It’s undetermined how much Ebersol, a short-timer, had to do with producing Saturday’s show. But if it was a lot, he’ll be missed. For those who enjoyed the Triple Crown's second jewel while prone on the couch, you viewed an Eclipse Award-winning production on your Sony. Fingers crossed that the broadcasters fare as well when the Belmont Stakes is contested with flimsier storylines.
While not flawless – the coverage ran on a half-hour too long, failed to televise the sport's number one turf horse even though Paddy O’Prado won the Dixie Stakes during the telecast's timeframe, and had technical problems that obliterated trainer Graham Motion’s humorous remarks in a pre-race interview with Kenny Rice – NBC Sports portrayed horse racing as a game that’s enjoyed on many levels.
The two hour show captivated viewers with stretches of human drama, teased them with controversial interviews and provided them with insights that people in the Pimlico grandstand did not benefit from despite being on site.
Human Interest Segments. The assortment of stories involving Preakness participants made watching the race almost secondary. Costas pressed Barry Irwin on the controversial statements he made in the post-Derby interviews and Irwin’s natural garrulity surfaced. He admitted regret for his ill-conceived timing when speaking out against horse racing’s problems, and then called for the FBI to investigate the misuse of drugs on the animals. Once a maverick, always a maverick. But Irwin, who was prepared for his inquisition this time, was terrific.
A feature on jockey Robby Albarado was not limited to his bad luck in losing the mount on Animal Kingdom. The segment excelled when it moved on to a discussion of the felony charges of domestic abuse and wanton endangerment that resulted in the jockey’s ultimate plea to accept rehab. It ended with Albarado professing he’s prepared to make changes in his behavior.
The most emotional piece, however, was about Noah Grove, the brave 12-year-old son of Norman Asbjornson’s trainer Chris Grove. Noah’s osteosarcoma led to having his leg amputated a few years back. His mom cried as she told NBC Sports that his last words before surgery were a plea to leave the leg on. The network presented uplifting footage of Noah free of the cancer but having to deal with a prosthetic.
Expert Insight. Experienced horse racing fans are able to catch the subtle developments before, during and after a horse race that explain the outcome. But the casual fan sees a field of animals load into a gate, run the course and finish a race not really knowing what happened. TV viewers have the action explained to them.
Nobody on TV provides better analysis than Gary Stevens. The former champion jockey was noteworthy Saturday for explaining that winning jockey Jesus Castanon slowed the pace down after taking the lead on the backstretch. He noted that Animal Kingdom didn’t break well, was too far back and that Castanon went through five sets of goggles compared to none in the Derby. But where Stevens really stood out was when he crouched like a rider must on a sway-backed mount and explained why this odd conformation put a jock at a big disadvantage.
Excuse Donna Barton Brothers for being wrong when she said that Shackleford’s high-keyed behavior and subsequent washiness would compromise the winner’s chances. Moreover, she said Mr. Commons and King Congie were runners with the look and demeanor of horses that would run well. But she was spot-on at other times, including her prompting of Castanon to translate what the Mexican-born rider said in Spanish to his mother as he dedicated the victory to his recently-deceased father. Brothers’s questions might originate with people in a booth delivering them in her ear through an embedded listening device, but they were asked at the right time with feigned spontaneity.
Give credit to those guys in the booth also for keying on the loser. Immediately after he dismounted the runner-up, Velazquez explained that Animal Kingdom was hit in the chest with the kickback when running closer to horses in front when he took to the dirt in the Derby. This time around, further back of the pack, the colt was hit in the face, and it bothered him.
Tom Hammond wears well on the eyes despite a vintage haircut. Versus anchors Randy Moss (he noted that Shackleford changed leads late in the stretch in his post-race analysis) and Laffit Pincay III handle set-up and mop-up like able custodians.
Beautiful Images. As for how everything looked, fans in want of a new screensaver need search no further than NBC’s overhead shot of the Preakness field strung out on the backstretch. With the sun at the cameraman’s back, the long shadows of the horses in motion created an ethereal image, as if swans in flight were cast in the glow of a sunset.
Close-ups of Costas, surrounded by infield gardens, made Pimlico appear to be Eden. Pans of Chesapeake Bay made Baltimore look as if it was Barcelona. Another shot stopped hearts; it was of Motion consoling his son after the results were official. And, best of all, NBC Sports ran numerous commercials that advertised upcoming telecasts from Saratoga Racecourse and the Breeders’ Cup. What more could you ask for?
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