It was the day that “the greatest two minutes in sports” turned into “the greatest 24 minutes in sports.”
During those dramatic 24 minutes at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, millions of dollars were won, then lost. A long-time horse trainer and a talented young jockey fulfilled lifelong dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby, but then had to suffer through an excruciating 22-minute wait that ultimately gave those honors to the second-place horse.
Most of us watched it all take place through our TVs on NBC. Janesville native Greg Hughes, the senior vice president of communications with NBC Sports Group, was at Churchill Downs.
Hughes is no novice when it comes to horse races. His late father, Jack, would take him to the tracks in Chicago when Greg was a youngster.
Saturday was not even close to being a normal day at the track.
The weather in Louisville was nice to begin with, but clouds moved in and it began to drizzle during the 11th race—the one leading up to the Derby. When the Derby entrants hit the track, it was a steady rain.
“It was the first time I can remember a track being changed from a ‘fast’ track immediately to a ‘sloppy’ track,” Hughes said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon. “You could hear the buzz in the crowd of, ‘Hey, are there mudders in here? You heard the term ‘mudder’ a lot in that hour or so.”
Mudders are horses that run well when the track is sloppy or muddy. Most horses don’t enjoy having mud kicked up into their faces.
That was just the beginning. As part of its prerace coverage, NBC showed Churchill Downs’ chief steward, Barbara Borden, giving instructions to the 19 jockeys in the race. Only the best jockeys ride in the derby, coming from tracks in California, Florida and New York as well as the ones that normally race in Kentucky.
Borden, one of three stewards, or judges, that watch races and rule on any claims of foul, became more famous in the next hour that she ever thought possible.
The first 1½ minutes of “the greatest two minutes in sports” went off as normal. Mud flew as expected, but one of the favorites, Maximum Security, galloped to the head of the pack at the start and stayed there into the final turn.
But then Maximum Security made a sudden move to his right, bumping into the horse beside him. Horses often do that when they get tired.
But Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez said the roar of the 150,000 fans in the grandstand spooked Maximum Security. The horse righted the ship, sped off and crossed the finish line first. A 65-1 longshot, Country House, was second.
NBC interviewed Saez as he and Maximum Security made their way to the winner’s circle. NBC’s Nick Luck interviewed trainer Jason Servis. His younger brother, John Servis, trained the 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones.
Jason had finally matched his older brother, something that obviously he had dreamed about.
“I want to call my Dad,” Jason told Luck as he waited for Saez and Maximum Security. “It’s going to be real emotional for me. I’m trying to keep it together.”
Seconds later, Servis’ emotions took another hit, and NBC’s coverage took a dramatic turn.
Two jockeys made claims of foul against Saez and Maximum Security. Objections—filed by jockeys, trainers or owners—are seldom upheld. Usually stewards will spot any inappropriate action while watching the race and will light up the “inquiry” sign to review it.
Steward inquiries many times lead to horses being placed lower than they finished. My guess is the stewards weren’t going to post an inquiry because this was the Kentucky Derby.
When two jockeys filed objections, the three stewards had to look at it. And look they did. They looked and looked and looked some more.
Hughes said there were long lines at the cashiers windows with bettors holding “winning” tickets. Maximum Security was the favorite and many fans had him.
“There was a lot of high-fiving,” Hughes said. “A lot of cheering.”
Then the “objection” sign blinked on.
“Our coverage quickly switched to covering the incident around the final turn,” Hughes said.
NBC replayed the bumping from several angles. Producer Rob Hyland and director Drew Esocoff—who work the network’s Sunday Night Football pregame shows and game coverage—switched back and forth from the replay to shots from a camera mounted in corner ceiling spot in the stewards room.
“We’ve always, always, always had that,” Hughes said stewards’ room camera. “But we rarely had an occasion to use it.”
The viewing audience got dozens of shots of the back of Borden’s head as she watched replays of the incident on several of monitors.
Cameras also showed Servis and Saez talking while looking up at the infield video board.
Media members did interviews.
“You don’t get that in any other sport except horse racing,” Hughes said. “You’re interviewing the participants during the challenge. You’re getting their trepidations, their thoughts in real time.
“Can you imagine talking to an NFL coach during a review?”
Around and around, the drama unfolded. The NHL delayed the start of the playoff game between Boston and Columbus so it could be shown in its entirety on NBC.
The winner’s share of the purse, by the way, was $1.8 million. That can buy a lot of hay.
Finally, 22 minutes after Maximum Security crossed the finish line first, the stewards took him down. It was the first time in 145 runnings of the Kentucky Derby that the winner was taken down by the stewards.
Winners became losers. Betting tickets were thrown in the air. It was a historic ruling.
“There was a huge gasp,” Hughes said. “(The crowd was saying) Oh my god, wow.
“It was a fascinating thing to see. That scene had to play out throughout America.”
And NBC nailed it.
“I thought our production team along with Mike Tirico, Jerry Bailey, Randy Moss, Laffit Pincay and the rest of our reporters quickly flexed to a really smart place,” Hughes said. “It was a real test, but I think our people would get an A-plus from anybody watching.”
There were many. NBC had its highest rating for the race since 1992.
Action, drama and controversy, all packed into two, ah, make that 24 minutes.
It was great.