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NBC’s Tirico Reflects on Classics’ Evolution, Preakness

NBC’s Mike Tirico is no stranger to sports fans, whether it is from his time at the helm of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” which was ubiquitous in every sports conversation in the 1990s, to his current role where he can be found leading Peacock’s coverage of the National Football League, Olympics, golf, and more. 

To horse racing and its fans, this year marks his eighth year leading the broadcast of the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Preakness Stakes (G1). 

Ahead of his arrival in Baltimore for the May 18 Preakness, Tirico gave his thoughts on how the classics have evolved, what he would do if put in charge of horse racing, and more.

BloodHorse: This is your eighth Triple Crown. How have things changed?

Mike Tirico: Familiarity with the people around the sport, stepping into a sport that I watched, I would say a little more than casually, but it certainly wasn’t on my radar because … I was at ESPN at the time. And also this time of year, I was full speed on the NBA Playoffs. So it wasn’t on my radar nearly as much as it would have been otherwise. But now that I’ve been through it multiple times and you know, not just the cadence of the week of each event, but also all the people around in the sport you gain a familiarity with it. And I just keep more of a year-long watch of the sport. Even though it’s football season, you know that Friday, Saturday, I’m watching as many of the Breeders’ Cup races as possible. And obviously, the Derby preps I’m watching more than casually just to stay up to speed, so that helped make jumping back in for these two events a lot easier than it was to start for me.

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BH: You’ve covered myriad other sports. Where do you find the similarities between those and horse racing?

MT:  You know, I think if we just take the Derby, it’s the events part of it, and how the big events really do translate across different sports. I’d say in general, in a wide swath of sports, we’re at a very interesting time in each industry where the combination of money, competition from other sports really has forced each sport to look at changes and look at adapting, and I’ll give you basketball. There are so many more three-point shots taken than ever before. In baseball, the rules of extra innings and banning the shift and things like that. Football rules constantly change—the kickoff rule this year in the NFL, right?

So I think whether it’s for the most part humans—in this case, equine athletes—have been changed as the entertainment attention span of casual fans changes. That quest to continue to attract a new fan base or a growing fan base has forced all these sports to make adjustments and changes, and I think you’re seeing that in horse racing a little bit as well with (the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority) and a myriad of other changes.

BH: So sort of in that vein, if you were the horse racing commissioner for a day—not to step on Mike Repole’s toes—what changes would you make?

MT: Does commissioner come with Repole’s bank account? I like Mike a lot, individually and also his intent for the sport. If I was commissioner for a day, I’d ask for a five-year contract. It may take that long to make the changes here, but I think the first thing that needs to be done is get all the stakeholders together to understand what the sport needs in terms of growth, and that’s working cohesively and working together. There’s so many different interests. Just within the states and their regulatory bodies, the ownership of tracks. That’s just one part of the equation. But then would you put on top of that the Jockey Club, horsemen, owners? There are so many different interests that are not rowing in the same direction. And I really think that needs to happen for the health of the sport and for some real change to happen. 

BH: Thinking about the race Saturday and even the race two weeks ago, what are your preparations like trying to prepare for these major events that captivate the industry?

MT: The Preakness has a little bit of a different feel. The Derby is a unicorn of broadcast because of how vast it is, and maybe your readers per se would prefer more just coverage of the horse race. But you cannot argue with the fact that the viewership is as high as it is year after year and so many people come to the Derby for the event that it is and I think that is a big factor in why the audience has grown over the years. The Preakness is a little bit different. Yeah, there’s the people’s party. And yeah, there’s music and concerts, but it’s much more of that race focus and less of the events, if you will.

NBC broadcast team of Mike Tirico, left Randy Moss, center and Jerry Bailey, right cover the Kentucky Derby Saturday May 4, 2019 in Louisville, KY.
Photo: Skip Dickstein

NBC’s broadcast team of (left to right) Mike Tirico, Randy Moss, and Jerry Bailey at the 2019 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs

For me in terms of preparing for these, it really is those Derby prep races. And then once you get to Louisville, or in this case, Baltimore, it’s just talking and listening, talking to the people who are around. And you get to know them after doing this for several years and then a lot of listening to the conversations that Jerry (Bailey) and Randy (Moss) share with people. I love working with those guys. They’re so good. Listening to the people, especially at Pimlico over at the barn just outside of our trailer. Listen to the conversations that are going on back there, being there early in the morning. Those couple of days beforehand, to just kind of absorb it. Nobody’s coming to hear me opine about the sport or the horses, but you have to be there. So you tee up. Jerry, Randy, all the right people on our team at the right moment to give the viewer at home the best information we possibly can. So the rhythm of the week is one that I’ve kind of dialed in now and figured it out and I love it. It’s a great cadence to the week. And the way both events build. This Saturday is just so much fun. 

BH: You mentioned how different Pimlico is from Churchill Downs. What challenges do you see Maryland facing at keeping the charm of the race and the venue as there are obviously changes that are in the imminent future?

MT: The facility is so outdated and really is years behind making the changes. A lot of that was are we going to Laurel (Park), are we going to stay at Pimlico? I appreciate the history but there also needs a balance of reality for hosting the event and the type of event that aspirationally it can be, but needs the infrastructure to support. And I hope that this latest iteration of “Here’s the latest update on what we’re going to do with Pimlico and what the Preakness is going to look like,” I hope this finally gets a shovel in the ground and things start to get done. There are very few events that truly have a century and a half of tradition and have that pride Baltimore has in the event. So you don’t want to throw that away, but at the same time if you don’t modernize it a bit, and I think 1/ST Racing has done as much as they can with that physical property, but now it’s really time to make something happen.

Taxed and Rafael Bejarano win the G2 Black Eyed Susan Stakes, Pimlico Racecourse, Baltimore, MD, May 19, 2023, Mathea Kelley
Photo: Mathea Kelley

Racing at Pimlico Race Course

So I understand there’s a signature on a paper and that happened last week. So that’s good news. Now let’s see what that timetable is going to look like, the reality of making these changes. To me, though, the biggest thing is it’s time to move this event back a few weeks. The whole conversation “Is the horse going to run that won the Derby or not?” has become a parlor game, really. Year after year after year. It should be something that there’s no doubt about that other than the health of the horse.

There was no doubt about that when I was growing up 30, 40 years ago. You knew that two weeks later you got to see that horse that won the Derby. However, things have changed; your readers know that better than the casual fan. These level of horses don’t come back every two weeks and run, so maybe it’s time to adjust this. I think it would be healthy for the sport long term. There’s no reason to change tradition here. So an adjustment is fine. If the horses aren’t running every two weeks and they’re running on this month-long cadence, let’s push this back to Memorial Day weekend or right around there. Let’s work together with (the New York Racing Association) and push the Belmont Stakes back and have a Triple Crown.

I’ll give you this for example: When we talk about you can’t make changes to the Triple Crown, well this year the Belmont is going to be not at Belmont and a mile and a quarter. So this is going to be a changed Triple Crown. It’s happened in the past. Let’s just change it, I think would be great for the sport. Do the promotion through the summer that can help carry many other municipalities and tracks, racing associations to drag off of that and have a successful summer meet session.

BH: Do you have a favorite Preakness memory?

MT: I remember the duels of the Preakness of the ’80s and ’90s. I remember Jim McKay over the years watching “Wide World of Sports” and how important it was for him. I think for me, it has to be Justify. It was year two of me doing these shows and just a couple of years past American Pharoah and have Justify off the Derby win, win the Preakness and know that we had a couple of weeks of build-up for a run at the Triple Crown. Just to be a part of that was probably the one that will stick out more than anything else for me because being there in person and knowing that as soon as that race ended, we had the big one on our hands coming up three weeks later at Belmont.

BH: This is your eighth Preakness. What if any advice did you receive from your predecessor, Tom Hammond, that still resonates with you today?

Tom Hammond in the saddling area at Keeneland on April 12, 2019 in Lexington,  Ky.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Tom Hammond at Keeneland

MT: I wouldn’t say it was direct advice, I would say it is more studying and learning and combination because if you remember, it was Bob Costas and Tom Hammond, both in roles where Bob was hosting the broadcast and Tom was with Randy and Jerry. And when I began, we folded those two into one role. So I think it morphed a little bit, but I will never, ever be what Tom was in terms of his expertise in the sport. Start with his degree in equine science and go on from there. So you knew you’re never going to be that person. So you couldn’t fake it. What you had to understand what the skill set was in that job that I could continue to watch and repeat and follow.

And I really did watch Tom do all three Triple Crown races and Breeders’ Cup as well. I watched tapes of that in preparation for stepping into that role just to understand it as best I could. And in time after that, our conversations with Tom, I remember one we had in South Korea as he was covering the Olympics. I was hosting the Olympics, just an appreciation for how he did the job and really set a standard of how it’s done and being able to try to follow in those footsteps plus how Bob set the scene. It’s been a fun challenge, those two roles combined into one, but no doubt there’s no one like Tom. He did that with such great grace over the years and it’s been an honor to be able to follow a true legend like that.

BH: How do you find time to unwind in between all the different sports that you cover, especially in an Olympic year?

MT: Not this time of year, unfortunately; in Olympic years there is no unwind time. I came back from New York—we had our presentation for our advertisers, the upfront, in New York Monday and Tuesday and going trying to sneak in nine holes of golf late (Tuesday) afternoon and then it’s off to Pimlico Wednesday. …  This year with the Indy 500 the very next week after the Preakness, the United States Olympic trials, the U.S. Open and British Open golf tournament which is called The Open, not the British Open. … It’s just one of those years that this is going to be all the way through with very little time to breathe. But we like to get away to a vacation spot we have north of where we live and play some golf. Those are the things I like to do.

But this is a year to get me on the golf course because you’ll probably take my money. Unless I lose that money in a betting machine at Pimlico over the weekend. 

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