The Story that NBC Missed Part 1: Catholic Boy

The reputable television network could use a few pointers regarding their horse racing coverage.

Updated: Aug. 30, 2018 • 5:10 PM ET

Surprising results aren't uncommon at the Travers Stakes.

That Jonathan Thomas, he can train. To hear NBC tell it, after watching their coverage of the Runhappy Travers Stakes last Saturday, you probably wouldn’t know it.

It wasn’t until after his horse, Catholic Boy, smoked the field and NBC’s rail reporter, Britney Eurton (daughter of trainer Peter), made her own furlong dash to speak to him that we learned of Thomas’ incredible rise. A former steeplechase jockey who experienced an injury so bad it left him paralyzed and a trainer who has never won a Grade 1 race would make for a nice piece.

I wish I had been in NBC’s production trailer at that moment; were they were scrambling? Did commentator Randy Moss (not to be confused with the Hall of Fame NFL wideout) really know Thomas’ backstory? He might have, fine, conceded. But, that accentuates my point and convinces even more that the network’s horse racing coverage leaves much to be desired. It’s like watching train wreck TV, except without the train.

The reason I have major issues with the way NBC covers horse racing is that they have only a finite amount of on-air time. Fans are inundated with so many options that space is limited. Beyond Derby Day, it’s tough out there, so the racing establishment and a major network like NBC need to be doing all they can.

Certainly, you have to counterbalance that with the fact that most American horse races don’t last more than two minutes. The fastest 120 seconds in sport is more handicap than thrill ride, so to speak. Maybe, to quote Demi Moore’s character in “A Few Good Men,” it’s due to our “fast-food slick-ass Persian bazaar manner.” Instant gratification forces us to seek it repeatedly. But, at what cost?

So, here’s the math: if NBC has coverage from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and only shows three races during that time (the Forego, the Sword Dancer and the Travers), that comes to just over five minutes of live racing action. To the casual spectator, that’s not much. You think watching baseball is slow? Try sitting next to someone who’s not a fan watching the post parade and warmups. It’s agonizing for them. Once you factor that time in and the commercials (which during horse racing usually consist of advertisements for watches that most cannot afford or horse farms that no one will be able to see in person), that leaves about an hour of airtime. How does NBC choose to fill that?

Their answer is a series of canned pieces that showcase what they see as important and interesting human/horse interest stories. Don’t get me wrong, the stories are fine. Hearing about what Bob Baffert has done since Justify retired is great — he has a bevy of two-year olds in the pipeline. Listening to Good Magic’s owner rave about his horse before it finished last in Travers is ok, and it’s understandable that using stock footage from previous NBC covered races saves time and money. However, how is it that they missed Jonathan Thomas?

The only conjured explanation is that Thomas is no Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Mark Casse, Chad Brown, D. Wayne Lukas, or Jerry Hollendorfer — at least not yet. Like the golfer that enters a major championship ranked 300th in the world and then wins the bloody thing, Thomas’ stock is on the rise.

But, that’s the point!

NBC Sports, as a juggernaut for related information, should have picked up on it. Sure, Catholic Boy wasn’t a horse that ran in any of the Triple Crown races and was making a suspect change from racing on grass to dirt, but his odds for the Travers weren’t overly outlandish at 7-1.

The moral tale for NBC is that if you want to cover humans and horses, you must dig deeper — go behind the scenes — visit the barns that others don’t. In the world of racing, this is paramount. Instead of focusing on how Eddie Olczyk did in a handicapping tournament or listening to Jerry Bailey backpedal on his Sword Dancer pick, maybe it’s time for some new content. Something fresh, something investigative, something that matters to the future of the sport.

NBC, you need a train.

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