Television tends to hype any event it covers -- even if it's an obscure golf tournament, a fight for a boxing title nobody has ever heard of, or a made-for-TV trashsport.
So viewers who tune in to NBC's telecast of the Budweiser Arlington Million may be led to believe that they are seeing one of the world's great horse races, and that its staging at the track that recently was destroyed by fire is a miracle comparable to the rebuilding of postwar Europe.
Certainly, the sheer length of the television coverage implies that this is an event of great magnitude. Sunday's 1 1/2-hour program is longer than the coverage of any single race but the Kentucky Derby. But if merit were any guideline, the Million would deserve about a five-minute segment on "Sportsworld" -- or nothing at all.
The Million was the world's richest race when it came into existence five years ago. Arlington wanted a big race to be the centerpiece of its season. NBC could give a horse race extensive coverage in August, before football begins to saturate the airwaves. Budweiser liked the idea of sponsoring a horse race that is run in the Midwest, near its base.
But what kind of race should it be? Arlington came up with the idea of a grass race at 1 1/4 miles, designed to lure the best horses of both Europe and the United States.
It was a lousy idea.
Top European horses are unlikely to make a transoceanic trip in midseason, when major races such as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe are ahead of them. It is as if a European track tried to stage a big international race for 3-year-olds in the spring.
No U.S. trainer would subject a horse to a tough journey that would compromise his chances for the Triple Crown. That's why all the big international races -- such as the D.C. International, the Breeders Cup and the Japan Cup -- are held late in the year.
This year, there were 11 foreign horses on the list of 24 invitees to the Million. Three of them are showing up, and none of them is a star. The Million basically is just another race for U.S. grass horses.
In three of its first four runnings, the Million had the remarkable gelding John Henry as a drawing card. But since his retirement, the ranks of U.S. grass horses don't generate much public interest -- which usually is the case.
How many casual fans know who Greinton and Kings Island and Tsunami Slew are? The Million wasn't going to be a particularly compelling attraction in any event, but it suffered further from the incredible provincialism of the three racing secretaries who issued invitations to the event.
Almost all of the top U.S. turf runners are based in California or New York. Santa Anita's racing secretary was on the selection committee; New York's was not. As a result, the best Eastern turf runner, Win, didn't even get an invitation; nor did any New York stakes winner.
But the Million selectors must be very impressed with the Grade II Eddie Read Handicap that was run at Del Mar earlier this month. Of the seven starters, the first six finishers were invited to the Million.
There certainly is nothing wrong with a track building up its big race with a lavish purse. But the Million has such rare resources -- major television exposure and major commercial sponsorship -- that it's a shame to waste them on this race. NBC, Budweiser and $1 million could upgrade any of a number of top stakes races (the D.C. International, for example) into an event that commands national attention, instead of hyping a race that never really needed to exist.