The Preakness on NBC

The more that I watch mainstream media’s coverage of horse racing on television, the more I think that we might be better off if the sport didn’t get covered at all.

I didn’t watch this year’s Derby coverage, but based on the Oaks coverage on Bravo and the Preakness coverage on NBC, I’m thinking that I didn’t miss much.

The Preakness show opens with an overview of the Mine That Bird/Rachel Alexandra/Calvin Borel storyline and a quick review of the odds. Disconcertingly, the audio/video sync is off, and continues that way for much of the program.

Bob Costas promises us a “full look back at the story of Mine That Bird,” and man, he isn’t kidding. The story goes on for a full 25 minutes, including commercial breaks, nearly a third of the scheduled 90 minutes of coverage. While the segments include some engaging moments, including far more endearing perspectives on Mine That Bird’s trainer, Chip Woolley, and owner, Mark Allen, than we saw on Derby day, you can’t tell me that racing is better served by dishing up this drawn-out story than it would have been by coverage of, oh, say, a little live racing? I’m not even sure whether NBC has actually shown a live shot of a horse at this point.

After this interminable re-telling, the broadcast switches to Tom Hammond and Gary Stevens, who offer some nice race analysis of both the Derby and the Oaks, doing justice to Mine That Bird’s extraordinary run to the finish line and Rachel Alexandra’s domination.

Mike Battaglia and Bob Neumeier (good to see him back) do some mercifully quick and relatively meaningless segments on one-hit wonders and fillies in the Preakness, followed by—finally—analysis of some of the other Preakness entrants. Until now, viewers might be forgiven for thinking that the Preakness is a match race between Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird.

It will be no surprise to hear that I enjoy a segment on the history of Pimlico and the Preakness, including footage of Seabiscuit’s match race. Kenny Rice observes that Pimlico has “always been a stop on the second jewel to the Triple Crown.” Not exactly—the Preakness was run for over a decade at New York tracks, and at least one Triple Crown winner took the Preakness before he won the Derby and the Belmont: Gallant Fox, in 1930.

Unable to resist—after all, it’s probably been a good ten minutes since anyone’s mentioned them–NBC goes back to Mine That Bird, the Derby, and Borel. Are there any other jockeys in this race? The only other whose name I’ve heard is Mike Smith. At this point, I am wishing that neither Mine That Bird nor Rachel Alexander wins, so that NBC can look foolish for failing to mention the name of the winner in its copious pre-race coverage.

Bob Neumeier, in the midst of his handicapping, offers up a clanging grammatical mistake as he invites viewers to “join Mike [Battaglia] and I” in not picking Mine That Bird.

I knew that we’d never get through the whole program without a few sexist lines, and they predictably come when Rachel Alexandra is described by Battaglia as a “man running against boys.” He follows up that gem by pointing out that, “Nobody told her she’s a filly…she’s big, she’s strong…” I guess if she knows that she’s a girl, she’ll run like a little lady and be a little less sensational than she is.

Battaglia picks her to win, and Hammond says that “Every woman in America agrees” with him. ‘Cause we girls have to stick together! Right?

We are now at the 1:28 mark of a 1:30 broadcast, the post parade hasn’t started, and I am very glad that I set the TiVo to add extra time.

Hammond gets back major points with me when he points out, as the camera shows the filly in the paddock, “That’s she, Rachel Alexander.” Thank you for that predicate nominative, Tom. It takes a little of the sting out of Neumeier’s muffed object pronoun.

I will never get over the weirdness of hearing “O Christmas Tree” sung at the Preakness.

The coverage of the race itself is of course terrific, and the post-race coverage as pedestrian as that in all other sports. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley stuns when he offers that the Woodlawn Vase is “the most coveted trophy in all of sports.” Oh, really? Ever heard of Lord Stanley?

I suppose we should be glad that we were subjected to endless stories about Mine That Bird and his connections, instead of the sordid story of Rick Dutrow’s background and too much face time for Michael Iavarone, as we were last year.

But really—it was all so boring. There was far too much focus on the same stories over and over, and not nearly enough on actual horse racing. A few well-placed races in the run-up to the big event, balanced with a focus on the stars of the day and—call me crazy—mention of the other horses in the race, would, I think, project some of racing’s excitement to those viewing at home. The weekend’s ratings show that people are willing to tune in to watch horse racing; it’s a shame they got to see so little of it.

21 thoughts on “The Preakness on NBC

  1. Oh man, I so agree with your analysis of NBC’s coverage. I kept waiting for them to show us MTB eating, pooping and all the other stuff horses do during the course of the day. Fascinating, just fascinating. Where was the racing? It made me long for ESPN, which is pretty scary……And PS, I am NOT knocking MTB, just that it would have been nice to hear about some of the OTHER horses in the race.

  2. As I learned from my eavesdropping on the NBC crew (while waiting for the train back up north) they also were annoyed by the orders to ‘create drama’ over Calvin’s decision re whom to ride and so forth – most seemed pretty sensible about wanting to just have a straightforward narrative (although they were equally busy discussing whether or not the jockey in question had teeth).

  3. You’re a bitter man with this narrative or maybe I’m missing the attempt at humor. At the end of the day if a network is not covering the undercards and are given that much time all they can do is prepare the slick preview and backdrop stories. I’m not sure what else anyone expected NBC to air. Are they supposed to fill a half-hour with historical racing replays? The ratings were a hit so why the sour grapes. Further the horses mainly focused on finished 1-2. Even worse in hindsight would anyone really advocate that more of Pioneerof The Nile should’ve been shown? That horse bombed in the Preakness as did a lot of the horses and trainers already featured in the Derby coverage.Another story on Larry Jones or Tom McCarthy (both off the board) would’ve added what value?I’ll concur that it is irksome to hear “Alexander” exchanged with “Alexandra” but what can one do.

  4. I have pretty low expectations for the Network coverage of races, so stopped letting it get to me sometime after Jim McCay called his last Derby for ABC. McCay loved the races, and it showed when he was in the host seat all those years. Frankly I prefer a shorter program and just cut to the chase and show me the race. I tend to stay tuned to Channel 71 to finish the BEL card, then jump over to the network after that. The things I like to watch in a big race are the betting pools, etc., and the networks are not going to start talking about that as it’s way too confusing to the average Joe. I do like the post parade stuff, but why were they always one line behind the with super titles for “Maryland my Maryland”? It also makes me crazy when they don’t show the race the way someone watching a horserace would view it. those cute angles and overheads don’t help me follow my horse at all.

  5. You’re a tough critic!I actually thought it was rather good and they did a nice job covering the stories of the horses and connections. I didn’t watch the Derby coverage but I’m sure a number of non-horseplayers sacrificed mowing their yards to tune in, i.e., my husband, and the played effectively to that audience. Admittedly, for folks like you and me, we’ve heard/read/discussed/blogged all the drama for a week or more, so it’s probably a little tedious.I will have to say, however, that Tom Hammond is scary, especially his eyes. Does he have a thyroid problem? Most interesting piece: the side-by-side photos of Gary Stevens comparing MTB and RA – he couldn’t even see over her withers!And how ’bout Asmussen? He did nothing but give full credit to Hal Wiggins and everything he did to train this amazing filly.

  6. For someone who is so particular about grammar it’s a pity that you got Jim McKay’s name wrong twice. I am just happy that we got some network coverage. Seems to me that most racing fans are not happy unless they have something to complain about. It was a great race and we should be very happy about the outcome.

  7. Sometimes, the nets can’t win, even when they produce a focused, non-fluffy instructional piece for non- or casual fans that tuned in because A) some impossible longshot won the Derby and made the cover of SI or B) a filly was taking on colts in a classic or C) the Derby-winning jockey takes off to the ride filly. Seems to me those storylines, coming off a small ratings bonanza in the Derby struck just the right note. Also, go back and watch the production values; high quality stuff. Finally, as a sports essayist not known for his association with racing, Costas does amazing preparation and is easy on the ears and the brain. Somewhere, Haywood Hale Broun is smiling.

  8. This is why I turn the coverage on about 5 minutes before post. I still in that amount of time found the coverage to be annoying. I do have to admit that I find the Derby coverage unwatchable. It turns my stomach to see some celebrity idiot at the Derby when I know there are thousand of real racing fans who can’t attend.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for weighing in; it’s great to hear a variety of opinions, and to hear what folks liked about the broadcast. A few responses: Linda: Ditto on not knocking MTB. Great story, but let’s hear about the others, too.Glimmerglass: First of all, I’m a woman. And no sour grapes at all; I was just bored. I’d have loved to hear about Musket Man, or even some of the longshots. And I think it’s a terrible shame that the racing schedule for the day meant that live racing comprised so little of the broadcast. I wonder how much NBC had to do with that? Sue: Yes, those Stevens photos were great, and true, props to Asmussen. Scotty: I never mentioned Jim McKay, so I couldn’t have gotten his name wrong. And I agree that the race was great; I never said otherwise.JRP: Like you, I’m a big Costas fan. It’s too bad that his contributions were largely ceremonial, as opposed to substantive. Also agree about the production values. And I thought that Pimlico looked great. Thanks for reading and chiming in–

  10. Hey Scotty:Teresa didn’t get McKay’s name wrong, it was me. So blame the right person next time, will ya’?

  11. When they threw Ryan Seacrest on in last year’s Derby, I went and guzzled about 4 more Mint Juleps…Does he even follow racing? UGH!

  12. I agree 100%. Year after year its the same. I can’t figure out why they can’t use a scroll on the bottom of the screen to give the updated odds throughout the broadcast. In Nascar they have the order of 50 cars constantly. Can’t do this with 13 horses? Theres more than the betting, but for the bettors, wouldn’t this be a good thing? There was nothing better than watching Jim McKay. Straight to the point,and professional. You listened. He was the face of racing for me growing up. Now I have to watch Hank Goldberg glorify himself, and count the stains on his tie? Battaglia and his horse teeth? There has to be a better way to bring racing into the home.

  13. As to Costas . . for this first time on a race broadcast, I thought he was great! Usually, I can’t figure out why he’s there . . his role seems Olympian, pompous, and superfluous. This time, he seemed interested and involved. More generally, my casual-fan/non-fan friends loved the race and enjoyed the show. Agree that more undercard would be nice for the “serious” viewers . . but lets face it, the show’s not for us. Even ESPN has to be bullied into that. Hope they’ll do it at the Belmont.

  14. There was just something about Jim McKay’s voice that would capture the moment and draw you in, he was great at what he did…A scrolling bar at the bottom would be cool, that and split screen, or picture in picture and maybe even a few Jockey cams!! (Thinking big here!)

  15. …forgot to add…maybe a couple of short segments peppered throughout the broadcast showing someone in the paddock or the barns explaining all the different types of racing equipment and why it’s used. My cousin asked me during the Preakness why the horses are wearing masks!! (blinkers!) LOL!

  16. Maybe I was fortunate in missing half of the coverage. The satellite (Dish Network) decided to go out while they were loading into the gate. After a lot of yelling at the TV I made a quick decision to tune to the local Baltimore AM radio station that was covering the Preakness and listened to Dave Rodman give the call. Compared to what I did see of NBC’s coverage, listening to the race on the radio was much better and lends more to the imagination.

  17. The Networks are all about ENTERTAINMENT. Presentations are not about wagering/information etc.Heart warming stories are the norm. Very little analysis is not necessary and not given to the casual viewer in this situation. Isee Derby and Preakness ratings were up. Were the viewers waiting for a catatrophe? How many times, in both broadcasts, were we reminded about Eight Belles?

  18. This type of broadcast is always tough for die hard racing fans. NBC, by design, produces the telecast for neophyte viewers. They use the template that has worked so well for them with the Olympics coverage: good production values, heartwarming stories and a small focus on participants they think will win (think Michael Phelps). NBC picked Rachel and MTB and when they went 1-2, NBC was very happy. Thanks for the link

  19. Would be a much better show with a Harvey Pack appearance. Is he still alive ? Maybe harvey could have thrown out a few Oscar Barerra references.The ghost of ol’ Oscar is alive with MTB and nobody wants to talk about it. This horse had a top Beyer of 81 , couldn’t even win a New Mexico derby prep and then runs past horses like he was Secretariat. Even the owner has a shady connection with a sleazy Alaskan senator. The horse was juiced !

  20. Thankfully, I attend the Preakness each year live, but we do Tivo the big race coverage throughout the year. I guess I’ve just learned to accept that stations like TVG/HRTV are for more hardcore fans/bettors like us, whereas the networks are where my friends and friends of friends (or family, or family of friends) go and check out this little sport called horse racing they’ve heard me mention from time to time. In that sense, NBC probably did a very good job. From the viewing I gave when we got home (fast forwarding to the post parade), it looked pretty good. I do wish the undercard races could be factored into the broadcasts though with a bit more in depth discussion…A quick look over the Belmont undercard shows some VERY talented horses (Justwhistledixie, Court Vision, Kodiak Kowboy, Cowboy Cal, Gio Ponti, Better Talk Now, Doremifasollatido, Fabulous Strike, and Grand Couturier) all on the card as opening acts. Guess I’ll just do what I always do…watch along with TVG until about post time, and then switch over to the main networks. The important thing, at least for me, is that these “big days” present our best chance to prove that “Take Back Saturday” works…now if we could just keep these story lines building/growing….which thankfully should happen by virtue of Mine That Bird not having a date with stud duty in his future. 🙂

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