It’s easy to assume that the racetrack announcer has the best seat in the house (racetrack announcers may dispute this).
Anyway, on Saturday, Larry Collmus will have the only seat in the house.
NBC Sports will broadcast Belmont Stakes Day from Belmont Park starting at 2:45 on Saturday, and faces some unique challenges and adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not the least of which is a massive venue devoid of spectators.
Collmus, who is in his 10th season calling the Triple Crown series for NBC, typically would be perched high atop the Belmont Park clubhouse in a glass-enclosed booth reserved for the race caller, binoculars in hand and hand-markered silks coloring his program.
On Saturday, he’ll do his work 40 feet below that from a camera deck platform on the third floor of the stands. That may be a product of the fact that the New York Racing Association’s everyday announcer, John Imbriale, is occupying the booth, but it will make for unusual circumstances for Collmus nevertheless.
NBC will use fewer cameras while incorporating some of the NYRA’s camera feeds; will have 50 people on the grounds instead of the usual 200; and will have two production teams, one at the track, led on-air by Mike Tirico, and the other, including analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss and handicapper Ed Olczyk, working remotely.
The network still expects to offer a broadcast worthy of the 152nd Belmont Stakes, and one that TV viewers will find, at least for the actual race itself, almost indistinguishable from any other.
Except for the no-spectators-at-the-track part, of course.
“We’re confident that the viewer at home will have a very good experience on Saturday,” NBC Sports producer Rob Hyland said during a national teleconference that included the on-air talent on Tuesday.
“When the gates open — from the time the horses are on the track until the winning horse crosses the finish line, it’s not going to look any different.”
“This is an event that has a century and a half of history, and for a kid who grew up in Whitestone, Queens, nine miles from Belmont Park, it is an absolute thrill to be associated with one of these great events and to have the biggest event in sports on TV and contested, really, in our country for the last four months,” Tirico said.
In promoting this year’s Belmont show, the NBC crew pointed to the fact that, although some of the top 3-year-old males in the country have fallen by the wayside due to injury, the division leader, Tiz the Law, is in the race, as the 6-5 morning-line favorite, against nine rivals.
“He would have been favored in whatever Triple Crown race we ran first, so we have a superstar that we’re going to see on Saturday,” said Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey who retired from riding in 2006.
“So I think the fact that it’s the first major horse race of the season, the first classic, there’s still going to be huge interest in the race. You know, the change in the distance, I don’t think that has a great bearing on whether people are going to watch or not going to watch.”
To accommodate substantial schedule disruptions due to the pandemic, NYRA postponed the Belmont from June 6, while scaling back the distance from a mile and a half to a mile and an eighth.
At Belmont, that means that, instead of running one lap on the main track, the Belmont horses will break from a long chute at the top of the backstretch. It’s about a half-mile straight run from there to the first — and only — turn.
Collmus said putting the starting gate at the back of the mile-and-an-eighth chute all the way across the track, instead of starting and finishing the race at the same spot in front of the clubhouse, will give him a vastly different perspective for the start.
Also, he’ll be sitting right in the stands this time, but with no one around to make any noise.
“The New York crowd at Belmont Park is always really loud as the horses get up to the starting gate because they start right in front of the stands, and it sort of pumps you up and gets you into that feeling,” he said.
“But once the race starts, you’re in your own zone, so even like the Kentucky Derby, where there’s 150,000 people there, I don’t really hear the crowd. I think it’s before the race that is going to be a little different for me rather than during the race.”
NBC will have pre-taped virtual chats with horsemen by Bailey and Moss, six-foot boom microphones for post-race interviews with trainers and video from some virtual watch parties.
Three jockeys will be miced up, and the NYRA outriders will be equipped with microphones and high-powered radios broadcasting the live feed, so that Tirico, Bailey and Moss can do post-race interviews with jockeys as they jog back.
“I think the last few months have taught us that being perfect, although that’s what we strive for in television every day, is maybe not as important as it was, and to find new ways to tell stories,” Hyland said. “I think the way we present sports, when the gates open, it’s going to look the same, but what we do around each race will feel a little bit different, and hopefully reflect the world we’re living in now.”
“I know this sounds like something Jerry Bailey should be saying, but, heck, I’m just happy to get back in the saddle again,” Moss said.