NBC was on the air so long on Saturday that it seemed like they came on the air at dawn and didn’t sign off until the swallows arrived in Capistrano. Altogether, they were on the air for 7½ hours covering events surrounding the Kentucky Derby, and most of it was easy on the eyes.
From 12 Noon to 2:30 p.m. they were on sister cable channel NBCSN showing earlier races from Churchill Downs and various interviews with trainers, riders and fashion critics. From 2:30 on, coverage switched over to NBC and a production that included more than 50 cameras, a couple of jockey-cams and a drone.
The announce crew was anchored by the reliable Mike Tirico along with their two superb analysts, Randy Moss and former jockey Jerry Bailey. Besides showing four more races leading up to the Derby they gave us NBC’s political stat man, Steve Kornacki (Is he still wearing those pants?) and betting strategy from Eddie Olczyk.
But it was Donna (Barton) Brothers, a former jockey, who stole the day for NBC. Right after each race leading up the Derby, Brothers would glide up alongside the winning jockey and ask him what his strategy would be for the Derby. During the afternoon, Moss and Bailey had debated about who would be in the lead early in the race. Would it be Medina Spirit, second choice Rock Your World or another. This strategy would greatly affect the race. (Brothers with Victor Espinoza, left, at Breeders Cup)
Interviewing jockeys on horseback while they are trotting their victors back to the winner’s circle is no easy matter. And doing it while asking good questions and getting newsworthy responses is rare. Brothers accomplished both. When she asked that question to John Velasquez (jockey on Medina Spirit in post 9) he wasn’t coy. He said he intended to go straight to the front and intimated that if anyone else wanted to do the same that they would be in for a fierce battle. In effect, Velasquez was warning the other riders that unless they wanted to burn their horse out they should stay back.
When Brothers asked the same question of Luis Saez, rider of the big favorite Essential Quality, who had post 14, Saez first started to talk about the horse he had just ridden to victory. Brothers interrupted and quickly said, “No,” I’m asking your strategy for the start of the Derby.” Saez said he’d just see how the horse broke out of the gate and take it from there. This confirmed that the favorite was not going to try for the lead immediately.
As it turned out Velasquez did get Medina Spirit to the lead and nursed him all the way around Churchill Downs to victory. Essential Quality wound up running four horses wide, losing valuable ground when he did make his move, and he finished fourth.
On a day when the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs tried to get back to a new normal under brilliant sunshine, NBC did a nice job covering the event for 7½ hours. And while Moss and Bailey get the big bucks, it was 55-year-old Donna Brothers who proved most valuable.
**** ***** ****** *****
Granted, former hockey star Eddie Olczyk is a knowledgeable handicapper and sometimes hands out a winner or two, but it was neophyte Steve Kornacki who won the day: “If you’re giving me double-digit odds on (six-tine Derby winning trainer Bob) Baffert, I’ll take it,” Kornacki said. Bafftert’s horse Medina Spirit did win, paying $26 for $2. Olczyk said, “For me it’s all about Known Agenda,” who finished 9th.
And if you’re going to bet on the Preakness or Belmont you may want to be leery of any picks Brent Musburger publishes. In a piece printed in the New York Post Friday by VSiN (Vegas Stats and information Network) Musburger picked huge favorite Essential Quality, who had won all five of his starts. Musburger’s reasoned, “because 5-0 is 5-0.” He ran fourth. Two of his other selections, Rock Your World (the second favorite) finished 17th and Super Stock was 16th. He also listed Hot Rod Charley who was 3rd.
According to Sports Media Watch, “Tthe Kentucky Derby was the canary in the coal mine of last year’s ratings slump. Pushed from the first Saturday of May to Labor Day weekend, ratings plunged nearly 50 percent from 9.4 to a record-low 4.8. Only in the current era could such a low rating put the Derby on par with NBA Finals and World Series games. That 4.8 still ranks among the ten highest non-football sports ratings since sports went dark in March of last year (T-#9), behind five MLB Postseason games last fall and three in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
A similar jump for the Derby would result in a 7.8 rating – higher than the Gonzaga-UCLA thriller in the Final Four (7.6) – which seems unrealistically high.