Mark Story: Keeneland played key role launching career of NBC's Hammond

Tom Hammond, NBC's lead broadcaster for the Breeders' Cup World Championships, was part of the network's coverage as a freelance reporter for the first Breeders' Cup in 1984.
Tom Hammond, NBC's lead broadcaster for the Breeders' Cup World Championships, was part of the network's coverage as a freelance reporter for the first Breeders' Cup in 1984.

It is not a stretch to say Tom Hammond would not have enjoyed a network-level broadcasting career had it not been for Keeneland Race Course.

In the early 1960s, J.B. Faulconer, once a prominent Lexington radio broadcaster who became the publicity chief at Keeneland, took a young Hammond under his wing.

Hammond's first job in broadcasting was reading race results over Lexington's WVLK-AM radio. Faulconer taught him the basics of race calling, and Hammond became the play-by-play voice for the Keeneland Race of the Day.

Back when tradition-heavy Keeneland did not have a public address announcer to call its races, Hammond was the track's "silent race caller."

"I would get my binoculars and I would call numbers (of the horses) out," Hammond said. "They would punch them into the (tote) board for the running order during the race. That was the only way people without binoculars could follow the race. ... I would memorize the silks, and memorize it with a number just like a race caller would with a (horse's) name."

After Hammond was hired as a sportscaster at Lexington's WLEX-TV, he continued to work at Keeneland. For more than a decade, WLEX management allowed Hammond to also work as "the voice of the Keeneland sales pavilion."

"Because of (my love for) the horses I didn't want to leave Lexington," Hammond said. "But I had to make some money, and so rather than having to try to jump to a bigger market and a bigger station the way you normally do in the television business, I was able to stay here because I could supplement my income from the money from the Keeneland sales."

It will come as zero surprise that a guy whose career history is so intertwined with Keeneland is pumped about the Breeders' Cup coming to Lexington for the first time Friday and Saturday.

"Conventional wisdom was always (Keeneland) was too small," Hammond said. "They've just done an unbelievable job of figuring out how to make it work. And I think it will work.

"Keeneland is a special place. Central Kentucky is a special place for the horse. It's also the perfect place to have the Breeders' Cup. ... (The event) gets lost in Los Angeles, let's face it. Here, it will be the centerpiece for that whole week."

Hammond's connection with The Breeders' Cup goes back to the beginning. Actually, before the beginning.

In the event's formative stages, horseman John Gaines, the father of the Breeders' Cup, shared his vision with Hammond.

"I was fortunate enough to have him bounce some of those ideas off of me when he was thinking them up," Hammond said. "Not that I contributed, because I really didn't, but I would give my opinion on some of those things. So I felt like I had a stake in it before it became a reality."

For the broadcast of the first Breeders' Cup in 1984, NBC hired Hammond as a freelance reporter to help cover the event. He did such a good job, the Peacock network immediately offered him a full-time gig.

Hammond has been with NBC Sports ever since, working at various times as a play-by-play man for NBA and NFL broadcasts, Notre Dame football as well as Olympic track and field and figure skating.

Horse racing has always been his first love.

Having already broadcast American Pharoah's Triple Crown in 2015, Hammond now gets to help cover the Breeders' Cup in his hometown.

"It will be the most memorable horse racing year I've ever had, for sure," Hammond said. "And, if everybody we expect is there and in top form, the Breeders' Cup Classic could be one of the all-time special Breeders' Cup races, as well."

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