NBC and its cable sports affiliate have twice as much time set aside for coverage of Saturday’s Belmont Stakes than they did last year, anticipating big interest in California Chrome’s attempt to win horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Barring a late scratch, it will be the 12th time since Affirmed won in 1978 that a horse enters the Belmont after having already won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
The NBC Sports Network began its buildup with “California Chrome: The Unlikely Champion,” a documentary narrated by Bob Costas that premiered Wednesday and is being repeated five times. Extended coverage of the race begins at 4:30 p.m. EDT on NBC.
Viewership interest in the Belmont essentially doubles when there’s a horse entered with the chance of becoming a Triple Crown winner. The last five years, with no Triple Crown at stake, viewership ranged between 4.9 million and 7.7 million, the Nielsen company said.
When Big Brown tried to win the Triple Crown in 2008, the audience jumped to 13.1 million. The 21.9 million who watched Smarty Jones finish second in 2004 was the most since 1991, when Nielsen began regularly making reliable audience counts.
Rob Hyland, coordinating producer of NBC’s coverage, said Thursday the relatively modest means of California Chrome’s owners has contributed to interest this year. He measures interest with a non-complicated metric: both his mom and non-sports fan neighbors in Connecticut have talked with him about it.
“That’s sort of a slice of what a lot of people are experiencing with this horse and this story,” Hyland said.
He’s added six cameras to NBC Sports’ coverage, including one that will follow California Chrome for the entire day of the race, starting with an early-morning workout.
“Because of this horse and his magnetism, because of his actions and all of the stories that go along with this horse, I think it’s going to be a huge event,” said NBC sportscaster Tom Hammond. “I can remember when Smarty Jones went after the Triple Crown, it was like America stopped to see if we would have a Triple Crown winner.”
Larry Collmus, who will be calling the race for NBC, said he will focus more on California Chrome than the other horses, but won’t ignore them.
“Like a normal racing fan, I think I want to root for California Chrome, but in the race hall I really can’t root for California Chrome.”