With Triple Crown No Longer in Play, NBC Regroups at Belmont

In just the second year since reuniting all three Triple Crown races on one network, NBC Sports Group found itself in a plum situation going into Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with the Triple Crown in play for the first time since 2008. That was until Friday morning, when trainer Doug O’Neill announced that I’ll Have Another will be scratched from the race due to injury. However, well before the scratch was announced, NBC had mightily boosted its production efforts for the third jewel in the Crown, including additional cameras, a larger crew, and the debut of a brand-new NEP mobile-production unit.

“While we are obviously disappointed that our show won’t feature I’ll Have Another going for the elusive Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes is still an iconic event on the sports schedule, and the NBC Sports Group broadcasts will treat it as such,” NBC Sports Group VP of Communications Adam Freifeld said in a statement. “We’re working now to adjust the game plan accordingly.”

NBC will now go about determining how to utilize the increased production resources on hand in Elmont, NY, without the presence of a Triple Crown contender.

“I would hope [the way I direct] changes very little [as a result of the Triple Crown bid],” Drew Esocoff, who will be directing his second consecutive Belmont for NBC, said earlier this week. “With the Triple Crown in play, it does makes Belmont a very happening place on race day than if it were a non-Triple Crown race. But we are by no means expecting to change the formula of how we’ve approached the first two legs of the Triple Crown.”

 NBC Gives It Another Shot After I’ll Have Another Scratched
In addition to a massive crew of more than 200, NBC Sports Group has rolled out NEP’s ND4 (A and B units) as its primary production unit in Elmont, NY, along with ND6, which is making its maiden voyage this weekend. ND3, which NBC typically uses for Triple Crown (and Sunday Night Football) coverage, is on its way to Olympic Club in San Francisco for next weekend’s U.S. Open golf tournament.

“To have this opportunity in my first year [producing the Triple Crown] is just incredible,” producer Rob Hyland, who took over the Triple Crown reins from Fred Gaudelli this year, said during a conference call earlier this week. “I’ve been a part of three Super Bowls, six Olympic Games, and a number of other high-profile sporting events, but to have the opportunity to produce an event and an athletic achievement that hasn’t been done in 34 years is an honor and a responsibility that we don’t take lightly.”

NBC has deployed a total of 38 cameras, including two super-slo-mos, one ultra-slo-mo, a blimp cam, a remote pan-and-tilt camera on the start gate, and an army of RF wireless units provided by BSI (Broadcast Sports Inc.).

There are three more cameras than for the Preakness and last year’s Belmont, which first-year producer Rob Hyland acknowledged was a direct result of I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid. Among the added cameras is an RF camera for the red-carpet area and a jib to showcase the grandstand on the front stretch.

“We’ve added these three cameras and a bunch of drop locations, so you’ll have new imagery pop up at this year’s Belmont,” says Hyland. “We think [the added jib] will help the viewers appreciate how big this space really is.

BSI Back for More
BSI is once again providing the RF infrastructure and wireless for NBC’s coverage. Using BSI’s Intelligent Diversity Distributed Receive System, NBC is able to present live wireless coverage throughout Belmont Park. BSI will deploy the system with multiple RF-over-fiber receive sites throughout the grounds supporting the wireless control and signal reception of five HD digital mobile camera links, five UHF wireless camera-control systems, one Steadicam rig, 12 wireless microphones, one gate-mounted HD wireless camera link, seven IFBs, and one HD POV wireless helmet camera.

“The critical thing for a show like this is that, not unlike at a golf tournament, your RF equipment is all operating in a pristine manner because it’s your life blood and you can’t live without it,” says Esocoff. “You can’t just add cable to a venue that is this big.”

The View From the Front Bench
This year’s Belmont will be the third that Esocoff has directed (he previously directed one for ABC Sports) and eighth Triple Crown race overall. As the longtime director of Sunday Night Football, he understands as well as anyone the importance of a “big-event feel” during the Belmont telecast. However, that does not necessarily mean adding an onslaught of additional production elements.

“The approach that Rob or [SNF producer Gaudelli] and I take on a big event is, the less equipment you feel compelled to add, the better off you will be going into an event,” said Esocoff. “You can’t add things just for the sake of adding them. It comes down to why would you add a bunch of extra equipment to an event that is basically a studio show for every part of the event outside of two minutes.

“As much as we like to dress up horseracing coverage,” he continued, “the pure horseracing fan wants basically one-camera coverage or the two-camera split screen that they give you at the track. You don’t want to add anything that is going to muck up horseracing coverage, because it makes it a disorienting experience for the average person and annoying for the experienced horseman.”

For Esocoff, one of the keys to horseracing coverage is capturing key shots when he has the chance, because he may not get another shot.

“You have to be very aggressive in using your tape resources to back you up on shots that you would normally take live,” he said. “If we see [trainer] Bob Baffert early in the day, we will always record those shots because, when we need a shot of him to lead to a feature on Bob Baffert, you don’t have a high-percentage shot of finding him live.”

 NBC Sports Group is presenting 5½ hours of live coverage this weekend and 11 hours overall throughout the week. NBC’s 2½ hours of coverage of the Belmont begins at 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and is bookended by pre- and post-race coverage on NBC Sports Network.