How Mike Tirico, NBC Handled the 145th Kentucky Derby's Unprecedented Drama

NBC announcer Mike Tirico explains why the network didn’t show the exact rules at play, how he handled the gambling storyline and the voice he would’ve loved to have on the shocking broadcast. 
Publish date:

“Candidly, for us, you don’t hope for situations like this,” Mike Tirico said of Saturday’s historic Kentucky Derby, memorable mainly for what happened after the NBC host declared Maximum Security the race winner—a controversial review, 22 minutes of tension, and ultimately the race’s first-ever winner by objection in its 145th running, “but these are the great situations when you are on a live show … these are the moments in our job you absolutely want to be a part of.”

Country House’s unprecedented victory delivered the best viewership numbers since 1992, with ratings 20% higher than last year’s. Speaking to SI Sunday, Tirico mentioned only one thing he wished his team would’ve been able to add: the stewards’ voice. NBC requested an interview with a member of the three-person panel that ultimately disqualified Maximum Security for impeding another horse, but the ask was turned down. The network was well into its evening hockey coverage by the time Barbara Borden provided a statement that did not include answering questions afterward.

The stewards’ relative silence comes amid a loud debate about the role replay ought to have in sport’s most climactic moments. Following a derby that saw over $150 million in bets for the first time, their decision also reignites discussion over transparency in the coming world of legal sports gambling. Tirico said stewards should have answered questions largely because of betting’s role supporting the entire horse racing industry.

On air though, he largely shied away from the $9 million the reviewers indirectly reassigned. “If we were doing an hour postgame show, we would’ve gotten deeper into it,” Tirico said. “For a brief moment I thought of the financial implications, but I didn’t feel that was the place to go at that point.”

Rather than monetary drama, the NBC crew focused on the human element. Cameras captured the key jockeys and trainers’ emotional roller coasters, with reporters Nick Luck, Laffit Pincay III, and Kenny Rice eliciting emotion and opinion. The participants’ willingness to answer questions despite the massive uncertainty struck a clear contrast with the silent decision-makers reviewing the tape upstairs.

During interviews, Maximum Security trainer Jason Servis said he didn’t think his horse’s brief straying affected the result, while Country House trainer Bill Mott emphasized the dangerous situation created by that move. Those imply two different criteria for disqualification, but NBC producers opted not to reconcile the lines of argument, which would have required diving into the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s legalistic rules, dotted with “so as to interfere,” “in the opinion of the stewards,” and “may be disqualified.”

Instead, NBC racing experts Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey discussed the infraction and traced the decision in front of the stewards. “[Bailey] is able to put it into better terms for viewers than throwing the rule up there with complicated language,” Tirico said, adding that the broadcast kept things particularly simple knowing that many viewers were only the most casual of racing fans. Coordinating producer Rob Hyland—who also works with Tirico on Notre Dame football coverage and "Football Night in America"—had planned for situations like Saturday, and the team had met with the stewards in the past as part of its prep work.

With Maximum Security owner Gary West scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today" show Monday, discussion over the result seems certain to loom over the rest of the racing season. “Ninety-nine percent of people interested in racing feel there was a complete lack of transparency on the part of the stewards,” West told SI's Tim Layden. But more than any judicial element, Tirico said, what will stick with him will be the shot of Maximum Security jockey Luis Saez registering the news of his penalty.

In 2012, Tirico called the Seahawks’ Fail Mary victory over the Packers. “I thought that was the most bizarre ending I’d ever seen,” he said. “This joins it.” After each derby, Tirico likes to tweet a photo from NBC’s turn one set. “One of my favorite annual pictures,” he wrote this time. “Who knew history would unfold around the next turn.”