While growing up in Lexington, Ky., Tom Hammond believed he'd be involved in the Triple Crown. He achieved his goal, but not in the way he thought he would. Hammond, the anchor at the Kentucky Derby for NBC on May 5 and at the Preakness this Saturday, had planned on being in the grandstand, watching one of the horses he was training come thundering down the stretch. That's why, while at Lafayette High, he worked summers at a breeding farm; why, while attending Kentucky (where he was a classmate and pal of Heat president and coach Pat Riley), he spent his summers at Belmont Park and Saratoga helping famed trainer Sherill Ward, whose nephew John trained Monarchos, winner of this year's Derby; and why he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Kentucky in equine genetics.
According to Hammond he got "sidetracked" into journalism in his 20s when he began reading race results on station WLEX in Lexington for $35 a week. Thirty years later he's NBC's ace in the hole, a play-by-play man versatile enough to call the NBA, NFL, WNBA, Olympic track and field, and college football, but his true love is still horse racing. While Hammond worked the last 17 Breeders' Cups on NBC, he continued to dream of doing the Derby. That wish came true when NBC wrested the Triple Crown from ABC with a five-year, $51.5 million deal. Suddenly Hammond was the voice of American horse racing, and understandably, he was a bit emotional. "I got a lump in my throat when they played My Old Kentucky Home at the start of the Derby," Hammond says. "I'm glad I didn't have to talk right after that."
Once he regained his composure, Hammond anchored NBC's lively if occasionally rough coverage: Full race results weren't posted for almost 20 minutes after the finish, and the show dwelled too long on Invisible Ink jockey John Velazquez's disallowed foul claim against Monarchos and rider Jorge Chavez. Hammond provided an insider's viewpoint and an authoritative voice, especially when he narrated replays of Monarchos's run. He concedes that he and his NBC teammates were "flying by the seat of our pants a lot" but says the improvisation will pay dividends. "We learned our lesson, and for the Preakness we'll have fewer preproduced features and more live stuff," he says.
Hammond will also be in better shape, as he continues to recover from colon surgery, which he underwent last month for complications from diverticulitis. He has regained 10 of the 25 pounds he lost and looks forward to returning to his Lexington pickup basketball games. For now, though, he's just happy to be back behind the mike, living a childhood dream.