ELMONT, N.Y. – As an elementary school student in Southern California, the occasional sunny afternoon would arise when the lady from the principal's office would walk into David Michaels' classroom and hand him a note.
"It would say, 'Your mom is here to take you to your dental appointment,'" Michaels recalls, seated in an NBC production trailer behind the homestretch here. "And I'd think, 'I don't have a dental appointment.' Then I'd walk out and my mom, my dad and my brother would be in the car saying, 'Come on, we are going to the track.'"
The Michaels, like a lot of families in the 1950s and '60s, were a horse racing family – not merely gamblers but fans. Which is why it was painful for Michaels, now a television producer, to see the sport hit a terrible dry spell.
"There was a period of time through the '80s where I lost interest in it, too," Michaels said. "Nothing was going on with it. It was just listless."
Not anymore. Horse racing is white-hot, in part due to Michaels, who on Saturday will executive produce NBC's 90-minute broadcast of the 136th Belmont Stakes, the most anticipated horse race in at least a quarter century.
The event will take place in front of an expected record crowd of more than 120,000 at Belmont Park and, more importantly to NBC, could draw the largest audience for a horse race since the 1970s.
While the horses – in this year's case Triple Crown threat Smarty Jones – are the stars of the show, in the four years Michaels has handled NBC's racing coverage the sport has blown up in part because they now share the spotlight.
Michaels is a master at making audiences connect with characters they know nothing about. He is best known for his work at the Olympics, where he turns anonymous gymnasts and figure skaters into America's sweethearts. During NBC's telecasts of the Triple Crown, tormented trainers and humble stable hands get their moments in the sun.
"It is all about telling stories because [otherwise] it is just a bunch of brown horses running around a [circle] of dirt," Michaels says.
The formula has been gold. If viewer trends hold, nearly 30 million people will watch on Saturday, nearly three times the audience of 2000, the final year ABC broadcast the race.
"I love doing the horse racing," says Michaels, whose brother Al will be calling the NBA finals for ABC. "But I love doing any kind of sport that is a little bit out of the mainstream where so much of it revolves around the [athletes'] passion for the sport.
In the four years NBC and Michaels have handled the Triple Crown, ratings are 22 percent better than ABC's last four years. Just this spring the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes numbers were up 17 and 25 percent, respectively, from a year ago.
To have this kind of growth in an era when increased competition from cable and satellite TV has sent ratings for nearly everything spiraling is almost unfathomable.
"If you look at the total fragmentation of television, to get this kind of a number now is like, 'Is the rating adjusted for inflation?'" Michaels says. "We don't adjust ratings from when it was the 13-channel universe."
Michaels doesn't want to take credit for this, but it is clear NBC benefits from the 54-year-old's passion for horse racing. This is not just another assignment for him. Michaels understands every facet of this sport and takes great pride in teaching viewers about it, the way his father taught him.
"My dad loved the horses and loved racing," he says of Jay Michaels, who once worked at Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway before moving the family to Los Angeles. "Horse racing is just a real fun, fond memory of my childhood."
Michaels smiles at the thought that Smarty Jones has become an international phenomenon, the story of the tough-luck colt turned champion capturing hearts everywhere, especially among children.
"I hope that with a lot of these kids [horse racing] becomes a childhood memory and it becomes a positive thing," he says. "I spent a lot of years never betting on horse racing. I used to just go out and watch it. It was fun."
Saturday, in charge of what should be the most watched race in a generation, won't be bad either.
- David Michaels
- Horse racing
- Jay Michaels