Jeannine Edwards

Jeannine Edwards (May 17, 2012)

ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards started her TV career as an in-track host at Pimlico and Laurel in the early 1990s.

“It allowed me to learn television, because I came from a background of  training horses and had no TV experience,” she says. “So I owe a lot of my success and a debt of gratitude to the people in Maryland for giving me a start.”

Edwards, who still calls Maryland home, is covering the Preakness for ESPN and ABC this week. Her reports will start appearing Friday on the sports channel and continue through the weekend.

I sat down with the 48-year-old sportscaster last week to talk about her coverage plans, the Preakness, horse racing in Maryland and her role at ESPN that has grown over the years to include sideline reporting and coverage of college football and ACC basketball.

What are your plans in terms of Preakness coverage?

I’ll be working to provide our studio shows with reports and features from the Preakness as I did at the Derby. Our actual on-air coverage doesn’t start until Friday. I’ll be putting together a piece on the Derby winner, I’ll Have Another, and his $5 million good-luck charm, which is his lead pony, Lava Man. And then, we’ll do live shots on Saturday and a piece after the race.

How many Preaknesses have you either witnessed and/or covered?

Oh gosh, I want to say at least the last 16 or 17.

What do you think of it as a race and an event?

As an event that we cover, the Derby is extremely stressful. It’s just such a spectacle, 20 horses, lots of stress. And if you’ve ever been to Churchill Downs, it’s enormous. The venue is just vast, and it takes forever to get from Point A to Point B.

So, when you then come to the Preakness two weeks later, everybody can just take a deep breath and relax – and everything is so much more fun and easier. All the horses are all in one barn. You can easily walk from the barn into the track. The parking’s right there. It’s the exact opposite of Churchill. And this is no disrespect to Churchill, because they put on a one-of-a-kind event that is one of the greatest sports icons in American sports history.

But with the Preakness, you just have this down-home, relaxed, fun atmosphere, but you’re covering a great, great race with 137 years of history of the Preakness as part of the Triple Crown, and it’s all rolled into one, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

And as a spectator to watch, the Preakness is just so much fun, because the venue is so intimate. You feel like you’re right there among the jockeys, you’re getting up close and personal with the horses. It’s just a great, intimate feeling and there’s just nothing like when the horses go in that gate for the Preakness and the crowd roars. If that doesn’t give you goose bumps, nothing will.

What’s your sense of horse racing in Maryland in general? Do you feel it is in some jeopardy? You live in Maryland, don't you?

I live in Cecil County in the Fair Hills area. ... When I first moved to Maryland, which is about 17 years ago, it seemed as though the future of Maryland racing was up in the air even back then, because there were discussions of Pimlico as to how it needs to be renovated, we don’t have the money, we need slots. And this discussion has been going on the last 15 years, and very little has changed.

Although, you know what, very little seems to have changed, but when you dig beneath the surface, a lot has changed -- and not for the better. Betting handle is down, I think, in the last six years or so, 55 percent on live races in Maryland.

Now, the racing dates have decreased, and that’s part of it. But more telling for me and what is more indicative of the future of Maryland racing is the number of thoroughbred foals born in the state. There is less than a third of the number being born in the state than there were 20 years ago. To me, that’s the most telling, because those foals represent the future of the sport of racing in Maryland.

So, on the surface, while it looks like not a lot has changed – and it hasn’t because when you go to Pimlico, everything pretty much looks the same – underneath it’s disturbing.

That’s interesting, because for a casual observer like me, when I drive north out of Baltimore, I see all this gorgeous land, white fencing and think, “Wow, this is real horse country.” But it isn’t so much the case anymore, is it?