New York Times: A Triumph of Racing, and Broadcasting, That Was Worth the Wait

The prerace programming for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday on NBC lasted nearly two and a half hours. Despite the quality of the broadcast, it felt too long, but perhaps that was appropriate given the 37-year wait for a Triple Crown winner.

The coverage was balanced enough so that if American Pharoah did not win, the Triple Crown spoiler would not have been a near stranger, as had been the case on previous broadcasts when networks presumed that viewers cared only about the Triple Crown hopeful.

Jerry Bailey, the jockey turned analyst, predicted without reservation that American Pharoah would win (“He might actually be peaking,” he said), rejecting the conventional wisdom about the rigors of the mile-and-a-half race and a field of rested rivals. Randy Moss, another analyst, was less certain, wary of the history of Triple Crown misses.

“But maybe he’ll blow our socks off,” Moss said, predicting a win.

When the horses were loaded into the starting gate, I felt relief. Those seconds before the race had begun to feel a bit like the moments before the first pitch in Game 4 of the 2004 World Series. Yes, the Red Sox were ahead, three games to none, on the way to winning their first championship in 86 years. But they could have lost — they could have been swept in the next four games by the St. Louis Cardinals. American Pharoah had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and was a 3-5 favorite to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

But he could have lost.

At nearly 7 p.m. Eastern, Larry Collmus, NBC’s race caller, said: “All eyes on Stall No. 5. Is today the day? Is he the one?”

When the race began, Collmus noted American Pharoah’s imperfect departure from the gate but quick move to the lead. Collmus’s narrative was clean and fervent, his voice rising as the field headed to the final turn.

He told me recently that he was planning what he might say — a “rehearsed ad-lib,” he called it — if American Pharoah were victorious. Perhaps he used some of what he had jotted down, perhaps not. What he did say, as the horse headed to his triumph, was worthy and memorable: “American Pharoah makes his run for glory as they come into the final furlong.” And then: “And here it is; the 37-year wait is over. American Pharoah is finally the one. American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” (I thought of Tom Durkin, who called eight races where the Triple Crown was at stake, but no victories, before retiring last year.)

NBC’s cameras did not miss anything from angles behind, above, to the side of and in front of the field of eight horses. And as soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line, NBC quickly cut to a lovely reaction shot of American Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, and Baffert’s wife, Jill.

PHAROAH, THE BRAND How effective can a horse be as a corporate spokesman? American Pharoah will be in that position for as long as his fame continues. He cannot sign his name to T-shirts or to souvenir shoes. And of course, he cannot talk about the glories of a sponsor.

But let us assume that he and his team have a brand worth exploiting. We saw some of that come to life Saturday. The pants legs of his jockey, Victor Espinoza, bore the name of Wheels Up, a private aviation company. At the trophy presentation ceremony, Espinoza wore a cap bearing the name of another sponsor, the energy drink maker Monster, while the horse’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, donned a Wheels Up cap.

Nothing, fortunately, was written in henna on the horse’s body to promote, say, an offshore gambling website.

On the Steiner Sports website, the Triple Crown Collection was being advertised. As part of Steiner’s deal with Espinoza, the site is taking orders for signed and framed photos of Espinoza; some will come with a disk of dirt from the Belmont Park track, said Brandon Steiner, who runs the memorabilia company.

Steiner, who has had deals to scoop up dirt at stadiums and ballparks around the country for years, said he planned to collect two buckets’ worth at Belmont on Monday.

Steiner has signings planned for Espinoza and said he also had a deal with Baffert. But so far, Steiner has not added the horse to a stable of athletes that includes Derek Jeter and many Yankees.

“I know this sounds crazy,” Steiner said by telephone from a wedding. “But I’d like to find a place big enough so that we can have the horse there so people can meet him and take pictures.”

He might have to rule out the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, a favorite place that he uses to stage events with his clients. But to sign American Pharoah, to make him a peer with Jeter, Steiner will have to meet with the Leverage Agency, the horse’s marketer.

This post originally appeared here.


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