2017 Kentucky Derby: Mike Tirico succeeds Tom Hammond

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STAMFORD, Conn. – Mike Tirico, who was recently named NBC’s primetime Olympics host, will be taking the Triple Crown hosting reins from Tom Hammond, an award-winning member of NBC Sports’ horse racing team for more than three decades.

Tune in to watch live coverage of the 2017 Kentucky Derby at 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 6, on NBC.

“NBC Sports is the home to the world’s premier horse racing, due in no small part to Tom’s passion, knowledge and relationships in the sport,” said Mark Lazarus, Chairman NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “We are pleased that Tom is going to remain part of the NBC family and that we have someone of Mike’s caliber to succeed him on horse racing.”

Next week on NBCSN, Hammond will host the special 30-minute My Kentucky Home, in which he takes a look at how Kentucky came to be the home of thoroughbred racing. Hammond, who has covered a dozen Olympics, will return to NBC Olympics’ coverage at the 2018 PyeongChang Games next February.

Tirico, making his first-ever trip to a Triple Crown event, joins NBC Sports Group’s Triple Crown coverage beginning with the 2017 Kentucky Derby on May 6 on NBC, and will work the Preakness Stakes on May 20, and the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

“Tom’s professionalism, presence and passion for the sport enhanced Triple Crown viewing for so many of us over the years,” said Tirico, who made his TV horse racing debut alongside Hammond last fall on NBC’s coverage of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. “He perfectly set the tone and in the process set the standard for this role.  I’m honored to follow a legend and cherish the chance to work with our great team.”

Hammond’s TV horse racing debut came in 1984, when he was hired on what was intended to be a one-time-only basis as a reporter for NBC’s telecast of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Ever since that Eclipse Award-winning telecast, Hammond has been integral on a wide-range of NBC Sports events, highlighted by horse racing – covering his home-state Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes 16 times apiece, and 11 Belmont Stakes, including American Pharoah’s historic Triple Crown victory in 2015. A member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and honored as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Kentucky, where he earned bachelor’s degree in animal science and studied equine genetics as a graduate student, Hammond has also anchored NBC’s Breeders’ Cup coverage over the past 30+ years.

“I had a great time putting together My Kentucky Home, and I hope viewers will understand why I think this is a special place,” Hammond said. “As I embark on a less demanding schedule at NBC, I can rest assured that the coverage of Thoroughbred racing is in good hands. That sport is very close to my heart, so I am pleased that Mike, a highly accomplished professional, will assume the role as leader of the superb NBC horse racing team. I wish them all the best going forward.”

Hammond’s 30-minute My Kentucky Home special will debut on NBCSN next Wednesday, May 3 at 12:30 a.m. ET following Tuesday night’s St. Louis-Nashville Stanley Cup Playoff game. The special will encore on NBCSN on Wednesday, May 3 at 5 p.m. ET, Thursday, May 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET and on Friday May 5 within NBCSN’s live Kentucky Oaks coverage and following that evening’s Stanley Cup Playoff game.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.