During the chaos of the presidential election, NBC and MSNBC political correspondent Steve Kornacki earned wide praise for making complicated voting information accessible to television viewers.
Turns out the Groton native and Boston University graduate is adept at more than just tracking data. He’s quite savvy at using data at the track, too.
On last Saturday’s broadcast of the Kentucky Derby, Kornacki was the only NBC Sports personality or handicapper to predict 12-1 shot Medina Spirit’s victory. He backed up his reasoning with a $100 wager on the Bob Baffert-trained horse.
“Trust me, it’s a new experience,’’ said the 41-year-old Kornacki. “It kind of makes me tempted to retire on the spot, because I don’t think I can ever pull that one off again.”
Kornacki was kidding about the temptation to walk off a winner, but at this point his NBC bosses probably wouldn’t let him depart if he was serious.
After his breakout turn as a khaki-wearing disseminator of information during the election, NBC brought him over to the sports side to break down NFL playoff possibilities in the late weeks of the regular season. That was also very well received, leading to a Derby contribution that ended up with him putting a winning ticket in the hands of anyone who put a few bucks down based on his recommendation.
Kornacki will be part of the network’s Preakness coverage next Saturday with his “Meet The Contenders” segments and analysis of betting trends, as well as the Belmont Stakes on June 20. At this point, NBC viewers might rebel if he wasn’t involved.
Don’t mistake him for some lucky novice.
“I spent plenty of time going to Suffolk Downs,’’ he told me, “but I think the one I probably went to the most was Rockingham Park. All of these places that are no longer around, unfortunately.”
He’s been a fan of horse racing since he was a kid, when his uncle in Maine would take him to Scarborough Downs, just south of Portland. Kornacki said he picked the winner correctly in the first five races he ever saw, but his uncle didn’t follow his advice and didn’t bet on any of them.
“My uncle has a beach store in Old Orchard Beach, Capital Market, right by the pirate ship at the amusement park,’’ said Kornacki. ”And so we’d go up there in the summers and he’d take us to the track. This was back in the days before you could go to any track and see every other track on the TVs there. It was just the trotters up in Scarborough, a real interesting kind of introductory experience. I loved it.”
Kornacki agreed that there are some similarities between handicapping a horse race and using data to track election trends. Information is knowledge. But he acknowledged that it’s one of the differences that makes horse racing appealing to him — he doesn’t mind playing a hunch.
“There is definitely a parallel there, the political horse race, the actual horse race, the terminology that you hear in the coverage,’’ he said. “I’ll be honest, though, I love horse racing. I love following it, watching it, betting on it, but I can’t say I’m the most rigorous, unsentimental, data-fueled horse player.
“I can be sentimental with that. I can get attachments to trainers or jockeys or particular horses, or an irrational grudge against someone. I’m definitely not above playing wild gut feelings. That’s just part of the fun of it. It’s not that I’m crunching all the numbers and dispassionately coming up with a bet or something.”
Kornacki is well aware of the effects emotion can have in a sporting event. He became a Boston sports fan in 1986, a year that in recollection stirs the gamut of emotions, even 35 years later.
“That was the first year I really remember, when I really began to care,’’ said Kornacki. “So I got the Pats in the Super Bowl, the Celtics winning the title, and the Red Sox in the World Series, even with it ending how it did. That’s a great time to become a sports fan. There was no reason to think about a curse or anything at that point. I was like, ‘Ah, they lost to the Mets, but they’ll get ‘em next year.’ As it turns out, it doesn’t always work out like you think it will when you’re 7 years old, though I’d say Boston sports fans got paid back in full and then some the last 20 years for any previous suffering they might have endured before that.”
After getting his Medina Spirit pick correct, Kornacki laughed when asked if he’s had an uptick in people asking him for betting advice heading into the Preakness. But those who desire the answer will have to watch the broadcast next Saturday. He’s still sorting through the information, while waiting to see if any gut instinct inspires him.
“Every hour of every day, I have a new hunch,’’ he said. “I’ll kind of agonize over it for the next week. But it’s pretty amazing. I’ve been playing the Triple Crown races for years and I know how unusual it is to get it right. So it was just wild to me that it happened the first time I did it on television. I still can’t really believe it.”