NBC Sports’ Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) broadcast will use a drone as part of its coverage—a first for the traditional first leg of the Triple Crown.
“We believe this camera perspective will be a great, call it, magic carpet ride for the Derby viewer for the five hours of our telecast,” said Rob Hyland, the coordinating producer of NBC’s horse racing coverage.
Possibilities include for the drone to “take you places that we haven’t before with our traditional camera angles,” he said, “specifically wrapping around the Twin Spires, going between the Twin Spires to the paddock, from the paddock back to the frontside, around the track, back to the chute … where it’s very hard to get cameras. It’s a very narrow area.”
Hyland said the idea for a drone came up a couple years ago and was in play to be used last year before the coronavirus pandemic moved the Derby to September without fans. As a result, NBC produced its broadcast offsite, and the drone idea temporarily was shelved.
“Every year we walk away from the Derby and we’ll review, as a production team, the coverage from the last year and say to ourselves, ‘Hey, how can we enhance the viewers experience?'” Hyland said during a preview call with media Tuesday.
The drone will be one of 50 cameras planned for use, including two jockey cameras and a “bat cam” suspended about 20 feet above track level down the backside inside of the rail. It also will be in addition to the traditional blimp shot.
Precisely how the drone will be used—and whether it will be used specifically during the running of the Derby and other races—will be decided during testing after training hours to “just establish our comfort level … with the camera” over the course of the next couple days, Hyland said.
“It’s a new toy, but not the only camera we have,” Hyland said. “So Churchill Downs has been great in working with us, and the vendor (Beverly Hills Aerials) has been great.”
Safety concerns will be at the forefront in deciding the drone’s use, Hyland said.
“Our No. 1 priority is safety,” he said. “We were worried about the bat cam years ago. Horses have never noticed it in a race. So I am hoping that we will have a shot of the race, or each race, from the drone from the infield … What the bat cam does on the backstretch, perhaps, the drone handles on the front stretch, but that will be determined over the next 48 hours in testing.”
Kentucky chief state steward Barbara Borden said she believes she’ll get an update on more details during a production meeting Thursday, but has spoken preliminarily with someone from NBC about the idea.
“Our feeling is as long as it’s not too low, too loud and interrupting, (or) disturbing any horses or any of the proceedings, then we don’t have a problem with it,” Borden said.
Borden said, to her knowledge, it’s a first—although drones have been used at other Kentucky tracks, such as for filming promotions, and she said the noise then was noticeable.
“They’re (NBC) around horse racing enough to know” the risks, “so that I don’t feel like they’re going to do anything that’s going to endanger any horses,” Borden said.
Drones generally are prohibited from being brought into Churchill Downs during Derby week, according to the track’s website.