In most years the running of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness signified that the network television viewers' racing season was two-thirds completed, and that once the Belmont Stakes was out of the way the sport could be forgotten until the first Saturday of the following May. If a Secretariat came along, one national telecaster or another might deign to poke a camera at him from time to time, but except for such extraordinary circumstances the middle of June was the close of the racing season as far as network TV was concerned.
Thankfully, that type of thinking now has ceased. Last week's Preakness was the sixth major race seen nationwide on ABC or CBS this spring. And at least a dozen more will be shown before the season is over, including the first live telecast of harness racing's premier event, the Hambletonian.
For the thoroughbred fan this change could not be more timely because 1975 is shaping up as a vintage racing year, with Foolish Pleasure and Master Derby atop the 3-year-old colt division, the 3-year-old filly Ruffian unbeaten after eight starts, and Forego winning six straight major events under heavy weights. Not since 1957, when Bold Ruler, Round Table and Gallant Man were competing, has a season held as much potential for arguments and excitement.
TV changed its attitude toward racing last June after ABC took the rights to the Kentucky Derby away from CBS, which had broadcast it for 26 years. CBS was left with only the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The two were mockingly called "The Double Crown" in the television industry, where it was widely felt that CBS's loss of the Derby would prompt it to terminate its interest in racing. Instead the network became more aggressive and recently announced that it would air nine races, not counting the "Double Crown," in each of the next five years.
The rights for the nine additional races were purchased from the New York Racing Association for about $500,000 per year. In the agreement between CBS and the NYRA is a tacit understanding that if New York legalizes a full card of Sunday racing (already permitted in California and Canada) as it is expected to do next year, the network will have first crack at the TV rights. Saturday and Sunday races from New York, plus other races on those days that CBS hopes to line up in Illinois, California and Canada, offer a variety of new programming possibilities, all of which are pleasant to ponder.
CBS already has decided to change the time of its Saturday Sports Spectacular from early afternoon to 4:30-6:00 p.m. to put itself in better position to cover sports live. And racing fits neatly into that slot. When Sunday races are run during the pro football season, the network will be able to put on real sports events instead of those halftime marching bands endlessly tooting Hey, Look Me Over by switching to Aqueduct or Woodbine.
Those who watched ABC's coverage of the Derby and CBS's production of the Preakness had a chance to compare the ways two networks handle a major sport. And there were important differences. For example, ABC updated the odds on the entrants four times; CBS gave the odds only once. ABC waited about a half hour to announce the complete order of finish; CBS quickly did so. Each network used five announcers—about two too many per race. By constantly jumping from one sportscaster to another, ABC and CBS left the impression they were putting on summer stock productions of Wish You Were Here, not classic sporting events that need no hyping.
The networks had good camera coverage and showed replays of the possible fouls that marred both races. ABC has been strongly and wrongly criticized for ignoring track announcer Chic Anderson's miscall of Prince Thou Art for Foolish Pleasure as the horses came down the stretch in the Derby. Once a mistake is made the thing to do is straighten it out as quickly and innocuously as possible. ABC did that.
At the Preakness, Anderson gave an excellent call for CBS, and then came back during the replays to explain clearly why Master Derby had not bothered Foolish Pleasure enough to cause a disqualification. Anderson's performance was not the only reason CBS's Preakness coverage was much better than ABC's presentation of the Derby. CBS's primary announcers, Jack Whitaker and Frank Wright, were far more knowledgeable than ABC's Howard Cosell and Jim McKay. Cosell's Derby broadcasting was an exercise in overkill. His repeated description of an outside post position as "untenable" was an insult to the language and the intelligence of racing fans.
Cosell's style was the worst aspect of ABC's overwrought approach. Possibly because it had never done the race before, the network chose to ignore the fact that the Derby is 101 years old and needs no introduction. Instead ABC treated the race with the same brassiness that it uses in trying to put over such phony affairs as Celebrity Superstars, which are rapidly becoming its stock-in-trade.
The tone of ABC's presentation overshadowed Anderson's faux pas and indicated that the network is a long way from coming to grips with the basic problem of televising racing. The Derby and Preakness" shows consumed more than two hours of air time, during which only four minutes involved the running of the races. Viewers must be forebearing to sit through much of the hoopla that the networks put on before post time. This year CBS was more bearable than ABC by a long shot.