Reflections on Covering the Triple Crown Races and the Challenges Facing Sports in 2020
Bob Costas
Bob Costas, Sportscaster and Contributor, MLB Network and CNN

STUART S. JANNEY: Bob Costas has covered virtually every major sporting event there is. He’s admired for his versatility, particularly his hosting duties at the Olympic Games. He’s been honored as Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Writers and Sportscasters Association a record eight times, and he’s in their Hall of Fame.

There are 28 Emmy Awards littered about the Costas home. He is no stranger to Thoroughbred racing, for he covered our big events from 2001 to 2018.

Bob has developed a reputation for straight talk, and our sport needs a bit of that these days. We're honored to have Bob with us and to have his thoughts on where our sport stands today and how we can take the steps necessary for our future.

BOB COSTAS: Hi, it's Bob Costas coming to you, as you can plainly see, from my kitchen. But by now you all understand we're all just trying to cope as best we can in the midst of a pandemic. We're all in one way or another on lockdown.

After all, this is a virtual Round Table for The Jockey Club so all of you are here, there, and everywhere, so we might as well just plow ahead.

Before I get to a true appreciation of my nearly two decades hosting the Triple Crown horse races on NBC, let's address an important part of why you are all getting together for this Round Table and for ongoing discussions.

That is the current state and the future prospects of horse racing. This magnificent sport with such a rich and storied history is at a crossroads. The accumulation of data, undeniable data, public pressure from the outside, and increasingly from the inside. The events that have taken place at Santa Anita in recent years and elsewhere.

Horse racing is at a crossroads. Either it reforms itself significantly. Window dressing will not do. Deep and honest reforms, whether it's concerning drugs, track conditions, training and breeding methods, whatever it may be. The entire panoply of reasons why horse racing has got to undergo some serious self-examination. Not just because, most importantly, because it is the right thing to do. It's the humane thing to do. It's the moral thing to do.

These magnificent equine athletes deserve to be treated with the care and dignity and respect they deserve not just on the days when everybody is watching at the biggest events, but 365 days a year. It's the right thing to do for that reason.

It's also the right thing to do for the most important thing that every sport has going for it: the integrity of the competition. But it's also essential now for the future of the industry. Because that level of public perception, “Is the public willing tolerate it? Are they willing to accept it? Can they continue to embrace it without the reforms that are necessary?”

The answer to that is no. But the answer is that the reforms are always best when they come from and are designed by those who truly love the sport. Not those who are looking to sweep the problems under the rug, but who want to see the sport truly reformed because they love it.

Why did I talk about steroids in baseball when few people were? Not because I wanted to hurt baseball. It's the sport I love best. I talked about it because I wanted a problem to be solved.

Why did I talk about concussions and CTE in football? It was an elephant in the room and something that had to be addressed and the public had to be made aware of.

I sincerely hope that honest efforts to reform horse racing will prove fruitful and worthwhile, successful enough that we can continue with clear conscience and open hearts to enjoy a sport that has rewarded us with so many memories and so many thrills.

When I began hosting the Triple Crown races at the turn the century NBC had come to me, and I said, “Hold on. You realize that I don't know a furlong from a fetlock. I can't even read a racing form,” which was true at that time. I learned of course, but it was true at that time.

They said, “Don't worry about it. You can handle it. You'll figure out a way.” Well, soon enough, I understood what my role was. My role was to be a good generalist, to provide an overview, to bring it on the air, to set the scene, and then to highlight the history, the back stories of the horses and their connections, the jockeys, the panorama of those events.

And people sitting at home say to themselves, “Boy, that's on my bucket list. I got to get to Churchill Downs. I got to see the Kentucky Derby.”

So whether it was the Derby and those magnificent equine animals framed — equine athletes.

These equine athletes framed by the twin spires or the atmosphere at the Preakness. A little bit of a contrast, because after all, who doesn't enjoy a tightrope walk across a series of port-a-johns, and then you come to the majesty of the most valuable trophy in all of American sports, after all, the Woodlawn Vase.

And then onto the brassiness of the Belmont and Frank Sinatra's New York, New York, and all the excitement, especially when a Triple Crown was at stake. When we inherited the Triple Crown races, as you all know, there had not been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic had come close at the end of the '90s, and then as soon as we got it there was a run. There was War Emblem and Funny Cide and Smarty Jones three consecutive years. Then I'll Have Another and Big Brown, who couldn't finish in the Belmont, and California Chrome. At least a half dozen. Maybe I'm forgetting one or two, before finally American Pharoah broke through in 2015. And then the last event I ever hosted for NBC, the 2018 Belmont; Justify became the most recent Triple Crown winner.

So many memories come flooding back. This may seem like a quirky one. Smarty Jones in 2005 was kind of America's horse. The story of the horse and its connections just had an every-man appeal about it. And here is Smarty Jones out in front in the Belmont, and then caught down the stretch by a 36-to-1 shot, Birdstone, who edges Smarty Jones out by a length.

Boy, you could feel that huge crowd at the Belmont. You could feel the deflation. The sense of anticipation and all the excitement building, and then that balloon is punctured. It's my job, as always, to interview the winning jockey and trainer and the connections, the owner, and whatnot.

I was struck by how all the connections and jockey Edgar Prado were absolutely apologetic about it. They understood what everybody had come to see and they understood that what they did had deprived them of being able to hold on to that ticket and say, I was there finally in 2005 when Smarty Jones won the Triple Crown.

They would have to wait another decade before American Pharoah broke through.

You know, when I started hosting the Triple Crown, one of the things they said to me to try and convince me that I could do it and I would enjoy it was “Hey, Bob, you'll tower over the jockeys.” It's true, and I have to admit that that was a plus. But I came to understand the sport and understand its problems too. We're not trying to soft pedal that.

And there were times when on the air we addressed those issues. But in the context of the Triple Crown the majesty of horse racing really comes home to you. That is worth preserving. That is worth caring about. But it can only be preserved if we take a clear-eyed look at the serious issues horse racing faces.

I hope that can be done successfully, and I hope that this great American sport and these great pieces of Americana can continue to be part of the sports landscape for a very long time.


Back Agenda Next