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NBC's Hammond gets dream Derby


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001

It's hard to say who needs the Kentucky Derby more right now: NBC or Tom Hammond.

Hammond, the Breeders' Cup host for 17 years, was a long shot to fulfill his lifetime dream of hosting the Derby after being diagnosed in mid-March with diverticulitis, a colon disease. On March 26 he had part of his colon removed, just the beginning of what has been a painful recovery.

"The Derby telecast was like a carrot dangling in front of me," said Hammond, also known as NBC's Olympic gymnastics and track and field commentator. "I had that as my goal to get ready and I think it helped speed up my recovery."

It will be the first Derby as a broadcaster for Hammond, who grew up working with horses in Lexington, Ky. He will co-host with Bob Costas.

Hammond said he is feeling better this week. So is NBC. The network needs a boost after the failure of the XFL and the low ratings for the NBA regular season.

Today's broadcast begins exclusive Triple Crown coverage for the network, which got the rights from ABC -- the home of the Derby for 26 years -- with a five-year, $51.5-million bid. That's $3-million more a year than ABC put up.

Making NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol especially happy is that the Derby will be followed by an NBA playoff game (Dallas at San Antonio).

Hammond said unlike with the Breeders' Cup, the Derby offers the chance for real stories, including one that's not too far from his own. NBC will profile Invisible Ink, the horse that a year ago "was so ill they more or less had written him off," Hammond said. "They thought he would die. ... Not only did he recover, but he's in the Kentucky Derby."

Though ABC did a great job with the Derby, said producer David Michaels (younger brother of ABC's Al), NBC will gear more of its coverage to real time. "We've set ourselves up to capture the live scene," Michaels said, combining features with "spending a good amount of time as the trainers and owners walk their horses around that storied first turn."

MORE DERBY: ESPN2 will air Breakfast at Churchill Downs at 9 a.m., a Derby special at noon and a highlights show at 6:30 p.m. ESPN begins live prerace coverage at 2:30.

THE REPLACEMENTS?: Now that former fill-in Cowhead has a regular gig on another station, Brent Tearson and Kevin "Mr. Excitement" Wuster have taken over the 10 a.m.-1 p.m. slot at WQYK-AM 1010. Program director Jeff Ryan said no one has permanently laid claim to the Fabulous Sports Babe's former time slot, which was vacated when SportsFan Radio Network -- which folded last week -- shut down her show in January.

If their show seems haphazard, that's (at least partly) intentional. "Their philosophy is, after you hear TJ Rives for three hours, you pretty much know what's happening in sports," Ryan said. "That's why they sometimes wander a little bit."

FINE TUNING: The first nine races of the NASCAR Winston Cup season averaged a 6.8 rating and 17 share, up 39 percent and 31 percent, respectively, from the same races last season. All nine were on Fox, compared with 2000's first-quarter schedule of five events on two broadcast networks and four on two cable outlets. ... ESPN's The Life returns at 10 a.m. today with an in-depth look at Shaquille O'Neal.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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