Watching last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, I knew from painful experience the frantic panic that was going on in NBC’s control truck and with its mixed talent gang when Giacomo stormed home at $102.60.
I was 2,000 miles away but I could hear the desperate rustling of papers from Tom Hammond, Charlsie Cantey, Kenny Rice, Bob Costas, and the Neumeier-Battaglia dog and pony act, trying frantically to find a sheet with something — anything — on the winner. Who the heck is he? Where did he come from? They never did find the sheet while on the air and had little to say about him or his connections.
The post race fumbling around was palpable and embarrassing. NBC needs Bob Heyden of the Meadowlands in New Jersey, the best stat man in racing, to do their pre-show prep sheets for them. He would have had three pages on all 20 horses, including Giacomo.
Horse players were left out of NBC’s equation entirely.
There was no shot of the tote board, except one fleeting glance at its multiple payoff section, with its $9,814.80 -exacta, $133,134.80 trifecta and $1,728,507 superfecta, and even that was booted. Hammond, on seeing the superfecta payoff, asked in disbelief, "Is that what it says?"
Cantey, realizing the full significance, quickly said emphatically, "Yes it is."
It was a rare opportunity to pounce on the returns possible in racing but quickly vanished when they switched to Costas who, as NBC’s shining star, plays a remarkably small role in these doings. He went through the obligatory bow to Visa. Tom Meeker quickly picked up on that opening, noting that while Visa is gone from the Triple Crown they will be around another five years with the Derby.
So will NBC. That means more of the Mike and Bob show. Battaglia’s interview with trainer John Shirrefs and jockey Mike Smith was less than memorable, in part because Shirrefs seemed stunned and speechless. However, Mike had the morning line (if not the winner) dead right at 50-1.
So another memorable Derby goes in the books, exciting but slow. Churchill’s $225,000 skyboxes and its incredible entrance chandelier got its 10 seconds of fame, and things returned to normal this week. The usual speculation is underway as to Giacomo’s ability to pull off the Triple Crown in what appears to be an undistinguished crop of 3-year-olds.
As for the Belmont, unless something was wrong with Bellamy Road last Saturday other than chasing the scorching pace and the mile and a quarter, George can stay at Yankee Stadium if the Yankees are playing at home that day. The colt stopping as if shot at Churchill after his runaway Wood Memorial victory in New York astonished all who saw it and ended talk of another Secretariat.
Nick Zito could have been excused had he brushed Kenny Rice aside for the post race interview, but Nick has too much class for that. His bitter disappointment and puzzlement over his five horses finishing 7-8-10-14-15 registered in the first shot of him watching the finish from his box. It was far more apparent in the distraught and drained look on his face during the interview. Losing this Derby had to be the biggest downer of his career and his statement that "great expectations lead to great disappointments" put this super horseman in perspective.
He will bounce back — and perhaps quickly.
The Derby still is, and will remain, the crown jewel of American racing. It grabs the attention of the general public like no other horse race, generating far more excitement than the Breeders’ Cup and for good reason. The latter is a superb vehicle for racing but you have to be very deeply interested to sit through its tortuous format, which will be even longer in the future.
Spin was put on NBC’s dropping the Triple Crown but keeping the Derby, but that development is understandable. They already have the brass ring on the merry-go-round — make that the gold ring — and they know its far-flung appeal. They’ll gamble by letting ESPN deal with the regulars, figuring it is far too long between drinks to wait for a horse that can win all three classics.