NBC Sports says it had 170 employees in Baltimore this week to cover the Preakness, and from the looks of the TV package it presented, all of them earned their keep.
NBC's network coverage started at 4:30 p.m., and it hardly ever sagged for more than a minute or two right up until the start of the race some two hours later. And that's no mean feat given that the horse racing world is essentially on hold until the start of the race on the day of a Triple Crown event.
What I am saying is that once you show the infield crowd dancing to Maroon 5, overhead shots of the Inner Harbor and Pimlico, ground level shots of the grandstand, women in hats, tables full of crab cakes, Black-eyed Susans all in a row, and the horses in their stalls, what do you do for the other hour and 50 minutes?
I am generally not a fan of pre-packaged sports features, but that is what you mainly have to work with in an event like this. And NBC Sports showed how it is done at the highest levels of network talent and expertise. Saturday's Preakness coverage was textbook in the use of features, interviews and story lines.
As much as I love Bob Costas, who was not in Baltimore because of his daughter's college graduation, he was not missed. OK, maybe he could have lent a bit of epic grandeur to I'll Have Another winning the second leg of the Triple Crown. Nobody does sports as myth and history like Costas. But I only miss him now as I am writing -- not as I watched.
I loved the visual imagery that suffused the feature on Under Armour owner Kevin Plank and his efforts to revive Maryland horse racing at Sagamore Farm. All praise to the videographer who went out and shot those images last week -- and to the producer and editor who so eloquently put them together. For all the stories and features I have seen, this was the first that made me care about what Plank was trying to do -- and it was the pictures, not the words in the piece, that connected me to the land.
And I was pleasantly surprised by the interview Randy Moss did with Doug O'Neill, the controversial trainer of I'll Have Another. The tendency in pre-sports-event interviews is to stay nice -- especially when your network has the costly broadcast rights to the event as NBC does with the Triple Crown.
And Moss was mostly nice -- maybe even kiss-up at points -- but he didn't duck asking about O'Neill's "12 medication violations and alleged higher rate of injury" for his horses.
And he managed to get O'Neill to say: "Have I run some horses in spots I shouldn't have? Yes. But I am going to do better."
O'Neill also said, "I am vigorously fighting those allegations."
Good for NBC Sports in that it didn't go in the tank on that interview. Some of the networks covering the NFL should take note. Heck, why start pulling punches now. I am thinking CBS and Ndamukong Suh last year.
In terms of live race coverage, the positioning of the cameras and the direction brought me to my feet as I'll Have Another overtook Bodemeister at the finish line. And I am as much of a non-fan as you are likely to find.
Yes, the finish itself was fantastic, but it would not have come across on TV as exciting as it did if the direction and camera work had not been as superb as they were.
Speaking of camera work and direction, I loved the overhead shot as the horses finished the first quarter of the race and started into the second. The angle of the shot, gave us not only the horses and jockeys, but also their shadows -- and the shadows were much larger that their corporal counterparts. It was the visual moment that most eloquently suggested the larger, psychic force that has driven men to race horses since ancient times.
In terms of instant, live and late-breaking, once again, I loved seeing Donna Brothers on horseback interviewing the winning jockey as he and his horse were coming down off the high of victory. Brothers is an outstanding horse racing correspondent, and you can't get any closer to the feel of big-event victory than she and Team NBC delivered.
Baltimore had a good day on national television Saturday. Thank the weather gods for some of that. Everything looks better when it is washed in the kind of lush sunlight that drenched Pimlico yesterday.
But thank producer Rob Hyland and his NBC Sports team as well. As anyone who has walked or driven the streets surrounding Pimlico knows, there are plenty of easy shots they could have shown the world that would have chracterized Baltimore as a considerebly less inviting place.
Isn't that right, Mayor Rawlings-Blake? And unlike your beloved Grand Prix and all the lying done about the size of that TV audience, tens of millions saw these images Saturday.