It’s about the race for Bob Neumeier, always has been. A respected Boston sports anchor and host for decades, Neumeier — better known as Neumy to, well, everyone — long ago established a parallel profile nationally built in part around his expertise in horse racing.
So it comes as no surprise that he is particularly enthusiastic for the Belmont Stakes Saturday. Neumeier will contribute to NBC’s coverage of the event, which begins at 4:30 p.m. This, of course, is no ordinary Belmont, no ordinary third leg of the Triple Crown, because this year, there’s the possibility of history unfolding in real time.
With a victory, American Pharoah would become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, a possibility that has both casual and serious horse racing fans anticipating the possibility of seeing true greatness confirmed.
“Would I like to see a Triple Crown? Absolutely,’’ said Neumeier. “Who wouldn’t? We haven’t had one since ’78 and we’ve had a lot of great horses come up and down the road. But there’s an old racetrack saying that there’s one way to win and 21,000 ways to lose. That’s racing. There have been cinches before. Spectacular Bid was supposed to be a cinch, he stepped on a pin. War Emblem was supposed to be a cinch, he broke poorly. Smarty Jones was supposed to be a cinch and he was basically outridden by smarter jockeys. Happens all the time. Would I like to see it? From an aesthetic point of view, sure. It would be something else.”
But in a subtler sense for Neumeier, the Belmont is not just about the race, but about the walk. Neumeier suffered a stroke in October that affected his bilateral cerebellum and required 5½ hours of brain surgery. He returned to his role as a Comcast SportsNet New England anchor in late April, contributed a taped segment for NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage May 2, then joined the network’s live coverage of the Preakness Stakes May 16.
“There were basically five things I’ve had to do professionally since returning,’’ he said. “The 6 p.m. SportsNet Central, which I’ve done. The 10:30 SportsNet Central, which I’ve done. The Preakness. [CSNNE’s] Sports Tonight, which I did last week. I haven’t done The Baseball Show yet, but I will.”
What he has not done is the “walkover,’’ the ceremonial segment before a race when the horses are walked from the barns to the paddock and interviews on the move are conducted by a reporter. Neumeier is hoping that will be among his responsibilities during Saturday’s broadcast, but it’s something he will discuss with producer Rob Hyland before making a final decision.
“We had talked a lot before the Derby, Rob and I,’’ said Neumeier. “I typically have five or six spots that I do before a race on our broadcast. I’ll talk about something off the top, maybe have an interview, offer context on something, make a pick, and then there’s the walkover.
“We mutually decided for the Derby that the timing wasn’t right [to contribute to the live coverage]. The event itself is so big and so out of control, so we decided to take a pass. The Preakness is a little less so, but the Preakness walkover is a bear. We decided we should skip that, and we did. I did everything else and I think it went well.
“At the Belmont, the walkover is shorter and a little less intense. I’m all for doing it because right now my balance is getting better. Bilateral cerebellum stroke affects balance and coordination, walking and things like that. That basically is what it’s about. That part of it is better. I’ll figure out what we want to do, but I’ll let [Rob] decide. He’s in kind of a tough spot, because he wants it to go well and there’s a lot of people watching, given that there’s a Triple Crown at stake. We’ll either do it or we won’t do it, and if I don’t do it, I’ll do my other bits and I’m sure it will be fun.”
NBC coverage features, among others, hosts Bob Costas and Tom Hammonds and analysts Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey. Larry Collmus will call the race. Josh Elliott and Carolyn Manno (a former colleague of Neumeier’s at CSNNE) will provide features and interviews, while Neumeier and Ed Olczyk serve as the analysts/handicappers.
“One of the nuances of NBC is that we tell stories,’’ said Neumeier. “But I’ll give my picks, so will the other people. Rob wants us to play to his mother, who doesn’t know much about racing, to keep it fundamental that way. When you watch our broadcast, you’ll see stories about Bob Baffert, you’ll see stories about [American Pharoah owners] the Zayats father and son, you’ll see stories about the horse. And less about me and other people talking about, ‘Boy, American Pharoah can run a mile and an eighth in no time.’ It’s less technical split-by-split and more storytelling.”
The plan and the roles before the race are mapped out. But afterward? That’s essentially organized chaos.
“It’s hard thing to explain other than that it takes everybody pitching in to do their job,’’ said Neumeier. “To make the final product look good and sound good in context with what’s going on with the actual event. Whether it’s the Belmont Stakes or the Olympics or whatever, I’ve done my fair share, and a lot of people put in a lot of time to make it right. I really want to do my part to make it right. I’ll do my thing hopefully to the best of my availability.”
“But to the people who run it, the format is just a guide. We have a lot of people who have done it before, where to go, who to talk to. And if the [expletive] hits the fan, as it often does in racing, we can do it.”