Kentucky native Tom Hammond helps explain why the Derby conjures deep-rooted feelings of state pride.
When the horses step onto the track at Churchill Downs ahead of the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, a familiar pageantry will take hold that carries right through the moment the victor is led into the winner’s circle and adorned with a garland of roses.
The crowd will rise, many with a mint julep in hand, as the opening strain of “My Old Kentucky Home” plays over the loudspeakers. Those watching elsewhere will stop what they’re doing and turn to their attention to the screen, as cameras capture images of expectant owners and trainers, faces in the crowd dressed in their Derby finery, and of the world’s top 3-year-old Thoroughbreds parading to the post.
No matter how many times you’ve seen this scene play out, it never fails to conjure a collective swell of pride among Kentuckians. Especially for those living outside of the Commonwealth, it’s a palpable moment that embodies the reasons why—no matter how far they’ve travelled or how long they’ve been gone—they will always identify as a Kentuckian.
Tom Hammond knows this feeling as well as anyone. For the past 33 years, the veteran sportscaster and Lexington native has covered every major horse race for NBC, as well as a dozen Olympic games, among other events. Hammond’s familiar voice and image will not be a part of the Derby pageantry this year, as he’s handing over the Triple Crown reins to Mike Tirico. Hammond will continue to cover the Olympics and Olympic trials, but his on-air presence will be missed during this year’s Derby.
“I’m not totally retiring, just cutting back on things a little bit,” Hammond says, calling late last week from Keeneland shortly after the announcement was made public. “My 6 million airline miles are starting to get to me.”
It’s a taste of home and a chance to return home vicariously, at least for a few minutes.
Hammond saw his first Derby in 1964, when he was a college student studying animal science at the University of Kentucky. He’d seen Northern Dancer win the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and wanted to see the horse race in the Derby.
“I liked Northern Dancer so much that, when he won the Preakness, I had to be in New York to see him to attempt to win the Triple Crown,” Hammond says. Although Northern Dancer fell one race short of the Triple Crown, it remains a vivid memory for Hammond, and the first of many significant Kentucky Derby moments he’s witnessed.
The greatest Derby he’s seen? Secretariat’s record-shattering run in 1973. The most exciting event he’s covered? American Pharoah’s Triple Crown campaign in 2015, and especially his win at the Belmont Stakes.
“There are lots of little Derby things that you remember. Each one has its own story that you can become interested in—the people involved, the horses involved—that makes it so special,” Hammond says. “Next to the Olympics, I think Thoroughbred racing has the best stories.”
Hammond’s knowledge of and passion for the sport, and for his home state, has helped viewers all over the world connect with the memorable Derby stories he’s spun over the years.
“I’ve had so many letters and emails from people living out of state talking about how much they enjoy the Derby, and especially my coverage of it, because they know I’m a Kentuckian myself,” he says. “We’re all in the same boat in the way we feel about the Derby. That’s the appeal. It’s a taste of home and a chance to return home vicariously, at least for a few minutes.”
Folks who’d like an extended visit should tune into “My Kentucky Home,” a special airing this week on the NBC Sports Network in which Hammond takes viewers on a tour through Central Kentucky and examines its role as the cradle of Thoroughbred racing. Click here for a preview and air times.