John Clay: NBC gearing up for Triple with skeptics in its midst

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 4, 2014 

Belmont Stakes Horse Racing

California Chrome, with exercise rider Willie Delgado in the saddle, galloped in the rain at Belmont Park race track in Elmont, NY., Thursday, June 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)

GARRY JONES — AP

  • Belmont Stakes

    What: Final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

    When: 6:52 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Elmont, N.Y.

    TV: NBC-18

Just when the good folks at NBC Sports opened up the phone lines for a Wednesday teleconference to preview the thrill ride that should be Saturday's Belmont Stakes, in crept the skeptics.

After all, as for California Chrome's chances at cracking the code to end the lengthy Triple Crown drought, skepticism comes with experience.

"It's a battle for me almost not to be jaded when you get to this situation," said network analyst Randy Moss. "We've seen so many times in the past, it just doesn't transpire the way a lot of people want it to."

"Real Quiet and Big Brown, I really thought those were the horses to do it," said the former jockey Jerry Bailey, who will add his expertise to Saturday's telecast. "I'm kind of skeptical to go out on a limb and think it's going to happen this year."

"It's going to be tough," said Mike Battaglia, the noted oddsmaker and NBC equine prediction specialist. "This is not an easy spot."

Hey, what's the deal, Lucille? Aren't TV networks supposed to overhype mega-events, especially made-to-order ones with a popular horse of modest pedigree and work-a-day owners who have a chance of completing the long run to immortality?

It is certainly a great story, said NBC host and Lexingtonian Tom Hammond, who recalled standing next to Belmont Park race-caller Chic Anderson in 1978 when Affirmed beat Alydar to become the last Triple Crown winner.

Hammond bragged about California Chrome's nimble nature and unusual ability to "stop and start" during the race. Hammond said Chrome's magnetism and humble roots mirror Smarty Jones' 2004 Triple Crown try.

"I think this one will be even bigger than that," Hammond said.

With that in mind, coordinating producer Rob Hyland reported that after California Chrome won the Preakness, NBC decided to add microphones — Chrome will be miked up for the walk from the barn to the paddock and out to the track — and seven additional cameras for a Belmont telecast that at 16 total hours between NBC Sports Network and NBC is its longest in history.

Hyland said he remembered two years ago when the network was set for blanket coverage of I'll Have Another's Triple Crown quest only to have the colt scratch the day before the race.

"We will make sure to introduce the entire field to the audience," Hyland said.

No one expects a repeat, however. And Saturday's race-caller, Larry Collmus, said Wednesday, "My race call is going to focus on California Chrome."

There will be plenty of focus on the degree of difficulty.

Moss pointed out the noted absence of Social Inclusion, who had been under Belmont consideration. The third-place finisher in the Preakness was expected to set the pace in the race.

"Jerry and I both believe the pace-setter is now likely to be California Chrome himself," Moss said.

"I think if he goes to the lead, it's going to be very tough for him to win," Battaglia said. "To get that mile and a half, and (jockey) Victor Espinzoa not really used to this track, not used to that mile and a half, I think it's going to be very tough."

Battaglia's NBC prediction partner, Bob Neumeier, said he sees a slow Saturday pace that would all but eliminate closers Wicked Strong, Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin.

Collmus said his research showed the last three Triple Crown winners — Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 — all had the lead on the backstretch.

"So was Citation in 1948," Moss added.

There were 25 years between Citation and Secretariat. There have been 36 years between Affirmed and Saturday.

"We've been looking for a Triple Crown winner ever since," Hammond said, "I'm hoping before I give it up, I'll see one in my lifetime."

"We all think California Chrome, not only is he a great story but he's in there with a fighting chance to pull it off," Moss said. "Maybe he's the one."

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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