In last year's Arlington Million, televised by NBC, The Bart and John Henry were neck and neck at the wire. The word "PHOTO" flashed on the tote board, a fact that failed to dissuade announcer Pete Axthelm and TV director Bob Levy.
Television's unforgivable sin was about to be committed.
The Bart and John Henry were closer than the length of a flared nostril. But no matter. "It looks as if The Bart has won, but it's not official," Axthelm said. Whereupon, the intrepid Levy tried to settle matters by flashing this graphic on the screen: "The Bart . . . Official Winner."
Ninety seconds later, when NBC came back from a commercial and many race fans had turned off their sets, NBC's line went something like this: "Well, folks, whaddya know? While we were gone, they named John Henry the winner!"
We bring up this wretched tale not to incite a riot the next time Axthelm appears in a paddock (ironically, he may be the best track announcer on TV), but only to illustrate the obvious: television is more likely to embarrass itself on horse racing than on any other sport.
ABC will kick off this year's series of major races with the Kentucky Derby Saturday (WJLA-TV-7 and WJZ-TV-13 at 4:30, race time 5:38) and the Preakness May 14. CBS will carry the Belmont June 5. NBC will have to wait until Aug. 29 to see whether it can redeem itself at Arlington.
TV has any number of problems covering racing, including one who works for ABC and whose initials are H.C. (Hint: Every time he opens his mouth, he wants to get his opinion across, although his opinion is usually what expert commentator John Veitch told him before the race).
Generally, the problems fit three categories:
With some notable exceptions, racing announcers and production people don't seem to have a clue.
Now that ABC has put Eddie Arcaro out to pasture, Howard Cosell is probably the worst offender. You want to hear Veitch, the knowledgeable and articulate trainer, talk. But the Pompous One keeps stepping all over him, dispensing information he probably was handed on a briefing sheet a few minutes before.
The same goes for CBS' Jimmy the Greek. "El Wrongo," as Newsday's Stan Isaacs has named him, is little more than a gimmick. He's good for mugging with his buddy, trainer Johnny Campo, before races and sympathizing with him afterward, but predicting winners? He may not have had one since Twenty Grand.
Among the exceptions are directors Bob Fishman (CBS) and Chet Forte (ABC), and announcers Axthelm, Jim McKay (ABC), and Jack Whitaker (ABC). Frank Wright and Charlie Cantey of CBS are knowledgeable and professional, but they're part of the racing establishment and seem reluctant to ask tough questions.
ABC and pick-'em-quick NBC (CBS gets off easy here) still talk down to knowledgeable racing fans.
ABC, the biggest offender, has the biggest excuse: the fact that the Derby attracts more "nonracing" viewers than any other race.
"The Derby is a unique event in that the people who watch--if they know anything of the horses at all--don't know much more than their names," says ABC's senior producer, Chuck Howard. Therefore, Howard says, ABC's tilt has to be toward the housewife at home or the guy in the office pool who watches only one race a year. Entertain 'em; don't inform 'em.
The feeling here is that ABC, however brilliant it may be at capturing the mood and flavor of the first two Triple Crown events, sells its audience short.
Why, after years of coverage, are we still waiting for a thoughtful piece on how a thoroughbred is prepared each day at the crack of dawn? As racing writer Joe Palmer said, "There are races in the afternoon and that's nice, but racing takes place in the morning."
The networks treat racing like a day at the fair: see no evil, let Johnny Campo talk like a big shot, shoot those pretty ladies in sunbonnets and avoid all sensitive questions.
After the Belmont last year, CBS offered no explanation why Pleasant Colony had lost its bid for the Triple Crown. The Greek merely heaped condolences on Campo; why didn't he question Jorge Velasquez's ride?
In the Flamingo last month, ABC had Dominic Imprescia, the winning trainer of Timely Writer, on camera. It asked not one question about his alleged drugging of horses--a matter that has led to his temporary suspension across the country and that still keeps him out of New Jersey.
With the exception of CBS' Fishman--an innovative producer/director who reads The Racing Form each workday and hangs out at Aqueduct on his days off--most people at the networks seem satisfied to stick with talking heads.
We yearn to get inside the sport. But TV wants predictable interviews with the trainer, gee-whiz talks with the jockey and live zoom-ins for self-serving, 30-second "howdy" talks by Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown.
Moral of story: When the talking head is Whitaker, we're winners. When the head belongs to Howard or Phyllis George, we don't get out of the gate.