Whatever happens in the Preakness on Saturday is sure to be an anticlimax. The 106th running of the Pimlico classic probably will be a mere horse race; the 105th was variously described as a daylight mugging, a purse-snatching, a travesty of justice, a national shame.
When Codex won after carrying Genuine Risk very wide on the final turn, and the stewards disallowed a foul claim against him, their decision evoked more intense passion than any sporting event in years. Or almost any event, period. It was easier to conduct a rational dialogue about the Vietnam War in 1970 than to have a claim discussion about the Preakness in May, 1980.
When I merely suggested in print that Codex's offense might not have been so heinous, I was showered by a record quantity of abusive mail. And the Maryland Racing Commission was deluged. One typical correspondent wrote, "I was astounded and sickened by the events surrounding the debacle known as the Preakness." Another declared: "The Preakness was probably the most disgraceful exhibition of American morality and brutality ever to appear on TV."
In such an emotion-charged climate, it was futile to venture any kind of a dissenting opinion. But now that a year has passed, and passions have presumably cooled, I'd like to express one.
I thought the whole Preakness controversy had implications far more significant than any horse race. It demonstrated the enormous and frightening power of television to manipulate and mold public opinion.
The Preakness foul claim was a close, borderline call. Yet the millions of people who watched the race on television were convinced that there was only one possible interpretation of events. They might concede that they knew little about racing, but they nevertheless knew that anyone who disagreed with them on this issue was blind, foolish or corrupt. This was the kind of passionate, ignorant unanimity that gives rise to lynch mobs or Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions. Television had managed to forge this national consensus in a span of about 20 minutes.
Viewers thought they saw Codex veer into Genuine Risk's path and deliver what The Post's Dave Kindred would describe the next day as "a cross-body block," one that almost cut the filly's legs out from under her. ABC commentator Eddie Arcaro said that "there was no doubt that Codex hit the filly" and suggested that if the stewards didn't take his number down, it was because they were afraid to blemish the Preakness with a disqualification.
After Genuine Risk's owners appealed the stewards' nondisqualification, the Maryland Racing Commission's extraordinary three-day hearing showed just how deceptive and irresponsible the television coverage had been. Even so, the hearing had little impact on the public: everybody's mind was made up by then.
ABC'c supposedly supersophisticated camera equipment was, in fact, more limited than the race track's. The camera that made the foul look so severe was positioned a quarter-mile away from the action at an angle that distorted the relationship between the two horses. Contrary to what most viewers probably assumed, Arcaro was not supplementing what they saw with his own expert eye.
He was watching the Preakness on a small TV set, seeing the crucial point of the race through the same distorted camera angle. Yet he was willing to declare unequivocally that he saw a foul, and to prejudge the stewards' motives if they didn't agree with him. Fortunately, this was just a horse race. But one shudders to think what could hapen if a TV network similarly distorted the truth and manipulated public opinion on more serious political issues.
If Arcaro helped ignite the fire of controversy over the Preakness, it was State Steward J. Fred Colwill who fanned the flames. The stewards' failure to post the inquiry sign immediately after the Preakness suggested strongly that they weren't terribly competent. Colwill's explanation of their decision on national television confirmed that impression. eAnd the stewards' stonewalling at the racing commission hearing raised further questions about their qualifications.
At the time of the Preakness, there were many cries for Colwill's scalp. But just as it would have been wrong for the commissioners to conduct a public lynching at that time, it would be proper -- now that the controversy has died down -- for them to take a hard look at the competence (or lack thereof) of Colwill and his associates. Arcaro may have a long-term contract to express ill-founded opinions, but the Maryland stewards do not.