Your Yearly Dose of Bad Kentucky Derby Takes

Hello, my name is Paul. I used to write regularly about horse racing. I created this space here at Picks & Ponderings. It’s harder to find time to write about it now, given the demands of graduate school. And even more during Kentucky Derby week when Derby Week and your campus’s Spring Semester Final Exam Week are the same.

But, since I created this space I figured I’d write something for the Kentucky Derby. After all, it’s a race that draws casual conversation. While it draws out casual conversation, it also draws out the best - and worst - in writing. Seeing is it’s when racing goes mainstream, the mainstream buys in.

However this piece from Awful Announcing's Lisa Bucholtz falls into the Bad Take Category. NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage is bad. It’s tedious. It’s numbing. But instead of saying that nearly everyone involved with NBC coverage should be put onto a riverboat that sinks in the Ohio River, the piece instead ticks the boxes of tropes that people use when they cover racing infrequently. (And yes, the racing people really do an amazing job protecting their own, so NBC doesn’t get attacked by those on the inside. So, Fuck NBC.).

Let’s see what Ms. Bucholtz has to say.

Hunter S. Thompson is probably glad he is dead so he doesn’t have to watch NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby.”

Of course we invoke Hunter S. Thompson right out of the gate. His ability to write about the Derby while not being able to see the race once upon a time means we can not see the race and churn out HOT TAKES. And he’s adored because he got to live the avant life of live fast, write shit, die young, leave a good corpse.

Here’s how NBC is going to talk to you about that fact: like you have the intellectual capacity of a goldfish. They literally talked to us like we were children, using a classroom of children to teach the most basic facts about the Derby. “Girl horses are called fillies, Johnny!”

Racing has a fundamental problem in communicating the amount of knowledge needed to learn the sport and to handicap it. At least NBC is TRYING to remove this barrier to entry. It’s not the most effective way to do it, sure. But there are better details to isolate instead of the fact that we need to be whacked out on oxycontin to enjoy this program.

NBC’s coverage stretched over five hours on the main network alone, setting a record. It was longer than that when you factor in the morning coverage on NBCSN. They obviously have a lot of airtime to fill.

Of course they have airtime to fill. This isn’t some crappy time-buy on cable access or some case where NBC could instead tell the affiliates to air Magic Bullet infomercials. NBC bought this time and by golly they are going to fill it.

And fill it they do.

Ooooo, tell me. I’d love to know how.

Rutledge Wood, which apparently is a real name of a real person, though he looks like a cut-rate version of Spencer Hall, is here with Tara Lipinski to tell you ONCE AGAIN about how horses have stud fees and have sex to make little baby racehorses.

You could have suggested that (and NBC could have gotten) someone from Keeneland Sales down the road in Lexington to come on instead of getting the knockoff hipster from SXSW. Or take a tour of one eleventy stud farms around. Or, to be more equitable, take a look at New Vocations and those who don’t get to have stud fees and have sex to make little baby race horses. Now THAT’s how you could fucking fill airtime.

Giving your grandpa something to be interested in…..

Racing: The Sport of Old People.

...NBC apparently loves inclement weather at the Derby so they can turn into the Weather Channel. It allows them to speak at length and in depth about the weather, where it’s going, where it’s coming from, how it affects the track, how it affects the turf, how it affects the partying in the infield, how it affects the wearing of shoes (Mike Tirico even praised people for going barefoot, which seems like a questionable decision in that environment)…

For eleven years NBC was part of an ownership consortium that owned The Weather Channel, so it makes sense for them to cross-pollinate personalities. Granted, TWC just got sold so this cross-ownership conflict of interest is allowed to slide since NBC doesn’t have a piece of TWC any longer. But it is an outdoor sporting event and is subject to the whims of weather. It’s fine to break out the Doppler Radar here.

But when they’re not discussing weather, they’re going to fill it in with the other items that are ubiquitous if you have even passing knowledge of the Derby: Tara & Johnny discuss fashion...

They seem to be knowledgeable about the subject. Or are pod people.

….and make mint juleps.

Which taste like burning.

The b-listers of the NBC reporting team interview celebs (which even that has become rote. Do you know NFL players like to attend the Derby? DO YOU?!),

You avoid the former NBC-TWC synergy yet you fail to mention how NBC covers the NFL through Sunday Night games. Ignoring this moment of more tangible synergy? Fuck off. (To be complete, we must include how NBC did cover Super Bowl LII and some Thursday Night NFL games.)

...there’s SYNERGY with the cooking segment featuring chefs from NBC Universal-owned Bravo’s Top Chef, which is more about the synergy and less about the food….

I can use synergy too and recommend you to include all the NBC-based synergy, past and present. No cherry picking, please.

...there’s a tracking shot telling you where the jockeys get dressed and where they walk and where they mount the horses (it’s called a paddock, as NBC is all too gleeful to tell you) and walk to the track.

Even if NBC is doing a desultory job of fan education, it’s at least SOME kind of fan education.

But every damn year NBC is going to tell you all this information as if you were dropped here from a minor outlying planet. Five-plus hours of drinking in the outfield, hat shots, and tortured segues about jockey silks.

From The Peacock Network’s point of view, people watch it. So it must be working and therefore we must make more of it. It’s shit, but if the populace wants shit, you just have to (1) deal with the shit or (2) ignore the shit. The broadcast won’t change because the masses don’t want it to change. No amount of bitching would make it better, so just find an alternative form of media that’s more to your speed.

Even when NBC got into the behind the scenes pieces of owners, it flubbed that. Interviewing the owners of Vino Rosso, Tirico punched low, pulling out a bottle of…wait for it…red wine. I’m sure Tirico is the first interviewer to EVER consider doing that with those owners. This is dad jokes incarnate. This is lowest common denominator commentary. NBC needs to be better than that and give the audience more credit.

If your piece was more of this and less wide spread bitching about NBC’s use of lowest common denominators, you’d have an intelligent piece of media criticism that I’d expect from Awful Announcing. Instead you’re stuffing the entry box in the Tropes to Write About Racing Derby.

Even accounting for the fact that most of us only watch racing on the first Saturday in May and then pay no attention to the sport for the rest of the year….

Oh come on, now that’s lazy. Don’t undermine your readers like that. That’s NBC’s job.

….(which, if you have a track in your town, I strongly recommend you go; horse racing is a ton of fun live)....

It is and you know why? NBC isn’t fucking it up! Whether the cacophony of a crowd on Million Preview Day or the serene chill of Hawthorne in December, I don’t see an NBC production truck and Bob Costas waiting to poop on my parade. Yes, NBC’s cable arm takes the Million and Beverly D. in, but they don’t make that broadcast for the 0-6 demographic.

The only bright spots of the show are when Eddie Olczyk talks betting and when Laffit Pincay hosts in the morning on NBCSN, with Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey doing actual race analysis. Moss and Bailey continue on NBC with Tirico and continue to offer actual insight to these particular horses in this particular race, the only non-filler information of the day. And it stands out against all the rest of the dreck.

If you wanted to hear about betting, you could watch TVG. Or sign up for TwinSpires’s feed. Or listen to HRRN for the soundtrack and have NBC for the visuals. Or go to an OTB and watch the feed from Churchill.

NBC promoted its longest-ever Derby coverage this year. Quantity, as usual, does not mean quality. This was a lot of bloat without a lot of substance.

Kind of like your column, Ms. Bucholtz.

Next year, they should focus on more behind-the-scenes, soft voiceover pieces, several of which were teased but few of which I recall actually seeing. And there should be more real racing analysis if they insist on this lengthy coverage. They should stay away from the retread pieces that we see every year.

Again, if the masses want the same old song and dance, what’s NBC to do?

I understand that the Derby’s a generally-unchanging event, but there are still different storylines each time around. Maybe search for and emphasize those more, or even just find new ways to package old material? Even if you have to advertise Woodford Reserve, maybe find *some* creative way to make a mint julep. No one is watching Derby coverage for recipes or interviews with celebrities.

The Derby’s an unchanging event and you want it repackaged? NBC would tell you to shut the fuck up because the ratings are good. It may be garbage in garbage out, but most people want to eat the garbage. Just find a better dumpster to stick your head in.

More horse coverage, less show ponies. As it stands, it’s the coverage that’s become decadent and depraved.

And we circle back to Hunter S. Thompson.

 

There are many ways to do a media criticism, but using the uncoupled entry of Hunter S. Thompson and Racing is a Dying Sport for Old People isn’t going to do it for the Kentucky Derby. But while NBC’s broadcast is tedious, it’s still a ratings draw. It’s bad, but it’s not going away. Bad criticism won’t remove bad programming.

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