NBC's Racing Reporter Talks California Chrome's Triple Crown Chances, Risks of Getting Kicked on the Job (Q&A)

8:00 AM PST 06/05/2014 by Debbie Emery
AP Images; Courtesy of NBC

"In-the-saddle reporter" Donna Brothers, who will conduct post-race interviews on horseback at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, tells THR why the favorite has a better chance of making history than his predecessors.

If California Chrome makes horse racing history by winning the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to become the 13th horse to complete the Triple Crown, one woman will be right there to celebrate his victory.

As NBC's resident "in-the-saddle reporter," Donna Brothers is often the first person that a winning jockey sees after crossing the finish line, whether they secured a spot in the record books, or just made a lot of bookies very happy.

The Hollywood Reporter talked to the former jockey -- who conducts her interviews on horseback -- about her unique job and her predictions for the 146th Belmont Stakes running in Elmont, New York, which will be NBC's biggest Belmont production in terms of schedule, technical facilities and field announcers.

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What makes California Chrome so unique?

First of all, he’s made it to this point. There have only been 12 horses since the last Triple Crown winner 36 years ago who have done that, so it is not something that you expect to have happen. Plus, he won the Derby and the Preakness with comfortable margins, even though at the Preakness, Ride on Curlin [who finished second] was running at him, but there was never a point in the final stretch where he might get beat. They [the other horses] haven’t gotten to the bottom of him or asked him for everything that he has, which means that he has a good chance to win the Triple Crown. 

Why does he have better odds than other horses in the running in recent years?

He is a great all-round horse, as opposed to a contender like War Emblem in 2002, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but he was a horse that was very two-dimensional. He needed to have an uncontested lead. Nobody thought he could win the Derby, but he broke the lead and kept it. In the Preakness he was just faster than everyone else, then he came back in the Belmont and stumbled at the start and lost all chances. There are a lot of horses like that where you can say ‘I wasn’t sold on him in the first two races …’ Funny Cide is another one who was a New York gelding and won the Derby, then he came out and won the Preakness, but people were still not convinced.

He's been described as having "low-cost breeding" by owner Steve Coburn and was dubbed the black sheep of the Kentucky Derby. Is that fair?

California Chrome has the pedigree. His immediate sire [father] and dam [mother] are not impressive, but when you go back to his grandsires, he has an impressive pedigree that indicates he can compete at this level and this distance. Also, given the way that he has won the first two legs, you can see him doing it again.

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Why is this victory so important even to non-racing fans? 

Everyone likes to witness history. You don’t want to say that you saw the replay of it. It is like watching the Masters [golf tournament]; you may not watch it all, but you do want to see when the win is clinched. Even without a Triple Crown on the line, for a jockey to win the Belmont is something to be very proud of. At 1.5 miles, it is the true 'Test of the Champion,' and a $1.5 million purse will always make racing fans tune in. However, the Kentucky Derby will always be the most prestigious race to win, even though the Belmont can be the most difficult leg. Some horses do it and never even win another race as they may be able to do the mile-and-a-half and can’t win shorter sprints.

Like Secretariat when he won the Belmont in 1973, California Chrome has drawn the difficult number two post position -- which means he risks getting stuck behind other horses in traffic -- what other challenges does the 3-5 favorite face?

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only five of those horses faced a field of 15 or more in the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome ran in a 19 horse field in the Derby and now he’ll face nine rivals in the Belmont Stakes.  The most horses any Triple Crown winner has faced in the Belmont Stakes is seven, so he will have a harder time than any of the other previous winners. 

You have a very unique job as a reporter on horseback, what are your biggest challenges?

My background is in racing, as my mother was a jockey and I've been riding horses all my life, so for me, riding the horse was the easiest thing when I started. I had been interviewed a lot as a jockey but I hadn’t done the interviewing, so I was new to that and didn’t know what to do with my other hand that wasn't holding the mic, or how to stand and got nervous that I wasn't doing it right! The great thing about being on a horse was that I didn’t have to worry about that, as you always have something to hold onto.

Have you ever had any dangerous moments during an interview?

After a race a thoroughbred is definitely subdued, and, while the safest place to be is to be is on their left side, after a race you’re usually safe on either side.  I would never ride up to a horse on the off (right) side for a pre-race interview because I would be putting myself in a precarious situation and putting my horse in the line of fire to be kicked.

There was one incident when the horse was trying to bite the outrider’s pony (the outrider was leading the horse and I was on the horse’s off side) and trying to savage it, so I asked the outrider to just turn the horse loose and we continued the interview with just the rider riding the horse and keeping his head in check with the reins. But I have been around horses my entire life, so if it looks like I am aggravating them then I get closer so they can't kick me. Most of the time they are just tired and ready to take a breather and not looking for any extra action. 

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What is your most memorable interview with a winning jockey?

After Calvin Borel won his first Derby in 2007 on Street Sense, he was so emotional that I completely forgot the questions I was going to ask. He was talking about his mother and father, wishing they were there and then about his brother, Cecil. When I asked him what it meant to have him there, a brother who practically raised him, he started crying and it was all emotions from there.  I just kept going with what he was talking about, then afterwards tossed it back to Tom [Hammond] and thought I was fired!  I had forgotten to ask any of my "racing" questions.  When I got back to the compound, I got tons of compliments for my interview because it was a real conversation and it made the viewers like him more and seem more personable.

What horse do you ride on camera?

I always borrow a horse for the day, so NBC gives me money to rent one of the saddle horses who are at the track. I have a little saddle bag that I loop it over the horn and clamp down with a few zip tags, and then just put my notes and questions in there to pull out after the race. I ride Western style for the interviews, as it's pretty hard to get bucked off from a Western saddle.

Coverage of the 146th Belmont Stakes begins at 2.30 p.m ET with the race at 4.30 p.m. ET on NBC. 

Email: debbie.emery@THR.com

Twitter: @debemery

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