Triple Crown Hopeful American Pharoah, NBC Sports Race Towards History at Belmont

It’s a familiar refrain at NBC Sports, but no one’s complaining. Once again, the Peacock will broadcast the Belmont Stakes with a potential Triple Crown on the line, as American Pharaoh looks to do what California Chrome (2014), I’ll Have Another (2012), Big Brown (2008), and so many others could not. American Pharoah will have his chance tomorrow at Belmont Park in Elmont, NY, capping two days of horseracing coverage across NBC and NBCSN.

“We’re all very excited to be a part of this event and, perhaps, just before 7:00 ET, we will all be part of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years,” says Coordinating Producer Rob Hyland. “This team has been here before. For many of us, this is our fifth Triple Crown event. The focus will be on American Pharoah, but we will make sure to tell the stories of the entire field of this year’s Belmont Stakes.”

Belmont-StakesNBC Sports will deploy 42 cameras to cover the 147th Belmont Stakes; as it did for last year’s race, with a Triple Crown on the line, the network has added a few extra to the planned complement. This year’s camera count includes a Grass Valley LDX 86 and a Sony HDC4300 6X super-slo-mo in a hard configuration, which will shoot the finish line from the exterior and the interior of the track, respectively.

Additional cameras include two 110-ft. cranes in each turn, with a third stationed along the backstretch, six RF cameras, and several POVs around the 1.5-mile track. In addition, approximately 30 microphones will surround the venue, capturing the sounds of day. And, after successful runs at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, NEP’s ND1 will complete its first Triple Crown this weekend.

“It’s a huge track, but the thing that’s nice about this track is that it’s wide open,” says NEP Senior Technical Manager John Roché. “There’s nothing in the infield like tents that block us at the Derby and at Pimlico. So we don’t need as many cameras.”

While the Belmont might not pose the same technical challenge as previous races, the challenge of telling an impartial, unbiased story ramps up when a Triple Crown is on the line. Hyland’s crew will take great pains to not come across as rooting for American Pharoah, recognizing that, although the feat has not been accomplished since 1978, there are seven other horses in the race.

“I’ve challenged our entire production team to make sure it is a balance, to provide the viewer with the story of American Pharoah as well as the other seven horses in the race,” says Hyland. “As you look through the format and as you watch the show on Saturday on NBC, you’ll see [us] weave the storylines of the entire Belmont Stakes throughout the telecast, but people tuning in will be constantly reminded of Pharoah as the audience grows throughout the afternoon.”

Maintaining focus on the entire field also helps if the Triple Crown contender does not win. Director Drew Esocoff reflects on covering California Chrome’s brush with history last year and how the team reacted when Tonalist crossed the finish line first, responding with key camera angles and replays.

“Last year’s race, obviously, you did not have history made. You had an upset. And the key was to cover both sides of the story,” he says. “Our production plan [this year], at least from the director’s standpoint going in, is pretty much the same. The challenge of doing a horse race, unlike a game of some sort, is that, when you do a game, you’re on script for two minutes and off script for three hours. Here, you’re on script for three hours and off script for two minutes. We have the entire racetrack covered. It’s our goal in this race, other races, and any other sporting event we do to have defining views of critical moments, and I think we have that all covered.”

Although viewership numbers remain to be seen, this year’s Triple Crown possibility will not break any attendance records. The New York Racing Association will cap attendance at 90,000 spectators for this year’s Belmont Stakes in hopes of avoiding the issues of last year’s race, which drew more than 102,000 spectators, resulting in overcrowding, long lines for concessions and bathrooms, and overloaded public transportation.

For the fifth consecutive year, NBC collaborated with SMT on a range of fan-engagement–technology solutions, including SMT’s Live Leaderboard System, ISO Track, ticker, SMART System, Track Map System, and Data Matrix Switchboard. These products will give NBC viewers real-time access to statistical information like a horse’s running order (updated 30 times per second per horse), speed, and distance from finish line, as well as real-time odds and bet payouts.

“SMT’s deep understanding of horseracing telecasts has enabled us to further showcase the sport through data-driven on-air graphics,” says Hyland. “This data helps our analysts illustrate the sport’s subtleties to avid horseracing fans as well as to more-casual viewers.”

Whether or not American Pharoah joins the elite group of Triple Crown winners, NBC Sports will have plenty of opportunity to hone and perfect its approach to the Belmont Stakes in the future. NBC Sports Group and NYRA inked a long-term agreement that extends NBC’s exclusive rights to the Belmont Stakes through the next decade. Since the deal was reached, NBC Sports and NEP beefed up the fiber infrastructure at Belmont Park to make setup smoother and easier.

The extension includes multi-platform rights to the Belmont Stakes, Belmont Stakes Day, and key stakes races throughout the year, televised on NBC and NBCSN and featured on NBC’s digital platforms. NBC Sports International will continue to distribute NBC’s coverage of the Belmont Stakes globally through the term of the deal.

“This is our 10th Belmont coming up, and we are excited to see this great tradition continue on NBC,” says Jon Miller, president, programming, NBC and NBCSN. “We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a great partnership with [CEO/President of NYRA] Chris Kay and the folks at Belmont, and the marriage and partnership will continue for many, many years to come.”

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