the truck when he pulled away for Drew and I. The mechanics are essentially the same. I think it changed, though, when Larry finished his call. There was very little said by the announce booth. Drew and I had already gone over the sequence of images that we’d see as the horse crossed the finish line. It was simple, but I think it worked very well.
- And was there any sort of plan in place to respond to if the Triple Crown actually happened, or did you just really react to what was happening and what you were seeing?
ROB HYLAND: Oh, no, we had a plan in terms of the sequence of images you were going to see if the horse won. Drew had a plan to make sure that we would see the horse and then the connection and then back to the horse. We were never going to be away from the horse for more than a shot, and he executed that very well, but I’ll let Drew jump in.
DREW ESOCOFF: Yeah, my main goal was just not to cut to a camera that had the wrong horse. That was priority number one.
But no, we had some things in place, and like Rob said, it’s like a concept. It’s like coaches have told us they don’t really give Peyton Manning a play call, they give him a concept, and in horse racing probably more than any other sport, as long as you have a good concept, you’re in good hands. So obviously seeing the reaction of the horse was first, the Baffert reaction with kissing his wife lined up perfectly, the Zayat reaction fell apart because it was just a big pile, none of whom would be recognizable if we did it live, and the beauty of sports nowadays is every camera is recorded and everything happened simultaneously. There’s no way to get everything on the air simultaneously. So as long as the plan is there and the subject matter is covered, which it was, and our crew in the truck was recording and reacting to the correct sources, which they were, eventually the moment was going to pay off and everything was going to be documented, and we didn’t have to do it in a hurry.
Yeah, it was just really, really fun.
- This is really for anybody who wants to tackle this sort of thing, but there was a lot of talk of if the horse wins the Triple Crown, what does it mean for that series and the interest in it, and just given your views of what it was like to be at Belmont Park on Saturday, do you think maybe more people will watch the next time around because they want to be a part of it or they want to see it happen again?
BOB COSTAS: Well, probably as the one on the call, at least among the announcers, who’s the least expert when it comes to horse racing, and I guess my job is to provide some kind of overview, and that’s what we strive to do anyway, and Rob Hyland has done such a great job with this, make it something that’s enjoyable and credible to knowledgeable horse racing fans, but at the same time make it accessible to the casual viewer. I think we do that extremely well every year, whether or not a Triple Crown is on the line at the Derby or whatever, and then again this time.
But taking a step back, I think in answer to your question, while there’s always going to be fascination with the Derby as kind of a piece of Americana and then with whatever horse wins the Derby, I think it’s only logical that if next year a horse comes to the Belmont Stakes with a shot at the Triple Crown, there will be less fascination because it will not have been 37 years. It will be back to back. We might, it seems highly unlikely, but if we begin to get a run like with Secretariat and Seattle Slew and then Affirmed, I think some of the mystique and some of the anticipation is reduced. So while we’d be thrilled to have a chance to broadcast another run at a Triple Crown and have it happen again next year or the year after that, it wouldn’t be truthful to say that it would have the same impact.
Part of the impact here is the idea that people had begun to believe that it was pretty close to impossible, and then they saw something that both excited them and surprised them.
- In preparation for the race day, Bob Baffert told John Stashower that his goal for American Pharoah was not to let the horse know that his whole camp were on pins and needles, and certainly not let the horse know that it’s a mile and a half, which we thought was really funny. But you guys talked about decibel levels, so maybe for Jerry or Randy or both, the use of the earplugs, why don’t all the horses use earplugs if the sound is so deafening and it would help mellow out the horse? Why don’t they all use them on race day?
JERRY BAILEY: Well, because horses are like people, and the same things don’t bother all horses. That’s usually the reason all horses don’t use them. When we find out inside the game that something bothers the horse, it’s usually the guy in the back will convey that to the trainer, and they take the necessary steps to correct it.
If you find your horse is getting frightened by extreme noises, the earplugs have always been the first go to thing. But they’ve got personalities just like people. Some it bothers, some it doesn’t, some it bothers more than others. That’s pretty much the reason they don’t all use them.
RANDY MOSS: Yeah, back in 1984 I remember we had a horse that ran in the Triple Crown series named Gate Dancer who ran in big, bold, white earmuffs. Occasionally you get horses like that. But as far as American Pharoah goes, he ran in his very first race last summer and did poorly. It’s the only race he’d ever lost, and he completely went bonkers, which is unlike his personality, in the paddock, on the racetrack, in pre race warm ups, didn’t run very well during the race, and they just sort of speculated. Obviously the horses can’t communicate. They sort of speculated that maybe the crowd noise was bothering him, so they went to the earmuffs, or the earplugs.
We don’t really know the extent to which crowd noise bothers American Pharoah. He may be just fine without the earplugs, but I’ll tell you one thing, they’re not going to change him any time soon. There’s no reason to.
- Looking forward, what does this Triple Crown win do for you all promoting and going up to and including the Breeders’ Cup, and are you all already in that planning process of how to use this Triple Crown win at Keeneland?
BOB NEUMEIER: I’ll take that one, at least to start. Look, you tell me who’s going to win the NHL Stanley Cup. You tell me who’s going to win the Super Bowl midway through the fourth quarter with New England and Seattle. I don’t know. Did I know going into the gate that American Pharoah would win the Triple Crown? No. Did Bob Baffert who’s been around the horse eight hours a day, seven days a week, know that American Pharoah was going to win the Triple Crown? No, he didn’t know. He was hoping. And I think all of us hope for the best, expect the worst, and that’s the beauty of sports. That’s the unpredictability, and we react to it as we can with our cameras and announcers and what have you, but I don’t know who’s going to win, Eddie doesn’t know who’s going to win, Bob Costas doesn’t know who’s going to win, Bob Baffert doesn’t know who’s going to win, Victor Espinoza, go right down the line. That’s the beauty of it all, and I don’t think anything ever changes.
TOM HAMMOND: When we begin to promote the races we have left, the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series and then the Breeders’ Cup itself, American Pharoah will be a name that all who witnessed the Triple Crown or read about the Triple Crown or heard about the Triple Crown will recognize, and I think it gives them a star to follow and a reason to tune into those other races to see how the Triple Crown winner fares. So I think it’ll be valuable in leading up to the Breeders’ Cup in the fact that we have a horse now that everyone recognizes even if they’re not a dedicated horse fan.
ROB HYLAND: I echo what Tom says. In fact, this Saturday evening at 8:00 on NBCSN, we’ll have our first Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race to see who qualifies for Churchill Downs, and the plan is to showcase a hero’s welcome as American Pharoah, who’s stabled down at Churchill Downs right now, will essentially take a victory lap, and we’ll be covering that moment on Saturday evening and hopefully we’ll see him later this summer at the Haskell perhaps, and then perhaps after that the Travers. But our partners at the Breeders’ Cup have already kind of coined the Classic as the fourth event, ‘the Grand Slam,’ and they are hoping we are all hoping to see that horse at the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the fall.
- Larry, obviously after the call I’m sure you had a sense of how you did and how it went, but have you subsequently went back and watched it, and if so, how many times, and what was it like the first time listening to yourself and thinking, you know, and kind of analyzing how you did?
LARRY COLLMUS: I think the first time I listened to it was when it was replayed on the postgame show on NBC. I just wanted to hear it one time just to see how it came out. And then I was pretty I knew what I wanted to say and I was happy that I was able to say it the way I wanted to say it. You know, as the race caller, you’re your own worst critic, and you always want to try to do something better next time, but to be honest with you, you know, I was happy that I think I said the right thing and said it the right way.
How many times I’ve watched it since? Let me say this. It has nothing to do with wanting to hear my voice but more to the point that I just want to relive the two minutes and 26 seconds one more time. I have probably listened to the race and watched the race 100 times since then, and I’ve probably when we’re done with this call might listen to it again and watch it again.
- What was it like having to do the races after the Belmont Saturday?
LARRY COLLMUS: Well, you don’t want to use the term “mail it in,” but to be honest with you, it was almost comical when the horses were going into the starting gate for the 12th race at Belmont that day, 45 minutes after American Pharoah had just won the Triple Crown and knowing that I had to call I believe it was a mile and three eighths turf race. It was a pretty good race, actually, but I was just in a state of mind that I don’t really think too many people cared too much about this race, but I have to do a good job anyway. I was almost tempted to say when the winner came to the wire in the 12th race, “the 45 minute wait is over.” But it was fun to call those last two races, and I guess it helped me unwind a little bit. But the unwinding didn’t last long. I was pretty amped up. I couldn’t sleep very well the night after the Belmont, either.
EDDIE OLCZYK: Just for the record, Larry, I was the guy that cared because I had Jorge Navarro in the (indiscernible) race.
- My question is for Bob Costas. I know that Bob Neumeier and Eddie Olczyk kind of touched a little bit on where this ranked and what they had done in terms of events they had covered and been part of, and Bob has had such a wide array of things. I just wanted to ask Bob his thoughts where this ranked in terms of the things that he’s been a part of?
BOB COSTAS: I’m not going to put a number on it because it’s impossible. I’ve been fortunate to be around so many big events and be part of the coverage of so many big events, but it’s somewhere on the list. It’s somewhere high on the list because of the historical significance and also because of the setting. Tom Hammond said it; it’s one thing to have the achievement, but to have the reaction and have the sustained roar as they headed for home, and then to have an event, and this doesn’t happen all that often, where everybody in attendance has exactly the same rooting interest, and virtually everybody watching has the same rooting interest. You televise a Super Bowl as a network broadcaster, Al Michaels is trying to do it down the middle, so is Cris Collinsworth, but they know that part of the audience is rooting for the Seahawks, part of the audience is rooting for the Patriots. One of the reasons why whenever people are asked what’s the greatest moment in American sports, so many of them answer the 1980 Miracle on Ice, part of it is Al Michaels’ great call, part of it is the Cold War circumstances, but a big part of it that’s taken for granted is there were no divided loyalties, at least not in the United States. Everybody is rooting for the same thing.
So here you are with 90,000 plus at Belmont Park, and everybody is thinking and feeling exactly the same thing, and I think that that was almost as exhilarating as what was happening on the track.