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TrackNotes: NBC's Derby Day Septic Tank

Justify, the huge son of Scat Daddy, out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, agreeing to join a blistering pace, became the first horse since 1882's Apollo to win the Kentucky Derby without having run a race at two-years-old.

Justify won the 144th running; Apollo the eighth.

His nearly three-length victory over Good Magic was a tremendous performance that culminated a Saturday, and weekend, that deteriorated before our very eyes into primordial slop as Louisville found itself trapped under the train tracks of heavy rain storms, which also prompted flood warnings in the area.

On another storm front, NBC Sports descended into a septic tank of a two-day broadcast that stunk of demographic research, a hungover rerun of last year's telecast, key players out of position, embarrassing laziness and blatant disregard of horse racing as a festival to be celebrated. The conspiracy bin is full, but it would not be at all shocking if Churchill Downs Inc. had its soldiers in the pre-show production meeting. No flipping, we'll get to it.

Wiseguys aren't so wise if they fall for the escalating hype that insisted this was the deepest Derby in years. How many years? Depending on when you tuned in, it escalated to at least 15.

Instead, the favorite won for the sixth straight time and top-tier odds horses Good Magic and Audible took Place and Show. Based on the depth theory, horses like Bolt d'Oro, Mendelssohn and highly touted Vino Rosso should have been right behind.

Bolt' hung in most of the way, but was never going to be able to parlay keeping up and beating Justify, finishing 12th. Mendelssohn had a brutal start, probably pleaded with rider Ryan Moore and was eventually eased up, finishing last. Vino' probably ran to his level, ending up a middling ninth.

Coffee percolating Saturday morning, My Boy Jack, who should have been 20- or 30-1, lo and behold sat the second favorite at 5-1 all day. He ended up one of the true feel-good stories, finishing fifth at 7-1. He outran the odds he should have had, but ran to the odds he did have.

Kid Rock said it all: "My Boy Jack. I like the name." Aaron Rodgers, despite coming to the Derby for quite a few years now, doesn't seem to have absorbed the game. "Audible, because it's my favorite thing to do and My Boy Jack, it's a cool name."

Justify, Hall of Famer Mike Smith up, proved relentless. After some of the pixie sticks quickly sorted themselves out in the safety of running abreast before entering the turn, he menacingly tucked in behind expected pacesetter Promises Fulfilled. What a pace! At :22-1 and :45-3, they flew through the first half. It was a pretty simple race: simply powerful as Justify dictated his own terms. When Good Magic made his bid in the stretch, Justify perturbedly dug deeper and dismissed him.

At the start, Justify (7) was less than perfect out of the gate, air underneath his front a step out. But he was always with the leaders as Jimmy Graham and Lone Sailor took a left turn and settled in the three lane behind the first pack. Mendelssohn (14), the last horse in the main starting gate, was bumped severely from his right - with the frame and the tires, you have to wonder if he even saw the horses in the auxiliary gate - then was sandwiched and sensed horses bearing down on him from behind. This was all before he crossed the finish line for the first time. They all maintained, Flameaway (4) in good position, but entering the far turn, Justify did a little dipsy do in three strides to assert his lead and the race was pretty much over. Good Magic, who probably couldn't see him, finished just a nose in front of Audible.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who won his fifth Derby, seemed to check himself after calling Arrogate the best he's ever seen after his historic Travers win last summer. When asked about Justify versus Arrogate and Triple Crown legend American Pharoah, he was less emotional.

"They're cut from the same cloth," he said.

Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, who owns the horse along with China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, perhaps revealed why Justify didn't run at two. "I got excited when Bob told me that he was going to run him, that he had a plan to get to the Derby. I said, 'Bob, don't rush this horse.'"

Baffert sounded nervous. "We knew he was capable. I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today."

It figures to be on to Pimlico for the Preakness. Justify is such a big kid, he might just take on those 9.5 furlongs almost as if he just kept on running from Kentucky.

Belmont? American Pharoah had otherworldly powers of recovery. We'll see about this one.


NOTE: He seems to be favoring his left rear leg this morning, and even staggering a little bit.


Septic Tank

The pressure gauge on this old tramp steamer rose steadily all weekend as the Peacock Network, currently running institutional character house ads, eviscerated all of the genuine drama, pageantry and enjoyment from an event that is one of America's most important sporting events.

After it was over, I knew I had to cool off and then sleep on it. I couldn't help but think the producers met and decided to use all of the clich├ęd elements from last year and, most importantly, consciously declare that just about the only race they would talk about would be the Derby itself, both days.

They also made the iron-anvil, draconian decision to cross-promote everything NBC does, especially sports.

Before crashing, I started a topic on a racing forum saying the same things I'm saying here. Many said why watch. Watch the track feed. I responded that I watch both, because I have to take notes on the broadcast version.

It didn't take long until the moderator chimed in: "Who are these people who get so upset at a freakin' television broadcast? I really couldn't care less . . . just happy I can watch the race in HD . . . " Many of the other responses took the tone of "We deserve this. There must be victims and we are they." Or "Why does that flaming gay guy (Johnny Weir) have to be on."

I don't mind Weir - although he was half-checked out all day - and I realize they have to show the hats, making the super expensive Mint Julep (how about the history of the drink?), talk to celebrities, run features on trainers (it was interesting to learn that Bolt d'Oro's trainer/owner Mick Ruis made his money in scaffolding in the Navy yard), and show many of the celebrities' picks.

They went to the well twice in condescending, childish, highly scripted bits in a grammar school classroom where Weir and Tara Lipinski went over basic fun facts of the Derby, until the kids showed they knew more. Har-Har. NASCAR bellboy Rutledge Wood, whose hair should be out of style if it isn't already, did basically the same bit in the same classroom.

Lipinski and Wood did do a fairly informative piece with American Pharoah to describe the breeding process. But they were giggling like kids the whole time.

NBCSportsNet aired the first few hours both days with Laffit Pincay III, Randy Moss and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey on the desk. Laffit, whose grandfather was a jockey in Panama and whose father is the legendary Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr., is great. He describes the scene and sets up Moss and Bailey perfectly.

Early Friday, they even talked about the politics of John Velazquez riding Vino Rosso, and Javier Castellano, who had recently been riding Bolt, taking the mount on Audible. Bailey said Johnny V felt better about riding Vino, knowing Castellano had a ride. Moss, like Woodward and Bernstein, looked at the camera and revealed to us Ruis told him Castellano was under great pressure to ride Audible.

Bailey shot: "That's what we (jockeys) always say! We say, hey, I'm getting a lot of pressure, hope you don't mind. And there's no hard feelings."

Except for the always-solid Eddie Olczyk placing his bets for all the races, that was about the end of the racing insight. Or even coverage.

In the late afternoons, Pincay was switched out for Mike Tirico. Mike Tirico! He don't need no more horizons.

I don't watch NFL football, but I guess he might still be pissed off about being dragged off that gig. Shame, because all he knows is football. All, football. He also had the unmitigated disrespect to barely do any homework on the races. Thankfully, he told us the Derby is run on dirt.

They could not escape the quicksand of cross promotion, especially the NFL, and they sickly did a save-the-date for the Olympics.

Breathlessly, Tirico said Churchill Downs is big as 100 football fields, the grandstand is the length of a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools and attendance is three times the Super Bowl.

Not letting up, Bob Costas, The Boy Who Won't Leave, came on with a piece out of Highlights for Children. The Super Bowl (fawning shots of the Patriots) is hard to get to, but Baffert and Pletcher get here all the time; people like underdogs, shots of college basketball players, shots of "cheap" horses; we love old timers (Tom Watson) and a shot of D. Wayne Lukas; then the mystery contender (Las Vegas Golden Knights) and Mendelssohn(?). Then, some people try to buy their way in (A-Rod and Yankees) and then Vinny Viola and Vino Rosso. Bobby, good horses are expensive! You have to buy horses, they don't just saunter into your barn! Why do you think they call it The Sport of Kings?!

Do you see a trend here? Champions, like the Patriots. Exciting, like the NHL playoffs. Important, like the Olympics. Then, of course, we got the Jimmy Fallon crossover with him releasing white puppies.

When I said Friday at least we won't have the buttinsky NFL because Gronkowski was scratched, I was sadly wrong. NBC couldn't resist and the football player wasn't even there.

The weather chick from the Today show kept promising a break in the clouds, as if the track would recover. Donna Brothers showed the saturated track, showed how they rolled it, "that's called sealing," and that's the first and last time the word sealed was used. Nevermind how it can affect a race.

Perhaps the most egregious failing was the decision to not talk about the other races. "We're back. Justify is still the favorite . . ." 40 times in the two days. They'd talk two minutes before the other stakes races and then a minute after.

No perspective on the other stakes races, no feel for the rhythms of the horseplayer on days like this, track tasks, not much real analysis of the effect of the track, even though it doesn't have to be the end of the world.

Carolyn Manno was great on the social scene, when they used her. Britney Eurton was good in the paddock. Kenny Rice, six seconds at a time, knows racing. Why not set up a betting duel with him and Eddie?

Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden's and Ashley Judd's treacly waxings were forced and nauseating.

I have to think Churchill Downs is complicit. These same people did not do as badly at the Breeders' Cup last November, probably under direction of the Breeders' Cup itself.

I really don't like to use profanity in TrackNotes. But rest assured the bad words were bouncing off the big screen like Bulls jump shots.

I'm very sorry these SOBs get paid so damn much to televise the NFL, a lousy sport with lousy people. I choose not to watch it, but it's like radioactive fallout getting into childrens' milk. You cannot escape it.

Even on Kentucky Derby Day.

TrackNotes Notes

* TV ratings were down 13 percent in the overnights while the share was down 8.7 percent. NBC blames the NBA, where a game started during the Derby, which was running a few minutes late.

* Wagering broke another record. Derby and Derby Day full card wagering was up 8 percent.

* Always Dreaming, last year's Derby winner, should probably be retired. Since that Derby, he hasn't won or even run well. In Friday's Alysheba, he started out well enough but then showed an indifference we've been seeing for a year. Velazquez said when the challenge was made, he didn't care to engage. It's been sad to watch him.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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