Trainer Nick Zito (second from left) with ESPN senior researcher Chris Fallica, producer Kristine Kugler, reporter Jeannine Edwards and play-by-play commentator Joe Tessitore.
When sports history was made this weekend in Elmont, N.Y. at the Belmont Stakes, ESPN was well-positioned to document and discuss American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
From the veteran horse racing reporters like Jeannine Edwards to the (very fortunate) first-time race writer, Dana O’Neil, the chronicling of history was of the utmost priority. But now, having had a couple of days to let it sink in, the fan in all of these journalists creeps out for a few moments of reflection:
Joe Tessitore, Host/Anchor:
As a lifelong racing fan it meant a lot to me. When he came down the stretch with that finishing kick I could feel it in my chest.
It especially meant a lot to be there with so many dedicated ESPN staffers who have been through decades of racing coverage together. For producer Kris Kugler, cameraman Rick Quinton and the most dedicated horse racing broadcaster of this generation, Jeannine Edwards, it was thrilling to see how much it meant to all of us collectively. It was very special to be there throughout the whole weekend.
In every sport we cover we avoid having a rooting interest, but in this sport even rival trainers and jockeys have so much respect for what it means to win the Triple Crown you can’t help but celebrate the greatness you witnessed.
Jeannine Edwards, Reporter:
Things throughout the coverage she’ll remember. . .
A few things stick out and will probably be etched in my memory for a long time. First, during our Derby coverage, Bob Baffert expertly played along with our “boxing theme” (because of the big fight that weekend) and helped us make a memorable SportsCenter piece showcasing “Angelo Dundee and Pharoah vs Dortmund in the Derby.”
For our Preakness coverage, on the day before the race, Baffert and his assistant Jimmy Barnes let me in the shedrow to do my Friday SC piece standing between Pharoah and Dortmund. The gist of the piece was Baffert potentially spoiling his own Triple Crown bid with another horse (different owner) and how the two owners were very sporting about it. I fed carrots to both horses and they were so incredibly cute and engaged in the shoot, which had to be done in one take. That was the highlight of my Derby and Preakness coverage.
– Jeannine Edwards
Monday of Belmont week, I interviewed Baffert at Churchill Downs for our SC Baffert feature, which was edited by Barry Abrams. Baffert got very emotional talking about his deceased parents and how special he feels Pharoah is. It was an unexpected, refreshing, and touching moment seeing this side of Bob Baffert.
The piece was so incredibly well-received, I think Justin Zayat’s tweet about it has hundreds and hundreds of retweets, favorites and mentions. I had countless people text, email, even strangers tell me in person “That’s the best piece I’ve ever seen on Bob Baffert, thank you for telling that story.” Even Baffert told me he was touched by it.
Belmont memories. . .
On Belmont day itself, I did a 9 a.m. hit at Pharoah’s stall that started off our coverage in the most gratifying way, again Bob and Jimmy allowing us access that no one else got. I fed Pharoah carrots while detailing what his day would be like. We then paid the Zayats a visit in their RV parked in the barn area. . .it was nearly a “Seinfeld” episode, the Zayats really need their own reality show. Again, we shot it in one take and ran the tape back to the truck to air within 10 minutes.
Watching the race, seeing how effortlessly Pharoah was toying with the field, even after just ½ mile we said “it’s over.” Then the deafening roar of the crowd, gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. We finally witnessed it! We were a part of it! We documented this horse and his connections from day one. . .we were so immersed and invested in the story. I tried not to let it get to me, but the emotions were hard to suppress. I had covered nine prior Triple Crown attempts, and to finally witness it, after being so closely involved with this horse’s story, was extremely poignant.
Another moment that was moving – on Sunday morning Baffert brought Pharoah out to be petted by the media, probably 15-20 of us. The horse was completely surrounded, Baffert holding him, and he stood for a good seven-eight minutes, never moving, just lapping up the attention. Like a Labrador Retriever. He is the sweetest racehorse I’ve ever been around.
Even my horse wouldn’t have stood for all that! Someone would have been kicked, stepped on, or felt the wrath of his teeth. Several of us were moved to tears by this very special moment. . .and by Baffert’s generosity. The connection between him and the horse is something to behold. I get the feeling with his other good horses he was happy to win because he was winning; with this horse I feel that he’s truly thankful for this gift he’s been given; he is touched by and in awe of this very special animal.
I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be part of this historic run and especially share with it my long-time colleagues and friends Joe Tessitore and Kenny Mayne, who have covered racing with me for. . . well, let’s not date ourselves. I was also very glad that Tom Rinaldi was there to add his eloquent and unique perspective to the races, and DRF’s Matt Bernier was extremely adept as our analyst.
And I could not have done my job to its fullest without my partner in crime and field producer Kris Kugler, who is as passionate about racing as I am; she was instrumental in helping us make memorable TV.
Kris Kugler, Producer:
Kugler shares some of her encounters with American Pharoah. . .
Two days before the Kentucky Derby, Jeannine and I were down at Bob Baffert’s barn finishing up our interview when he took off down the shedrow saying we have to see his horse. He takes us right down to American Pharoah’s stall, goes in, starts petting the horse and talking like a proud father. He was so excited about Pharoah and couldn’t wait to show him off to us. . . he was still wearing his microphone and dragging cables all the way down to the stall thru the dirt.
– Kris Kugler
At the Preakness we were finishing up our post-race coverage when we got permission to shoot Jeannine’s standup in front of Pharoah’s stall. He was just so relaxed and interested in checking out what was going on – hoping you had a carrot or two for him.
Then at 8:30 a.m. on Belmont day – Jeannine and I went back to see him again and shoot in the stall. And he looks bigger, stronger, healthier than before. It was unreal. His team was so confident and proud of him. They were so gracious the whole Triple Crown trail to us. Baffert kept saying he wanted to share the horse with the public – and he did.
On what this weekend meant to her. . .
Previously I’d been to eight Triple Crown failures. I always said I don’t need a Triple Crown winner, I need a Triple Crown contender. But from before the Derby, I’d never felt so confident that a horse would get it done. He’s just better than the ones who came before him – you know greatness when you see it.
Seeing my friends and co-workers jumping for joy after he crossed the finish line was so memorable. How great to share the moment with folks who have seen so many of the failures along with you.
This year my Buckeyes won the National Title Game with their third-string QB. And I was lucky enough to be there on the sidelines working when the confetti showered down.
And now to be able to have seen all three Triple Crown races – culminating with the win - I’ll never have another year like this, it’s been a tremendous ride and I couldn’t be more fortunate. I’m going have to bet on my Eagles winning the Super Bowl next. It can’t get any better.
Dan Quinn, Rachel Siegal and Stephen McDonald contributed to this post