Horse racing, as a television sport, remains in a class by itself. Here is a sport that usually draws more customers to the gate than any other in the country but does not have a far-ranging audience. Here is a sport in which a 60- or 90-minute telecast is built around one 2-minute race. And here is a sport in which the horses -- arguably the principal players -- still cannot be interviewed at length.
And so, when ABC presents the 111th Preakness Stakes Saturday from Pimlico, the formula will be familiar: the broadcasters will discuss why certain horses should finish ahead of other horses, the race will be run and, afterward, the broadcasters will discuss why certain horses finished ahead of other horses.
Horse racing actually is a bit more difficult than that to present well. It's one of the more expensive sports to produce -- ABC will use 12 cameras to cover the action, plus three unmanned "microminiature" cameras -- and the mixed nature of the audience means that if you get too technical, you lose the novices, and if you get too general, you insult the hard-core fans.
ABC, however, is an experienced big-race producer. This year, it is telecasting all three Triple Crown races (including the Preakness for the 10th straight year), plus such other major stakes as the Santa Anita Derby, the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial.
"There hasn't been a lot that's changed over the years in documenting the race itself. You're pretty much limited by the structure of the facility," said Dennis Lewin, ABC Sports' senior vice president in charge of production.
Racing telecasts are unique in that the main event -- the race itself -- takes less time to complete than your typical NBA timeout. But a one-hour Preakness telecast goes by pretty quickly, Lewin said. "It's really a lot less time than you think. Simple things like the post parade and 'Maryland, My Maryland' take up a lot of time."
Another curious element is that the network turns over the airwaves to the track announcer during the race. When ABC was planning to show Secretariat in a 1973 race at Arlington Park, "one of the things that I was debating at the time," Lewin said, "was using one of our announcers to do it."
But Lewin says he takes "the conservative approach" and lets the professional race callers call the races, which is a deceivingly difficult task. ABC imports Churchill Downs announcer Mike Battaglia for the Preakness. Even Battaglia, a track veteran, had barely acknowledged Kentucky Derby-winner Ferdinand's presence two weeks ago before the horse ducked inside and closed on the rail.
ABC produced a memorable Derby telecast that day through a bit of skill and luck. The network had three cameras available to isolate on individual horses. Producer Curt Gowdy Jr., doing his first Derby, obviously had to pick cofavorites Snow Chief and Badger Land for isolation shots. For a third horse, he went with Ferdinand "on a gut feeling," and when the Bill Shoemaker-ridden colt won surprisingly, ABC had the remarkable ride on replay. Producer Mike Pearl will have a similar type of decision to make at the Preakness.
ABC's telecasts are enhanced by the unmistakable horse sense of its principal announcers, Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker. McKay, who acts as host, breeds thoroughbreds at his Monkton, Md., farm. Whitaker has a deft touch in the brief prerace interviews he conducts in the jockeys' room.
Still, ABC seems to be drifting away a bit from its previous commitment to the nuts and bolts of the race itself. "We're trying a little more color, a little more flavor and a little less of the analytical side of things than previously," Lewin said.
That means more of Lynn Swann saying very little and looking helpless on the track infield and more of Charlsie Cantey riding around the track on her horse, exchanging sentence fragments with jockeys and exercise riders also riding around the track.
Lewin's pet project remains the micro-cams. "I'd hope the day would come when you can put one of those cameras on one of the participants," he said. "There will come a day when someone is wearing a camera the size of a match."
For now, ABC will use a micro-cam at the starting gate, which adds some intensity and tension to the loading of horses, and in the race-caller's booth, an angle that might be used in the event of an inquiry.
A micro-cam also will be mounted on Cantey's helmet, enabling her to interview the winning jockey moments after the end of the race. This innovation is vastly overrated. It would be preferable to wait a few minutes to get a more coherent, in-depth interview with the winner. (Immediately after Shoemaker's Derby success, Cantey asked him how he felt; he said he felt great.)
Of course, Cantey's micro-cam journeys might be considered revolutionary if she ever figures out how to get a word or two from the winning horse immediately afterward.