Kentucky Derby adjusts to unusual spot on calendar
NBC’s five-hour broadcast of this year’s Kentucky Derby on Saturday will feature a lot of firsts for the iconic event, including a horse that has already won a leg of the Triple Crown, socially distanced reporters, and, for the first time in its 145-year history, no fans.
It will also be run on Labor Day weekend, instead of the first Saturday in May, only the second time the Derby date has been moved. But Rob Hyland, NBC’s Emmy-winning producer, is promising a show full of races, horses and stories that America will want to watch.
“I’ve been a part of every Derby since 2001 and the lead producer since 2012, and this will by far be the toughest challenge from a technical standpoint,” Hyland said last week. “But I am confident that the production in terms of storytelling race coverage, pacing, and entertainment will be as good or better than any we’ve ever done before.”
Among the segments planned: Last year’s historic finish in which Maximum Security was disqualified, the first time that had ever happened in Derby history; the story of Tiz the Law, the heavy favorite, owned by the same owners of 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide; and a segment on Finnick the Fierce, a one-eyed chestnut gelding that cost a mere $3,000 and is expected to take part in the Run for the Roses.
Another segment will chronicle the odd sequencing of this year’s Triple Crown in which the Derby is the second leg, instead of the first. Tiz the Law won the first, which this year was the Belmont Stakes in June.
The Kentucky Derby was one of the first major sporting events to change its date because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jon Miller, NBC Sports Group president of programming, remembers getting a call from Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen at 8 a.m. on March 13 in which he told Miller he wanted to move the Derby date.
“He said, ‘Jon, this is not looking good,’” Miller related of the conversation. Carstanjen said he believed the Derby could be in jeopardy and he wanted to be proactive.
“I’ve got to tell you, my head was spinning,” Miller said. “I was like, ‘C’mon, Bill, are you serious? The Derby is in two months.’”
But Carstanjen was resolute and Miller was impressed by the proactive decision. The idea at first was to still have some fans at the event, which regularly attracts 150,000 fans. They agreed on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.
“We believed that moving our iconic event to Labor Day weekend would enable our country to have time to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” Carstanjen said. “Regrettably, we had no way of knowing that would not be the case.”
The track unveiled a plan to host about 23,000 fans, or 14% of the track’s capacity, but had to scotch it about two weeks ago in consultation with government officials as COVID-19 cases rose in Louisville and in the region.
NBC horse racing analysts Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey talked to Sports Business Journal the day the announcement was made to hold a fanless Kentucky Derby, and neither was surprised at the decision. For them, it means doing their annual Derby prep of interviewing the jockeys, trainers and owners over the phone from NBC studios in Connecticut instead of on the backstretch, in person, at Churchill Downs.
“We all rooted for Churchill to have fans and hoped that somehow they would be able to pull it off, but we were all preparing for what we thought was an inevitability of running the Derby with no fans,” Moss said.