‘This Incredible Moment in History’: Inside NBC Sports’ Triple Crown Broadcast
As American Pharoah rounded the second turn at Belmont Park and began to pull away from the pack, the NBC Sports Group crew knew something special was about to happen. And, seated in NEP’s ND1, director Drew Esocoff and Coordinating Producer Rob Hyland were about to put into action a plan 37 years in the making.
Esocoff had just one thing in mind.
“My main goal was just not to cut to a camera that had the wrong horse,” he quipped. “That was priority number one.”
All kidding aside, when American Pharoah crossed the finish line 5½ lengths ahead of Frosted, horseracing recorded its first Triple Crown since 1978. Esocoff and Hyland had worked out a series of camera shots that would play once the race was complete.
“We had a plan in terms of the sequence of images you were going to see if the horse won,” says Hyland. “Drew had a plan to make sure that we would see the horse and then the connection and then back to the horse. We were never going to be away from the horse for more than a shot, and he executed that very well.”
For Esocoff, it wasn’t so much executing a plan as it was adhering to a concept — and keeping an eye on the camera feeds as they were coming in.
“In horseracing, probably more than any other sport, as long as you have a good concept, you’re in good hands,” says Esocoff. “The beauty of sports nowadays is, every camera is recorded. Everything happened simultaneously, [but] there’s no way to get everything on the air simultaneously. So, as long as the plan is there and the subject matter is covered — which it was — and our crew in the truck was recording and reacting to the correct sources — which they were — eventually, the moment was going to pay off, and everything was going to be documented. And we didn’t have to do it in a hurry.”
As the buzz surrounding American Pharoah reached a fever pitch just prior to post time on Saturday, the NBC Sports crew remained calm. After all, most of them had been there before: just last year, California Chrome failed to take home the prize, following in the recent hoofsteps of I’ll Have Another, Big Brown, and Smarty Jones.
“I have been a part of a few NBC productions and prepared for the chance of another Triple Crown. Each time, we’d plan for a Triple Crown winner, and, each time, the plan was filed away for another year,” says Hyland. “Well, the 37-year drought ended last Saturday. It was truly a privilege to be a part of documenting this incredible moment in history, and, while I hope to be involved with many more defining sports moments, it’s really hard to imagine that any will top this one.”
That feeling extended beyond the production crew to include the team in front of the lens. From hosts Bob Costas and Tom Hammond to analysts Randy Moss, Jerry Bailey, and Eddie Olczyk to race caller Larry Collmus, all expressed awe for the history-making horse, gratitude for being a part of the momentous day, and the belief that this sports event will rank alongside the all-time greats.
Costas drew special attention to the importance of the crowd assembled at Belmont Park, a crowd he likened to that of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, when nearly every fan in attendance was united in fan loyalty.
“It’s one thing to have the achievement, but to have the reaction and have the sustained roar as they headed for home, and then to have an event — and this doesn’t happen all that often — where everybody in attendance has exactly the same rooting interest,” says Costas. “Here you are with 90,000-plus at Belmont Park, and everybody is thinking and feeling exactly the same thing, and I think that that was almost as exhilarating as what was happening on the track.”
Says Esocoff, “I’ve gotten texts from camera [operators] who said, when that horse turned for home, they’ve never heard a volume like that at a sporting event before, and these are people that do 75 sporting events a year.”
Whether or not this sets off a chain reaction of Triple Crown winners similar to the 1970s trifecta of Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978) or begins another 37-year drought, one thing is certain: no one on the NBC Sports’ Triple Crown crew will forget the 2015 Belmont Stakes any time soon.
“Without that preparation and understanding, I don’t think the documentation of this event would have been as momentous as it was,” says NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus. “I [want] to thank them and to praise the coverage that our team developed in order to bring this historic moment to sports fans who have been waiting a very, very long time to celebrate this.”