05/15/2013 12:42PM

Jay Hovdey: In Beadle, NBC has something for the new fan

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NBC Sports
Michelle Beadle is co-host of NBC Sports Network's "The Crossover," which blends sports and pop-culture.

Beware how you treat the classics. When it comes to outsiders tilting at the cathedrals of culture, true believers can go medieval in a heartbeat.

Film director Baz Luhrmann has learned this through the critical lashings applied to his amped-up version of “The Great Gatsby” (Salon’s Michael O’Hehir placed it with other “baroque, overblown, megalomaniacal spectacles”), and on a very different canvas NBC’s Rob Hyland is treading an invisible line between invention and heresy with his production of the Triple Crown events.

Hyland, who cut his network teeth producing Notre Dame football, can by this time drop a lot of celebrity names if he chooses. About the only one that impresses anyone in horse racing, however, is that of Hyland’s father-in-law, Michael Matz, who remains the only guy to win both an Olympic medal and a Kentucky Derby – at least until Michael Phelps steps up with a big horse.

As such, Hyland takes a hybrid approach to the Triple Crown shows. He stays true to racing’s roots with the comforting décor supplied by  host Tom Hammond, handicappers Bob Neumeier and Mike Battaglia, and the roving reporters Kenny Rice and Laffit Pincay III. He’s got real experience chops from Jerry Bailey, Donna Brothers, and Gary Stevens. And for mainstream sports ballast he’s got Bob Costas and Randy Moss, peerless broadcasters no matter what the field of play.

For the 2013 Triple Crown programs, Hyland and his NBC masters have unleashed in their midst Michelle Beadle, co-host of the NBC Sports Network’s irreverent “Crossover,” wherein knowledgable sports fans are treated as if at some point they might have watched something more intellectually enriching, like “E!” or “TMZ.”

“Michelle is a combination of a true sports fan and someone who understands the pulse of entertainment and celebrity,” Hyland said as he hunkered down for Preakness week. “She asks the questions that our broadcast audience want to ask. And she proves it is possible to both inform and entertain.”

Still, the hardest of hardcore racing fans like their Kentucky Derby, their Preakness, and their Belmont Stakes telecasts bottled in brine, handed down from generation to generation with original elements intact. If a microphone with a cord and a camera on the roof were good enough for Jim McKay and Heywood Hale Broun, then they’re good enough for the talking heads of today, goes their thinking. You want to do a canned feature? Go talk to the guy who engraves the Woodlawn vase. Graphics are simple − get the odds right. And do not ever, ever cut away from the pan shot to show off some new-fangled angle from the nose cone of a hovering Black Hawk.

As with all platoon rookies, the new kid had to do Derby hats and Derby celebrities, but for some reason those segments were rendered painless by Beadle’s benignly transparent elbow to the ribs assuring us that we, the audience, were in on the foolish joke. It helps that among the media stops Beadle has made along the way have been professional bull riding and red-carpet reporting for the Grammys and Golden Globes. Everything needs context.

As for her other segments, I admit to having grabbed the occasional thick, slithery horse tongue and enjoyed the moment, which Beadle did with Oxbow. Who hasn’t fantasized standing between Neumeier and Battaglia, both Orb bandwagoneers, and making a case for the horse who gave you a funny look? And am I the only “racing fan” to have viewed the idea of the foreign horse quarantine compound as an absurd bureaucratic contrivance? Thank you, Ms. Beadle, for donning a hazardous material suit and yelling encouragement through a sterile mask from behind a chain link fence in the general direction of the sequestered Irish colt, Lines of Battle.

“Then I spent last week sick,” Beadle confessed. “They thought I really went into the quarantine area and caught something. And the movie ‘Contagion’ was on all last week. Scary. But if you’re having a fat day, and your producer hands you a hazmat suit and says put this on, you say, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

All of this was just too much for some. A corner of Twitter burned.

“I did not get a very good reaction from a handful of very crazed horse enthusiasts, which is hilarious,” Beadle said. “But I do understand that in every sport there’s a group of traditionalists that do not like to see outsiders coming in. Of course, I never pretended to know anything. I’m not sure how people got offended, but some did, and I’m sure they’ll be watching again on Saturday. Bob Costas yelled at me for caring, which meant a lot.”

Likewise, Hyland is sticking to his guns.

“The people who have issues with us ‘dumbing down’ horse racing are going to watch the race anyway,” he said. “We’re looking to attract new viewers. I’m looking for my next door neighbor who always asks me – and she repeatedly asks me this – why can’t the horses who run in the Kentucky Derby come back and try again next year? That’s your audience for the Triple Crown.”

Now that Beadle has made her Derby debut, she will be diving into the less formal Preakness for the first time Saturday.

“I guess the Preakness infield is something everyone needs to see at least once,” she said. “I wasn’t a hard partier in college, and I’ve got a funny feeling that this will be a lot like what that must have been like.”

Beadle was a toddler when Affirmed became the last winner of the Triple Crown in 1978. Like everyone else with a pulse, she’s hoping lightning finally will strike again with Orb.

“Any sports fan appreciates records, especially when decades go by before it happens again,” she said. “Of course it would be great to see Orb win again and go on to the Belmont. But now I’ve probably jinxed him.”

Hardly. Orb will carry the hopes and dreams of the racing world in the Preakness, although the truly dedicated in the congregation will bet their money elsewhere, confident the Derby winner will be a massive underlay, and if he loses they promise to cry all the way to the bank. Beadle, a betting novice, said she plans to tee it up in some direction.

“At the Derby, I witnessed greatness watching people win beaucoup amounts of money,” she said. “Just like fantasy football, fantasy anything, it keeps you in it if you’re more interested in what’s going on. I’m not going to go crazy, but I’m counting on this whole beginner’s luck thing. Millions of people can’t be wrong. They were having way too much fun for me to not get involved.”

It’s contagious.