06/14/2012 12:40PM

Q&A: NBC Sports producer Rob Hyland talks Belmont Stakes

NBC Sports

Going into the Belmont Stakes, it was looking like a memorable run for NBC Sports producer Rob Hyland. In his first year as lead producer for NBC’s racing broadcasts, a horse had a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, which promised to have an outsized impact on television ratings.

Then, late on the morning before the telecast, it all fell apart. I’ll Have Another, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, was scratched Friday with a minor injury. All the meticulous planning that went into the 2 1/2-hour national broadcast scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. the next day had to be “thrown out the window,” Hyland said. Even worse, Hyland was the lead producer for two other racing programs on NBC Sports, one on Friday afternoon and a prerace program for the Belmont on Saturday, and his production team couldn’t start to revise the national broadcast plans until late Friday night.

Hyland has been working on racing broadcasts since 2001, aware that the narratives for a racing broadcast can turn on a dime – or an injury. In 2006, he was the replay producer for the NBC broadcast of the Preakness Stakes, in which the previously undefeated horse Barbaro broke down shortly after the gate opened.

Two months earlier, he had met Michelle Matz, the daughter of Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, while working on a production for the Florida Derby. The two began dating, and three years later, they were married. A daughter was born this January.

Hyland was interviewed the Monday following the Belmont.

Family: wife, Michelle; daughter

Age: 37

What was your reaction when I’ll Have Another scratched? Let me first say that I didn’t have any personal connections to the horse. I found out late on Friday morning, and my immediate reaction was, “Well, that’s horse racing.” It’s a complicated sport, with things that can change in an instant. Yeah, I was disappointed. We had spent so much time planning to celebrate the horse’s accomplishments and deal with all aspects of the connections, some of which were not so nice or pretty, but the game plan completely changed. That was a challenging moment for me as a producer to kind of take the car apart and figure out what direction we wanted to turn. Obviously, it was 180 degrees different.

How much of the Belmont broadcast had to be scrapped because of the scratch? Let me say about 80 percent. We reworked a number of elements. There are a couple of, say, timeless elements, but everything else had to be readdressed. The lead to elements had to be readdressed, and the whole choreography of where things went and how we got to things, that had to be thrown out the window.

I sat down at nine o’clock on Friday night to begin redoing the format, because don’t forget, we had a show on Friday as well. At six o’clock [on Friday night] we had a production meeting, had to gather every one of our announcers’ and production members’ thoughts, and I wanted to spitball ideas and brainstorm before we came up with a new format. I wanted opinions on the new story lines, how to address the 11 horses that were still in the race, before I sat down and put it on paper. So in terms of the content we had going into the broadcast on Friday at noon Eastern, yeah, I’d say about 80 percent of it had to be reworked.

Have you ever dealt with anything that was similar, as far as an event that so substantially changed the narrative of a broadcast? Not in my professional career so far, but I’ve only been at NBC for 15 years. But it’s funny. I think Fred Gaudelli [coordinating producer of NBC’s Triple Crown productions] said it best: If Eli Manning got injured on the eve of the Super Bowl, the two teams are still going to play. We’ll deal with that story, sure, but the game will go on. This horse race still went on without I’ll Have Another, but the very fact that he was not going to go into the starting gate made this event unusual from any other sporting event covered by any television producer, in my opinion.

But that’s horse racing. You approach every horse race with the notion that everything can get thrown out of the window, including formats. A format is a nice thing to have, it’s nice to have a plan, but in horse racing a plan usually never sticks. In the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Derby, we had a 45-minute weather delay. The entire format just gets thrown out the window, in real time. But that happens.

Then there was back in 2006, in the Preakness Stakes, with Barbaro, and what happened with him. At NBC, we were looking to celebrate a horse that we saw as a horse that could win the Preakness and then the Triple Crown. The story changed in an instant, and you’re reminded that this is a sport that is very complicated, that the animals are very fragile, and you have to keep that in the back of your mind before you go on the air for any horse race.

How do you keep at arm’s length when dealing with your father-in-law on the broadcasts? There are no special procedures. I’m probably overly sensitive with the relationship I have with the horses he races. For this week, he had the favorite, and we dealt with it the way any production would. Yes, I’m conscious of it, but for me he’s only one of 11 trainers in the Belmont, and I think we dealt with his story and the connections fairly. I keep it in the back of my head, but to me he was just the trainer of Union Rags, the favorite in that race.