Saturday’s Preakness Stakes on NBC will mark just the second horseracing telecast that Fred Gaudelli has produced, the first being the Kentucky Derby earlier this month. Although the acclaimed veteran of Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football does not have a Triple Crown under his belt yet, he has already made an indelible mark on NBC’s coverage, which has taken on an even more “big-event” feel and added a variety of technological enhancements.
“The first thing I did when I got this assignment was just try to immerse myself in the sport,” says Gaudelli. “As a sports fan, I knew the history and had watched every Derby since the time I can remember watching television, but I really had to immerse myself in the sport the way that I would with the NFL.”
Boning Up on Racing
This immersion started the night of Super Bowl XLV, when Gaudelli hopped on a flight to Santa Anita Park to take in the action at one of the country’s most beloved tracks. He then began studying every Triple Crown telecast from the early 1980s on to see how the broadcasts had evolved over the years.
“Then, I started consulting with people who really knew the sport, watching races and how they were covered every weekend, and really following the stories online to learn about the horses that might factor in this year,” Gaudelli recounts. “In horseracing, it’s always about the stories, so I had to know them backwards and forwards.”
On Hand at Pimlico
Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore may not have the sheer size or reputation of the sprawling Churchill Downs in Louisville, but the venue is plenty charismatic, and NBC Sports Group will cover it accordingly. NBC and Versus will combine to deliver 6½ hours of coverage on Friday and Saturday.
NBC will deploy 35 cameras (compared with 50 at the Kentucky Derby), and NEP’s ND3 (NBC’s Sunday Night Football truck) will be on hand to run the show. Among the network’s arsenal of cameras will be an X-Mo on the finish line, a trackside super-slo-mo 15-20 yards past the finish line, and an additional super-slo-mo located on turn one to capture the action out of the gate.
“This is not nearly the expanse of Churchill Downs, so you don’t need as many cameras to cover everything here.” says Gaudelli. “You could probably put five Pimlicos inside Churchill Downs, but Pimlico definitely has its own charm.”
Graphics, High Angles Reflect Philosophical Change
Judging by Gaudelli and SNF director Drew Esocoff’s work at Churchill Down, viewers can expect a marked departure at Pimlico from past NBC telecasts. A variety of new data-driven graphic elements will populate the screen before, during, and after the race.
In addition to an on-air display of real-time odds and payouts before the race, the telecast will feature a variety of in-race elements: a Live Leaderboard showing the running order of the top six horses, a Track Map virtual thumbnail graphic in the corner of the screen showing the horses’ location on the track, virtual distance-to-the-finish indicators on the track surface down the backstretch, and an ISO Tracking System that tracks each horse individually. The underlying technology behind these elements comes courtesy of SMT (SportsMedia Technology).
“When they gave me this assignment, aside from learning the stories and the sport, the first thing I wanted to figure out was what we could do technology-wise to make this more entertaining or informative to our audience,” says Gaudelli. “There are so many subtleties in horseracing, and it’s very difficult sometimes to pick out the horse that your announcers are talking about. By adding these elements, you’re making the race more accessible for viewers.”
In addition, Esocoff has boosted the use of high angles, including cranes and blimp shots, during the live race to provide a better overall view of the action as it transpires. At Churchill Downs, Esocoff relied heavily on a high crane and a blimp camera to cover the race going into turn three and down the backstretch, a strategy rarely, if ever, used at the Derby in the past.
“Before there was HD, using the blimp during the live race was probably not something that you would want to do,” says Gaudelli. “But now that we have HD, the blimp gives you an awesome look at a horse race. You can see how they are moving, but you are still able to see the silks so you can still recognize the horses. At [the Derby], Drew really stressed that, if we wanted perfect unblocked views of the horses, we would have to go higher.”
Audio Issues Resolved
NBC will deploy 40 effects mics at Pimlico and look to avoid the audio issues it experienced at the Derby. Many viewers complained that NBC’s mics picked up too much of the Churchill Downs PA audio, creating for an uncomfortable experience for those listening in 5.1 surround sound.
“There were two issues [with the audio],” says Gaudelli. “Because they had 164,000 people there, the PA really got cranked way up. It was incredibly loud, and we were probably a bit too aggressive in our [audio] mix. Depending on where you lived and how your cable system handled it, the problem was exacerbated depending on if you were listening in 5.1 or not. We obviously noticed it, and we didn’t feel great about it, and we’re not going to let it happen again.”
More Coverage on More Platforms
The Preakness also marks the latest chapter in the continued integration of NBC Sports and Versus. NBC will air two hours of coverage surrounding the main event on Saturday; Versus will deliver two hours today (including the Black Eyed Susan Stakes) and 2½ hours on Saturday. Gaudelli and Esocoff will handle the NBC side, and producer Rob Hyland (Versus horseracing and NBC’s Notre Dame football) and director Jeff Simon (NHL on NBC) will man the truck for Versus.
“We all work together now,” says Gaudelli. “Rob Hyland and Jeff Simon have been at NBC Sports way longer than I have. Rob and I have worked hand-in-hand on every single element of both shows for the months leading up to this thing. We could not have worked any closer.”
In addition to the linear coverage, NBCSports.com will for the first time ever provide live streaming of the race. In addition to hearing Larry Collmus’s race call live, users can choose to watch Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom on an isolated camera.