NBC holds reins for uninitiated Belmont viewers

I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill speaks at

I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill speaks at a news conference. (May 13, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Televising a Belmont Stakes such as this one can be exhilarating, given the massively larger audience that inevitably tunes in when a Triple Crown is at stake.

In the past 10 years, the six Belmonts in which there was no Triple Crown on the line averaged about 6 million viewers; the four in which there was averaged nearly 16 million. But that audience brings with it a challenge for the network that pays for the privilege: Millions of viewers who will not watch another horse race this year.

So I asked producer Rob Hyland whether NBC might dumb down its coverage to help the uninitiated among us.

"We have the same philosophy on all three Triple Crown races," Hyland said Monday, noting the Kentucky Derby and Preakness also draw viewers less sophisticated about racing. "I don't think we will quote-unquote 'dumb it down' any more than we have. We just make sure to explain things thoroughly . . . and try to make it as viewer friendly for the novice as possible."

Novices often are attracted by the human (and horse) interest stories, and there is no shortage of those surrounding I'll Have Another.

But NBC also must figure out how best to address a serious story: controversial trainer Doug O'Neill, who faces a looming suspension imposed by the California Horse Racing Board.

Although Hyland called O'Neill "a likable guy'' and insisted his past has not been a cloud hanging over the event, the producer will deploy Bob Costas -- the best interviewer in sports TV -- for a sitdown Wednesday that will air before the race.

"He's been pretty open about it," Hyland said, "but we are going to ask the tough questions and America is going to get the answers."

Host Tom Hammond said O'Neill's story is "something we've got to cover and we will cover," but he rejected the notion that story line must be front and center after the race if O'Neill's horse wins.

"I don't see it being the story," Hammond said. "The story of the moment will be his winning the Triple Crown."

MSG Plus will cover the race draw live at 11 a.m. Wednesday, and NBC Sports Network will begin its coverage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday with a documentary on I'll Have Another. NBC will begin its show at 4:30 Saturday.

Hyland said his crew will be careful not to ignore the other horses in the race, but there will be no apologizing for giving one horse more attention.

There also will be no apologizing among those hoping to see the big prize finally secured.

"I'm on my 33rd year now covering the Triple Crown and I have yet to see a Triple Crown winner," analyst Randy Moss said. "I'm beginning to think it's me."

Fellow analyst Gary Stevens has experienced Belmont drama from both sides. He rode Silver Charm when that horse was denied the Triple Crown in 1997. Then he denied Real Quiet the following year aboard Victory Gallop.

Everyone associated with the production has spent the past couple of weeks answering questions from friends who usually don't follow the sport closely about what might happen Saturday.

Moss said he has been telling people I'll Have Another has a 40 to 50 percent chance of winning. But he added he thought Smarty Jones had a 70 to 75 percent chance in 2004. "There are a lot of pitfalls out there," Moss said.

That's what draws the crowds, and the TV audiences.

Said Hammond: "I just think it penetrates to the average sports fan and they say, 'Wow, I better watch this because it doesn't happen very often.' "

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