First Act of NBC Sports Group’s Triple Crown Hits the Stage

For the first time since 2005, NBC will broadcast all three legs of the Triple Crown, beginning with the Kentucky Derby this Saturday. However, this year’s coverage at Churchill Downs will go well beyond Saturday and the so-called fastest two minutes in sports. Recently brought together under the NBC Sports Group moniker, NBC and Versus are combining to deliver a record 14½ hours of coverage spread over four days.

“This year, we are looking at the Triple Crown as a three-act play, and this is act one,” says NBC Sports Group Executive Producer Sam Flood. “This is the most hours that have ever been done at the Derby. We think it’s a great opportunity to build out what is the greatest sporting event in the month of May and to build up to the big event with our Versus group.”

Versus is providing two hours of daily coverage from Louisville on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and will deliver live race coverage from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. NBC will pick it then with three live hours, including the big event Saturday evening.

ESPN-less Derby Gives NBC Free Rein
With ESPN no longer covering the lead-up to the Derby, NBC Sports group is responsible for the entire four-day production. As a result, NBC has upped its camera complement from 31 to 50 to make up for the feeds that were previously borrowed from ESPN positions.

“We have a lot more cameras because ESPN isn’t here anymore,” says John Roche, senior technical manager, NBC Sports Group. “We used to share cameras for isos of the 20-horse field. Now we have to supplement our own cameras for that. Instead of having four of our own iso cameras and using four of theirs, we now have nine iso cameras up on the camera deck.”

The camera count is not the only thing that has multiplied at Churchill Downs. NBC Sports Group has brought in two full NEP mobile units complete with A, B, and C units: ND3 (NBC’s Sunday Night Football truck, which is usually used for the Derby) and SS24. Only ND3 was used last year.

“We’re treating this as one big complete show, and we’re doing a lot of sharing,” says Roche. “There is a separate mobile unit for Versus, but, as far as equipment and things go, we’re sharing heavily.”

New Camera Positions at the Track
NBC Sports Group will have several new camera positions, including a jib on the outside of Turn Two and a remote pan-tilt camera at the start gate. NBC has also outfitted on-track reporter Donna Brothers with an RF camera as she reports on horseback.

For the first time, NBC will have an X-Mo high-speed HD camera system at the finish line. In the past, the network has used only shutter cameras to shoot the finish. Two super-slo-mo cameras will also be deployed at the finish line, one just past the finish line on the outside and the other on the inside.

New Faces on the Front Bench
The Sunday Night Football team of Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff will take over producing and directing duties for NBC’s Saturday coverage. Meanwhile, the Versus coverage will be produced by Rob Hyland (NBC’s Notre Dame football producer and Versus’s horseracing producer since 2001) and directed by NHL on NBC director Jeff Simon.

“Fred and Drew bring the big-event philosophy, since they do it week after week with [Sunday Night Football],” says Flood. “They just know how to tell the story, and they will do that with these horses. Drew has directed [horseracing] before, and Fred is so into the sport right now, he’s been watching every race he can get his eyes on.”

Rain, Rain Go Away
For the second year in a row, one thing will be on the minds of mint julep-toting spectators and cable-wielding crewmembers alike on Saturday: rain. Last year’s Derby was plagued by downpours, forcing NBC to ground its aerial blimp in favor of a low-flying fixed-wing airplane. The forecast currently calls for a 40% chance of rain on Saturday, and the blimp will be grounded in the face of any major rain or wind.

“The blimp is scheduled to go up right now,” says Roche. “NBC and Goodyear are working on a contingency plan to squash any issues if they occur. But the forecast is looking better.”

In addition, rain can make for a touchy situation when copper-based triax cabling is involved. Luckily for Roche and company, NBC will rely primarily on fiber for its coverage.

“I utilize about 90% fiber and 10% triax on this show,” says Roche. “In the case of rain, fiber obviously helps us out. We’re covered in all our prime positions with fiber so, if we do lose that 10%, we’re still covered with 90% of good cameras on fiber.”

The Sounds of Churchill Downs
NBC will deploy 46 effects mics along the track, with a major focus on the front stretch. Eight mics will capture the sounds at the start gate, and up to six jockeys will be miked during the race.

“As far as jockeys go, it all depends on whether they want to wear it or not,” says Roche. “We are prepared to mic up to six, but, if the jockey refuses to wear the equipment, we can’t do anything about that. Last year, we had four available, and we wound up with two.”

The 5.1 surround-sound audio will be mixed by veteran Wendel Stevens, who helms the audio for SNF.