Josh Elliott‘s highly anticipated debut on NBC is almost here. He is preparing to host one of the biggest — and fastest — sporting events of the year this weekend as part of NBC’s broadcasting team at the Kentucky Derby.
Known primarily for morning news and sports reporting, the former Good Morning America anchor is green when it comes to racing. “This will be my first foray into horse racing but not my first foray into an American spectacle, as I’ve covered the Super Bowl a few times,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“[However] I have not known the veracity and the raucousness of 150,000-plus guests who have turned a two-minute race into a weeklong event,” he says, with mounting anticipation. “It’s not nervousness; it is a real excitement; my nerve endings are on fire at this point,” confesses Elliott.
Far from being just about the first race in the Triple Crown, the action at Churchill Downs encompasses stars, style and southern-style partying. “I have a love-hate relationship with mint juleps,” he says. “I’ve been to enough Derby parties where people have served them to varying degrees of success.”
While he is going to steer clear of the traditional lethal cocktail, the 42-year-old has put some serious thought into what he’s going to wear. “If the weather allows it, there will be some khaki involved, but I will still be understated — as much as a 6’5″ person in khaki can be,” says Elliott, admitting that there has been ongoing tie dilemmas, but he doesn’t want that to be the focus of his debut.
“If people are talking about my outfit, I feel I will have done something wrong — or something very right. I will be imposing a lot of khaki on the American television-watching public. I almost feel like I should apologize,” he admits.
On Saturday, veteran NBC Sports commentator Tom Hammond will be joined by analysts Randy Moss (not the former NFL player!), Jerry Bailey, Mike Battaglia and Bob Neumeier for technical coverage. The race will be called by Larry Collmus, while Elliott focuses more on features and news stories.
“That’s really why NBC Sports felt like a good fit. It reminds me of my first days before GMA and before even ESPN, when I spent five years at Sports Illustrated as a writer. I feel like this is the world I’ve returned to,” he says.
Among the captivating human and equine stories he will be telling are that of Rosie Napravnik, who is chasing history to be the first female jockey to win on Vicar’s in Trouble. Also in the running is Wicked Strong, a stallion out of Massachusetts who was renamed after the Boston Marathon bombing. “It was quite a mantle to put on a horse that hadn’t quite done anything at the time, but he’s living up to it,” says Elliott, sounding like a true equestrian expert. “To be able to tell a little chapter of the marathon story here is great.”
Napravnik is also racing in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks , which is the traditional event for fillies the day before the Derby, and marks Elliott’s first anchoring duties on NBC Sports.
The host has been ingratiating himself in southern society over recent weeks, spending time in Kentucky horse country. “When you drive through the bluegrass and you see the bloodlines of the thoroughbreds thriving, there is a quaint and timeless aspect to it.”
It truly is anyone’s race when the horses enter the gate on Saturday, he notes. “The number of variables on that day are incredible — you don’t know about the weather, you don’t know about the track. No one really knows what the horses are going to be like in front of 150,000 insane people all cheering them on. It is fascinating to me as a newcomer to see how much the unknown dominates the storylines. The bottom line is always: ‘Who knows?’
“As much as you want the horse to care about that big bet you placed, or how much you want that story to come home — they don’t care. They like that competition, and they want to race, but beyond that — good luck!” he says.
Excited to get back on the air following his hiatus since departing GMA on March 30, Elliott says: “It is fitting to have the Derby as my first assignment because in a 20-horse field, there are so many stories to tell.”
Earlier on Friday before the racing began, he was reunited with former colleague Sam Champion, who also left the ABC morning show for NBCUniversal, going to the Weather Channel, which is owned by the Comcast company.
Elliott made a brief appearance shortly before 9:30 a.m. ET on Champion’s Weather Channel morning show, AMHQ, where they toasted his joining the NBCUniversal family with the inevitable mint juleps.
The Kentucky Oaks airs at noon PST Friday on NBCSN, with coverage of the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby beginning at 9 a.m. PST on Saturday on NBCSN, then continuing on NBC at 1 p.m. PST in the lead-up to the main race.