Outside of tennis at Wimbledon, and maybe the royal elephant hunt at Mysore, no sports event attracts more people for the wrong reasons than our own Kentucky Derby. Every track has its kibitzers, but Churchill Downs fairly bulges with them: itinerant snobs, four-masted dowagers and row upon row of colonel impersonators.
If the TV audience is of similar frivolous kidney, the CBS Derby show may be on to something. Never, I'll wager, has a 2:03[2/5] race been packed in such dense waddings of trivia—some of it mildly funny (spectators checking their booze at the gate or gallantly downing it on the spot), but most of it as aimless as a sunstruck major looking for the men's room.
Heywood Hale Broun's prerace interviews followed no discernible plan: a facetious chat with a couple of fluttery lady owners who might have stumbled in from the kennel club for all they had to tell us, an indepther with a chap from Notre Dame who took a full minute (by my sundial) to decide why he was there at all.
The attempts to build tension for the race were laughably artificial. Everyone seemed to be thrashing around feebly for something to say. Eddie Arcaro allowed that all the horses looked good, "otherwise they wouldn't be here"—a Chamber of Commerceism that he later contradicted with the only non-euphoric line of the day: "Fathom doesn't look like much of a horse."
May 17, 1970
Part of the trouble traces to the FCC, which in a paroxysm of Nice Nellyism has decreed that no betting information must pass interstate lips. Try describing a poker game without mentioning money, and you'll see the difficulty. But the other part comes from dear old network dither, the What-Do-Those-People-Want? syndrome. Do viewers prefer hard racing information or do they just want to be told what a historic occasion it is, by people who don't know one end of a horse from the other? Do they want an announcer who calls the whole field and rips off your eardrum in the process or do they want one who calls the front-runners in a rational voice and pretty well leaves it at that?
The news point of the day—that a long shot had won a classic—was all but stifled by the ban on betting talk. In FCC Cuckoo-land the horses race for the fun of it and because they're wild about floral wreaths. Nor were we told whether the time of the race was good or bad. (A bad time would certainly mar a historic occasion.) In short, like most everything else on network television, the Derby show was a general-interest program with just enough ersatz trade talk to gull the gullible.