Imagine being the producer of a Broadway show 30 hours from opening night and your star tells you he isn’t going to be able to go on. Now imagine the verbal salad that explodes in your head as you realize you must start the entire show from scratch.
That was the dilemma facing NBC when its star, I’ll Have Another, sent his regrets that he wouldn’t be going for the Triple Crown on Saturday at the Belmont Stakes. Weeks of prepared material, openings, bumpers and promos went poof when trainer Doug O’Neill announced that a tendon problem was forcing the retirement of I’ll Have Another.
“Really wild” is how one NBCer described the scene. The network had a 2 1/2 hole into which to pour its shock. As producer Rob Hyland told to his stunned staff, “Hey this is horse racing.”
According to sources, the format for NBC’s extensive coverage of the first horse to win a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 “was basically ripped up.” While features on jockey Steve Cauthen (who rode Affirmed in 1978) and the jinx of the Triple Crown could be salvaged, everything else had to be improvised in a day and a half. The lost material included Bob Costas confronting O’Neill in an interview about his doping history. (O’Neill is about to start a 45-day suspension in California for giving his horse “an illegal performance-enhancing mixture.”)
Instead, Costas did an interview with O’Neill and the Canadian owner of I’ll Have Another, J. Paul Reddam, that was less confrontational. NBC had to tread carefully, but it did mention the unusual measures employed by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, sequestering all the Belmont horses in the same barn from last Wednesday to guarantee no “last-minute helpers” could be employed. At least one trainer called it a mistake in the lead-up to the race. (Whether there was any connection, the Belmont Saturday was the fifth slowest time in the past 42 years.)
Working all night, the production staff refocused the broadcast to recast the Belmont as a chance for redemption for Union Rags (the eventual winner) and on how I’ll Have Another’s withdrawal affected the strategy.
There was a droll feature on the unusual supplement of Guinness beer and eggs, fed to long-shot Guyana Star Dweej.
There was also great footage as I’ll Have Another’s Vancouver-trained jockey Mario Gutierrez sobbed as he paraded the colt for fans on Saturday to hear one last cheer.
In a Belmont that was fated to be unsatisfying with rumours swirling of other reasons for the horse’s scratch, NBC made the best of a bad hand.
Even for those who’ve worked in TV, it’s impressive to see NBC’s interviews seamlessly done on the fly with the trainers as they head from the paddock to the track. The interviewers conduct a debriefing on the march and then pass the baton to the next interview. Imagine all pregame NHL interviews done on the run and melding so smoothly. With open-ended questions.
As if it needed any more dislocation, NBC had to improvise the winners’ circle to accommodate Union Rag’s wheelchair-bound owner Phyllis Wyeth.
In an audio glitch, an off-camera Costas could be heard urgently asking where his camera was. Adding to the pressure, NBC faced a time crunch, too, when the event went long. Did we say it was live TV?
Call it curiosity, call it nostalgia, but NBC’s ratings were the best of a non-Triple Crown Belmont since 2005, up 74 per cent from 2010 on ABC. Quite a day for the network which had the women’s French Open tennis final in the morning, the Belmont in the afternoon and Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final all in the same day.
You also had to feel for TSN, which co-ordinated the announcement of its new rights deal for the Belmont with the hype of the Canadian-owned colt, only to have it go flat with the scratch of I’ll Have Another. Ah yes, live TV.