Live to Tape - By Evan Hammonds

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association had big plans for the 50th anniversary of the Eclipse Awards. However, its lengthy list of ideas to celebrate the half-century of the best in Thoroughbred racing and breeding was tossed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Put a large group of people together in an awards ceremony setting? Forget about it.

Plan B, producing a “virtual show” with the entire program being shot and produced in advance and shown as if it were a live event, was one of many winners the evening of Jan. 28. It just might be a template for award presentations in the future.

Many talented hands were required to pull the show together that included taped segments from “host site” Spendthrift Farm near Lexington, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park, and the Studio 46 production facility in Lexington. Hosting the event was respected broadcast journalist Kenny Rice who manned the podium for the fifth time. Checking in with Rice the day after the program streamed, we found it interesting to learn he had taped his segments two days before the event and even he didn’t know the winners until he watched the program just like we did.

“I went in Monday morning when we were supposed to do it, but it was moved because of the weather (it rained more than two inches in Central Kentucky Jan. 25),” Rice said. “Britney Eurton and Jeannine Edwards were doing their introductions out at Spendthrift Farm on Monday, but we had all that rain, so they moved it.

“That was the biggest change. Everything else fell into place. Everybody was where they were supposed to be and do what they did. The show overall, maybe, moved faster and that’s a credit to G.D. Hieronymus and Amy Zimmerman who put it all together.

“Naturally, all of the winners had been notified, and just about every acceptance speech was already in the can when I showed up to do the intro taping. I didn’t know all of the winners…I was throwing to Acacia (Courtney) and Gabby (Gaudet), and to Gary (Stevens) and Jay (Privman), and to Britney and Jeannine. Some of them I obviously knew, but some I didn’t. It was fun when I watched it back Thursday night to see all of the winners.

“There were a few givens going in, but, for example, I didn’t know who won the trainer award until I watched it. Three-year-old filly…I didn’t think anybody else but Swiss Skydiver was going to win, but I wasn’t sure until I saw (trainer) Kenny (McPeek) give his speech when I watched it.”

As for the taping, the seasoned pros jumped in to make it happen seamlessly.

“G.D. and Amy and the crew out there at Studio 46…there was a buzz,” Rice said. “I think everybody was excited about doing it this way. We breezed through it, which is always a good sign. There were not a lot of retakes. It was close to ‘live from tape,’ which is the way to do it. That way you keep that energy level up, and I thought the energy level carried it through.

“G.D., Amy, and I go back several years…we’ve covered many events together, so when Amy called to ask me about it a few weeks ago, I said, ‘sure.’ Because I like working with them…and to be honest, I was curious how they were going to put this all together.”

And pull it together they did. As the pandemic has forced us to change so many things we do, perhaps the “virtual event” will stick around.

“Watch any awards show…there has to be some ‘celebration.’ I thought it came off that way,” Rice said. “People were relaxed, and all of the co-hosts were terrific and very knowledgeable in the way they set up the categories.

“Having some of it done at Spendthrift Farm…that was great. Having Mr. Hughes 20 feet away from Alex Waldrop presenting Horse of the Year, and panning over…that was really good stuff. That was fun to watch whether I was hosting or not; I wouldn’t be opposed to watching a show like that again.

“I would suggest the industry take a closer look at how well it came off last night. Honestly, maybe it’s because we’ve gotten used to going through the Triple Crown with a limited audience, the Breeders’ Cup…being around big events where there is little or no audience, it’s become accepted.”

One thing we must also accept is the fact our sport has endured during the age of COVID. Rice agrees.

“That was a great thing about horse racing in 2020; it was the only sport that never stopped,” he said. “Horse racing never stopped. There were a few hiccups along the way…like the Eclipse Awards…it was a different 50th anniversary, but we still celebrated it with some great winners.”

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