Rob Hyland, the lead producer for NBC's Kentucky Derby coverage, began preparing for this year's broadcast hours after triumphant Always Dreaming flashed across the finish line last May.
Hyland flew home to Connecticut and fought through exhaustion to watch a replay of the five-hour show. By the time he finally allowed himself to sleep, he had compiled a page of notes concerning what could be done better the next time.
The Derby broadcast is arguably among the most challenging in all of sports. It is one of the few events that attracts an almost even male-female split. And NBC faces the almost impossible task of trying to satisfy viewers ranging from serious handicappers captivated by the drama about to unfold to those who care more about haberdashery and mint juleps.
Pursuing the right balance has become a year-round preoccupation – if not obsession – for Hyland.
“It is constantly on my mind,” he said. “How we can make it better. How we can provide a bigger audience.”
Hyland must be doing something right as he prepares to oversee a staff of 300 that includes more than 50 camera operators, 15 announcers and four researchers. Last year's Total Audience Delivery averaged 16.5 million viewers across NBC and the network's digital platforms, the biggest numbers for the opening leg of the Triple Crown since 1989. It was the most watched Saturday afternoon program since an NFL playoff game on Jan. 14, 2017.
NBC began televising the Derby in 2001. It will offer 14 ½ hours of broadcast coverage this year, beginning with stage-setting Derby Access from 4-6:30 p.m. ET on May 3 on NBCSN. The Kentucky Oaks undercard will be featured from 12-3 p.m. followed by the Oaks from 5-6:30 p.m., both on NBCSN the next day. On May 5, the Derby undercard will be shown from noon to 2:30 p.m. on NBCSN before the action shifts to NBC for a five-hour mini-marathon that often irks diehard fans.
Barbs are almost sure to come the network's way for the prominence it will give to former figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. Weir and Lipinski make certain their air time has nothing to do with the actual running of a race steeped in 143 years of tradition and celebrated as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
Weir, in an email, described their role as “cultural attachés.” His sure-to-be-untraditional outfit may well rival those of the best-dressed women at Churchill Downs. Weir wrote that viewers can expect this year's hat to be “a nod to opulence and, of course, to the tradition of the race. It's going to be another show-stopper.”
There may indeed be some who will tune out while others will delight in the flamboyant Weir's eccentricities as he and Lipinski explore every aspect of a Churchill Downs scene unlike any other in sports.
“It's the ultimate Southern dress-up day,” Lipinski said. “I love the process of finding the perfect hat and dress to wear on race day. For me, there isn't a better combination than sports and fashion.”
That is enough to make some dedicated racing fans queasy – or at least complain loudly on social media. Hyland already is firing back.
“I don't care about the guys who are writing messages on the BloodHorse message board. That is not our audience,” he said. “They are probably not even watching our telecast. They are watching the track feed. That is the least of my concerns.
“While I appreciate and respect everyone's opinion, I think the balance we have between entertainment and sport and lifestyle is pretty good. It's a five-hour show. You are not going to see a fashion segment as the horses are on the track. You'll see a mint julep being made hours before the gate opens for the Kentucky Derby.”
When it comes to previewing the race and assessing prime contenders, NBC offers highly-regarded talent such as Randy Moss, retired Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey and Donna Barton Brothers, another former jockey. She is best known for her on-horseback interviews with the winning rider that capture the emotion of what is often the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
Barton Brothers rides onto the track with a stack of index cards that include the past performances for each horse and notes she began compiling the summer before. No matter how stunning the result – think Mine That Bird and Giacomo, among others – she is prepared.
So, too, are Moss and Bailey. They are often seen working the barns together.
“It's the most important thing we do all week long,” Moss said. He emphasized that they are as interested in educating themselves about the Oaks and various undercard races as they are about the Derby.
The analysts amass so much information that Hyland constantly warns against overloading viewers. “We try to make people care,” Barton Brothers said, “without weighing them down with intricate details about horse racing that are going to make them wax over with confusion.”
They are as preoccupied as Hyland with striking the right balance. “It's a high-wire act sometimes,” Moss said. “But the point has been hammered home to Jerry and me over the years that I like to think we've become pretty decent at explaining things like bleeder medication, changing running leads and things like that.”
The format of the centerpiece five-hour show may change as many as 12 or 13 times during the course of the final week to accommodate developments. Hyland strives to anticipate every possibility. During a recent meeting, he reviewed with his staff how NBC responded to the death of the filly Eight Belles at the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and to the day Bayern turned left at the start of the controversial 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic.
When breaking news occurs, the format that was a year in the making no longer applies.
Buying A Derby Bargain?
By Scott Jagow
It's well-documented this is likely the most expensive Kentucky Derby field in history. Of the 20 horses, 15 sold at a public auction and were purchased for a grand total of more than $8.8 million, with an average price of $589,113 and a median of $400,000.
Mendelssohn is the field topper at $3 million, but Good Magic and Instilled Regard both fetched a million bucks and there several in the field who sold in the half a million dollar range, including Bolt d'Oro ($630,000), Audible and Justify at $500,000 plus Magnum Moon, Flameaway and Vino Rosso at around $400,000.
Still, there are some cheaper horses that managed to make the field. My Boy Jack and Promises Fulfilled both came out of the Keeneland September Yearling Sale for $20,000 and $37,000 respectively, and Lone Sailor was purchased at the same sale for $120,000.
So how do connections identify potential Derby horses that don't cost the proverbial arm and a leg (or the price of a small, private island)?
Trainer Dale Romans, the conditioner of Promises Fulfilled and Free Drop Billy (a $200,000 purchase) said about a decade ago, he and his team developed a profile for Derby horses and then applied those qualities to seeking out contenders. He said you have a better shot getting the right horse if you spend more but a reasonably priced horse who fits the profile works just as well.
“If they've got the cardio-vascular system, if they've got the pedigree analysis we do, and they've got the looks, t's worked pretty well at the yearling sales.
“Those are most of the ingredients,” he added with a grin that suggested he's not giving away all his secrets.
D. Wayne Lukas, whose Derby entry this year, Bravazo, is a Calumet homebred, said if you're looking for bargains, you need to zero in on conformation and not get caught up in pedigree chasing.
“If you're going to buy in that lower range and hope to get here, you just have to concentrate on conformation entirely,” Lukas said. 'You've gotta start looking for horses that are athletic, look like they'll get two turns and not worry about the pedigree. You pay for pedigree at any of these sales. If you get the great-looking horse and the pedigree, then you pay a lot. If you get one that has pedigree and good looks and then breezes well over at Ocala, then you really pay for it.
“But the whole thing is you have to buy an athlete and just have to hope he overcomes his pedigree.”
Derby history is filled with inexpensive winners, although the last three sold for $300,000, $400,000 and $350,000. We'll find out Saturday how the dollars and sense shake out in this year's Derby.
By Ray Paulick
Each day this week, I'll take a look at the pedigrees of four Kentucky Derby starters. On Monday, we looked at the horses at the bottom of the leaderboard, numbers 17 through 20. Tuesday it was horses listed at 13 through 16. Wednesday it was horses listed 9 through 12. Today's Pedigree Corner examines numbers 5-8.
MENDELSSOHN (8): At $3 million, this Scat Daddy colt out of Leslie's Lady was the highest-priced yearling sold at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale by a million dollars, but if he wins on Saturday MENDELSSOHN will not be the most expensive Kentucky Derby winner in history. That bragging right belongs to Fusaichi Pegasus, a $4-million Keeneland July Yearling Sale graduate whose syndication price was north of $50 million after his victory in the 2000 Kentucky Derby. Leslie's Lady previously produced multiple champion Beholder (by the Storm Cat grandson Henny Hughes), whose victories included the 10-furlong, Grade 1 Pacific Classic over males; and G1 winner Into Mischief (by the Storm Cat grandson Harlan's Holiday). Scat Daddy is by the Storm Cat grandson Johannesburg. One might conclude with a bit of understatement that the Storm Cat sire line seems to cross pretty well with Leslie's Lady.
ENTICED (7): While Mendelssohn may boast the most productive broodmare in this year's Kentucky Derby field, ENTICED may have the best racemare in the bunch as a mom. The colt by Medaglia d'Oro was produced by It's Tricky a daughter of the A.P. Indy stallion Mineshaft, who was Horse of the Year in 2003. Bred by Stonerside, raced by Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, It's Tricky won 8 of 14 starts, with 4 seconds, over three seasons. Included in those wins are the G1 trio of the Acorn, Coaching Club American Oaks and Ogden Phipps Handicap. It's unfortunate for her she came along in the same crop as Royal Delta, chasing the champion home while second in the 2011 G1 Alabama and G1 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic (now the Distaff). Medaglia d'Oro won 8 of 17 with 7 seconds and counted the G1 Travers at 10 furlongs among his 7 stakes wins. While best known as the sire of champion fillies Songbird and Rachel Alexandra, Medaglia d'Oro has been solid in every category since his first crop hit the track in 2008.
BOLT D'ORO (6): A second runner in the Derby field by Medaglia d'Oro, BOLT D'ORO was picked out of Denali Stud's consignment at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale by Ike Green and purchased on behalf of Mick Ruis for $630,000. His dam, Globe Trot, did her best running on Polytrack, winning maiden and allowance races on the synthetic track at Turfway and adding a second allowance victory on Polytrack at Arlington Park. Second dam Trip, by Lord At War, the G1 Santa Anita Handicap winner at 10 furlongs, was a hard-hitting graded stakes-winning mare who won 11 of 28 starts for her breeder, Claiborne Farm. The female line traces directly back to Myrtlewood, the foundation mare for Leslie Combs II's Spendthrift Farm. Myrtlewood's second dam was Frizette. Though in the distant past, these are some of the best names in the Stud Book.
VINO ROSSO (5): Irish-bred Street Cry's death in 2014 at the age of 16 was a blow to the Thoroughbred breed, as the son of the Mr. Prospector stallion Machiavellian sired Horse of the Year Zenyatta and Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense among others. His daughter Mythical Bride is the dam of VINO ROSSO, one of three Derby starters sired by the Mr. Prospector grandson Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year and multiple classic-distance winner. If anyone in this field was bred for a mile and a quarter, it's VINO ROSSO.
D. Wayne Lukas recalls winning the 1996 Kentucky Derby for the late W.T. Young of Overbrook farm:
“Oh, my favorite's easy. That's when I met Bill Young on the grass in the infield after Grindstone won. That was special. I won (the Derby) with four different owners but with Bill Young, I got down there obviously a lot quicker than he did and I waited for him and we met up on the turf course before we went to the winner's circle and exchanged some thoughts. It was the best. Very touching.”
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