A disclaimer: I am married to an ESPN engineer and am a former employee myself. I’m not dissing NBC Sports – they cover equestrian events for us horse lovers, after all – but having a little fun.
Video of the end of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, before Mine That Bird enters the Winner’s Circle
Although I watched the race itself in the hotel bar after a writer’s conference, I didn’t get to watch NBC’s coverage until Sunday afternoon, thanks to the magic of DVR.
While I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder about the scene behind-the-scenes in the TV truck that served as the command center for the broadcast. Because I’ve spent some time in TV trucks during live sports coverage.
And I’m sure that, while winning jockey Calvin Borel was crying with joy, the producers and directors inside the truck must have been sputtering with frustration because they didn’t have enough information to complete their Derby TV story of big dreams come true.
The previous favorites had scratched, so NBC must have had to shelve the footage they’d shot during the previous week.
And they had footage and info about the big names, like the sheik, the retired principal and the retiring trainer.
But the production team really didn’t know what to say to trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr., even during “the walkover” from the backstretch to the paddock before the race.
All they knew was that he’d broken his leg in a motorcycle accident. And that he’d hauled his Derby horse himself from New Mexico in a pickup truck/horse trailer rig.
Oh, yeah – and that the yearling Mine That Bird had cost $9,500. And was going off at, by post time, at 50-1 odds. (FWIW, the odds had inched up from the high 40s during the broadcast.)
That was it. That was about all the background the TV production team had. After all, Mine That Bird couldn’t possibly win. To them, he wasn’t even a contender.
So, they glossed over the important clue about the wild card aboard – skilled jockey Calvin Borel. The 2007 Derby-winning jockey who’d dined at the White House with expert horsewoman HRH Elizabeth II a couple of years ago. And more recently, Calvin had won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 lengths.
Imagined headset audio in the TV truck
Now, let’s have a little fun with NBC’s predicament. Imagine what might have occurred in the TV truck? Everyone is connected by headsets in an open channel walkie-talkie kind of system. That’s how the directors, producers and technicians communicate behind the scenes.
We’re at the moment in the home stretch when Calvin Borel tucks his head to see where everyone else is and then points back at the pack behind him and his horse.
The 50-1 shot is about to shoot under the wire to win the Kentucky Derby.
I was a technician covering live sports in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Keep in mind that I worked in live TV years before anyone had coined the term “hostile work environment.” Back then, the tempers were hot and the language salty.
Despite what you may have heard about how “heads will roll” when things go badly in TV, that’s not what goes rolling and that only “rolls down hill.”
Anyway, the following is similar to what I remember from having worked in similar TV trucks.
Let’s pretend we’re flies on the wall:
“Look at him go! Camera A, stay with him. Camera B, get me a reaction shot of the owner. Who is the owner anyway? Find him!”‘
The cameras are on the favorites and the big shots. Like the retiring trainer, the retired principal, the big name trainers and the sheik.
“Whaddya mean, you don’t know who he is?!? Get the guy in the black cowboy hat. That’s his trainer, right? He’s on crutches? Oh good. He’ll be easy to spot. How many guys do ya think are in the owners’ section in a black cowboy hat and crutches??!?”
But crowds on Derby Day at Churchill Downs are shoulder2shoulder. Remember the movie “Soylent Green?” Except everyone at Churchill Downs on Derby Day is better dressed.
Back to the shadows of the TV truck. What could they possibly be saying? Let’s guess some more:
“How did he get out front like that anyway? Do we have him on iso?”
“Iso” is an “isolation camera.” The favorites have cameras trained on their post positions to see how they break. Some favorites are covered by multiple cameras to show the audience different angles.
“Whaddya mean? We don’t have him on iso? Isn’t he near any one of the ones we’ve got on iso?”
A production assistant calls back from what, in my day, was the “tape room.” We had a camera on Dunkirk, that PA might offer, and he stumbled coming out of the gate.
“That’s it? Keep on Borel. He’s having a victory party on horseback. People love him. Maybe he’ll hear from The Queen? Can we get a line to Buckingham Palace?”
Meanwhile, another production assistant is communication with the talent, our TV term for the announcer, roving by the winner’s circle. And he has little or no background info to work with. What can he ask the trainer about this besides, How do you feel? What do we know about this horse anyway?
Crutches, 50-1 odds. sold for $9,500 and a horse trailer from New Mexico to Louisville, about 2/3 of the way across the country.
Meanwhile, trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr. has hopped on crutches all the way across the track to the winners circle. It’s a long way anyway without the fatigue of having been there all day, let alone the sudden chaos of my old media colleagues scrambling after him for quotes.
Plus, his shoulders and armpits must have hurt terribly. Have you ever spent much time on crutches?
So, all anyone could think of to ask him was the small talk question of “how long was your drive?”
While NBC is probably scrambling, Borel’s jubiliant high fives with the Churchill Downs gate crew and anyone else who gets close to him makes for the kind of TV that puts a smile on your face.
Meanwhile, back at the truck
The director is calming down, maybe. He might have something to air.
“Take the view from the blimp. We’ve got ’em on the blimp coverage. “
And it’s great stuff. From high above, we see Calvin Bo-rail, as he is known by his peers, hugging the track’s safety rail on the inside and slipping past the leading horses like a Manhattan bicycle messenger knifing between a city bus and a line of cabs.
The overhead shot showed the story of how the race was won.
“Okay. Take the Winner’s Circle camera. Whew! We’re almost done. “
I have to admit that NBC covered well, considering that the show became “wing-it” TV. Thank goodness the weather was good enough for the blimp to fly.
Otherwise, it would have been up to Calvin to keep us entertained. But he’s up to the task, with his moveable feast of victorious joy, especially in this time of more lousy news every day.
Mine That Bird, late bloomer
Unlike NBC during the live event, I’ve had a little time to do a wee bit of newsgathering. (Don’t be mad, NBC. We still love you for your equestrian and racing coverage.)
Mine That Bird was Canada’s 2008 champion 2-year-old. He had qualified for the Derby with his Canadian winnings.
Apparently, he’d come in last in the 2008 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile.
“Birdie” comes by his “upsetting” skills naturally. He’s the son of another “upset” horse, Birdstone, who interrupted Smarty Jones’s bid for the Triple Crown. (A look at his pedigree explains his name, too.)
Here’s a story about his early history as former owner trainer David Cotey’s $9.500 purchase that went for $400,000. If you recall, Cotey’s name had been cited in the trophy presentation.