03/29/2012 3:04PM

Hovdey: Producer doesn't have to look far for story


Family is not the most important thing in Thoroughbred horse racing, but just try getting from the quarter pole home on Derby Day without it.

In that regard, the freshly minted Chloe Jane Hyland, born Jan. 5, 2012, will find herself right at home when she starts hanging around a racetrack or a TV truck.

Chloe’s mother is the former Michelle Matz, daughter of Olympic equestrian and fair-to-middlin’ horse trainer Michael Matz. Through Matz’s wife, Dorothy, even more history is at hand through Dorothy’s mother, Helen Kleberg Groves, and her sister, Helen Alexander, all of them well known as breeders and owners of fine Thoroughbreds.

Then later on, Chloe Hyland will find out about Dorothy and Helen’s grandfather, Robert Kleberg Jr., whose King Ranch colors were carried by some of the most famous horses of the 20th century.

For those keeping score at home, this puts photographs of the young Miss Hyland – and there will be many – up there on the wall alongside such family favorites as Assault, Barbaro, Middleground, Althea, Gallant Bloom, Rejected, Ciencia, and Rhum IV.

Grandpa Michael rode that last one to a show jumping team silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Matz figured that was about as good as it was going to get in the horse world, until he found himself standing in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle alongside Barbaro after the 2006 Kentucky Derby.

From there, the fairytale went wrong. Barbaro was severely injured in the subsequent Preakness and, after eight months of heroic veterinary attempts to save his life, the colt was mercifully euthanized. For Matz, the idea that he would ever cross paths with another 3-year-old of such quality seemed absurd, but now here he is in Saturday’s million-dollar Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park with Union Rags, the winter book favorite to win it all at Churchill Downs in May.

Rob Hyland, father of Chloe, was there for the wild Barbaro ride as a feature producer for NBC Sports. Now, Hyland is in the producer’s chair as NBC cranks up its horse racing coverage through these final weeks leading up to the network’s presentation of all three Triple Crown events. How has he prepared?

“I was on a horse yesterday,” Hyland confessed Thursday as the countdown for the hour-long telecast began.

Okay, so it was a polo pony on loan from his brother-in-law, and Hyland was just “knocking the ball around,” in his words. But what better way to let off a little steam before the most anticipated Kentucky Derby prep of the season? Anyway, the fact that the guy at the wheel of a horse racing telecast knows how a horse feels underneath can’t hurt.

Hyland, who comes in at just shy of twice what Julien Leparoux weighs, had a college football career and plenty of TV sports experience producing Notre Dame football and pro golf telecasts before he worked his first horse race at the 2001 Kentucky Derby. It was at the 2006 Florida Derby – won by Barbaro – that he met Michelle, and by the Preakness that year they considered themselves a couple.

That put Hyland smack in the middle of the Barbaro melodrama, out of which came the moving NBC Sports documentary “Barbaro: A Nation’s Horse,” produced by Hyland and first airing in April 2007. It was a hard story to tell about people to whom he was becoming deeply attached, but in all things regarding his association with the sport Hyland knows he must maintain that “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” – as Graham Greene put it. Or in Hyland’s case, a TV journalist.

“Whether or not I was connected to a horse racing family, it shouldn’t and it wouldn’t ever affect my job,” Hyland said. “My job is to document the event. We’re not looking to expose the dark side of racing. We don’t have an agenda. But at the same time, if a story breaks, we have to address it and not hide from it.”

Hyland will not, as rumored here, have a “Matz-cam” following every move his father-in-law makes during the Florida Derby telecast. With El Padrino and Take Charge Indy in the mix, there are plenty of stories to go around. Hyland is wise, though, to check on the Union Rags camp with regularity.

“Earlier today, Michael pulled out a letter from a girl who had followed Barbaro six years ago and has about fifty pieces of Barbaro memorabilia in her room,” Hyland noted. “Now, she’s doing the same with Union Rags. That’s an amazing attribute of a sport, when people can get so truly inspired by an animal.”

The Derby prep race series on NBC Sports is being funded by a deal with The Jockey Club. But when the show gets to Churchill Downs it is the network on the hook all the way, and the Kentucky Derby is still among the crown jewels of sports broadcasting.

“I have not produced a Super Bowl telecast, and someday down the road I hope to,” Hyland said. “But this year being my first Kentucky Derby as the lead producer, I’ve been thinking about this race for the last three months. It’s as big as it gets and as hard as it gets.

“With 14 million viewers, there’s the challenge of making the sport understandable and making them like it,” he added. “We’ll have 20 horses, 20 jockeys, 20 trainers, and 20 owners, all with interesting stories to tell. And then, when the gates open, all bets are off.”