Kentucky Derby Bigger Than Ever on NBC Networks

By the time 20 horses leap out of the gate at Churchill Downs soon after the 6:24 p.m. ET post time tomorrow — barring the usual threat of rain — NBC Sports Group will have been on-air with its live Kentucky Derby coverage for more than six hours. It may be the fastest two minutes in sports, but, in recent years, NBC has transformed the Derby into a full-fledged marathon of a production, complete with four dozen cameras, seven mobile-production trailers, and 11½ hours of live coverage across two networks over four days.

“It’s a unique day in sports that really is a combination of a great event, a great atmosphere, a scene that is unlike any other in sports,” says Rob Hyland, who is producing his first Derby for NBC since 2001. “We’re really excited to showcase a number of great stories in this year’s race. You have 20 horses, 20 jockeys, 20 trainers, and more than 20 owners, and everyone has an unbelievable story. We are going to be showcasing many of those.”

Two Networks, Two Mobile Units, Seven Trailers
NBC Sports Group has once again rolled out NEP’s ND3 (A, B, C, and D) and SS24 (A, B, and C) mobile-production units at Churchill Downs. Last year was the first Derby where NBC had full rein over the compound, with ESPN out of the picture and Versus (now NBC Sports Network) taking over the pre-race festivities. As a result, ND3 became NBC’s Saturday truck, and SS24 became NBC Sports Network’s truck.

“We’ve always had two units out here because of the shear number of cameras that we’re using,” says John Roché, senior technical manager for NBC Sports at NEP. “It’s just that now, we divide the trucks up so that SS24 handles the Sports Network side of things and ND3 does all the NBC stuff along with camera support from SS24.”

In addition to five hours of Saturday pre-race coverage, NBC Sports Network carried the Kentucky Derby Draw on Wednesday and Live From Churchill Downs on Thursday and will carry the Kentucky Oaks on Friday evening (each a one-hour program). In addition NBC Sports Network aired three “Derby Classics” during the week.

Four Dozen Cameras for 20 Horses
Roché and company have deployed a total of 48 cameras throughout the Churchill Downs complex, including 18 hard cameras and 14 handhelds. The flashiest addition to the camera layout this year will be a POV robotic inside the starting-gate stall of the No. 6 horse, Bodemeister, which is among the favorites to win the Derby.

“The camera formula is pretty well set by now; the only major addition we have is the camera in [Bodemeister’s] stall,” says Roché. “It’s a one-time, six-second shot so whether [director Drew Esocoff] takes the shot or not, I’m not sure. We’ll see.”

POV cameras will also be deployed in the stewards’ room (where no manned NBC cameras are allowed), in a 360-degree configuration on the starting gate, and as a helmet-cam for on-horse reporter Donna Brothers’s post-race interviews. NBC will also deploy four RF wireless handhelds and three SteadiCams to cover everything from the horses in the stables to the mint-julep–toting spectators in the stands.

The finish line will be well covered as usual with an NAC Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mo camera (co-developed with Ikegami) at the finish and a super-slo-mo just past the finish line. Another super-slo-mo camera will shoot down the front stretch to capture the opening glory shot of the race.

“We’ve been using the [NAC ultra-slo-mos] ever since the Super Bowl, when we saw how great they performed,” says Roché. “We’ve decided that it is pretty much the camera of choice for us right now.”

BSI All Over Churchill Downs
Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI) will provide the RF-transmission services for the RF and POV cams, deploying its Intelligent Diversity Distributed Receive System, which locates multiple RF-over-fiber receive sites throughout a venue.

BSI will also be providing NBC with 13 wireless microphones for talent and effects audio. Overall, the company has 85 mics scattered throughout the Churchill Downs complex, 50 of which are effects mics.

Bringing Back the Graphics
Last year, NBC put a renewed emphasis on the graphics and horse-tracking elements of its Triple Crown telecasts, introducing several in-race elements: a live leaderboard of the top six horses, a virtual thumbnail graphic showing the horses’ location on the track, and a virtual distance-to-the-finish indicators down the backstretch. Many of these elements – courtesy of SMT (formerly Sports Media Technology) – are likely to return, perhaps enhanced.

“I think we built a pretty good foundation last year in pushing the envelope technically,” says Hyland. “We’ve improved our tracking on replays. We are trying out some things [leading up to the race] that may or may not appear on Saturday with virtual technologies. We are really going to build upon what we did last year in terms of graphics.”

New, Returning Faces at the Front Bench
Esocoff is back in the director’s chair this year, but his Sunday Night Football producing cohort Fred Gaudelli is not. Gaudelli is serving as a consulting producer for this year’s coverage after producing his first Triple Crown for NBC last year, but Hyland will be in the front-bench seat. A veteran of the network’s horseracing coverage since 2001, he produced Versus’s Triple Crown coverage last year.

“I did the first Derby on NBC back in 2001, and this is my first year as the leader of the talented production group,” says Hyland. “I’ve done a number of Super Bowls, a number of Olympics, but there is nothing like the Kentucky Derby.”

NBC Sports Network’s coverage is produced by Billy Matthews and Rich O’Connor and directed by Patrick McManus.

NBC Sports Network’s coverage of the 138th Kentucky Derby begins at 11 a.m. ET tomorrow. NBC’s coverage begins at 4 p.m. Post time for the race is 6:24 p.m.