McKay back in saddle race back to 'normal'

Sun Staff

Just as ABC producer Curt Gowdy Jr. was being asked the other day what itwas like to have Jim McKay back on this year's Preakness telecast, McKaystrolled up.

When Gowdy relayed the question to McKay, the two men paused a second andnearly simultaneously said, "Normal."

McKay, who missed last year's Preakness and the Belmont while recuperatingfrom heart bypass surgery performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is as much agiven around Pimlico as the horses.

And as you watch McKay scamper between ABC's production trailers justoutside the track, preparing to do voice-overs for the opening of today'scoverage (Channel 2, 4: 30 p.m.), it does appear that things are just the waythey should be.

"I hope Jim McKay goes on forever," said Gowdy. "We need him, the businessneeds him and, most of all, I think the viewers really benefit from having JimMcKay on any broadcast. He's in marvelous health, and he looks better thanI've seen him in a long time."

Indeed, McKay, who will be 75 in September, has resumed an active schedulethat includes ABC assignments, speeches, lectures and commercials.

"I feel great, and I've never felt better. They do great work at JohnsHopkins," said McKay.

McKay, a 13-time Emmy Award winner, is clearly in his element aroundracing, the sport for which he has become an unofficial ambassador, as founderof the Maryland Million and owner of thoroughbreds at his Monkton farm.

Many know that McKay's voice was first heard on local television when hehelped launch Channel 2 in 1947, but what few probably realize is the eventthat he signed the station on with was a race from Pimlico.

"It's not only a beautiful sport, as it looks from a distance, where younormally are, but it's a very violent sport, a very physical sport," saidMcKay. "You hear the jockeys yelling at each other, you hear the leather andthe pounding of the hooves and you realize each one of these is a half-ton ofliving thing pounding around there."

Yet, for all its beauty, McKay sees problems in racing. Not with thesport, but in its packaging. He says the people who run the tracks are makinga mistake in simply selling racing as a gambling device.

"It's my thinking that if it's ever going to become bigger than it is now,it has to be sold as a sport," said McKay. "That's what we [ABC] have alwaystried to do. I don't think we even mention what the purses are in the[Kentucky] Derby or Preakness. It's not that important. That's not why peoplewant to win these particular races."

McKay, who, along with his wife, Margaret, owns a piece of the Orioles,points to the media in general and newspapers in particular for having lostinterest in covering racing in anything other than a cold, factual manner.

"Most newspapers haven't given it a chance, particularly in recent years.They do it like the stock market. They print the statistics, the entries andthe races, and that's it," said McKay.

Likewise, McKay said the absence of a single organizing body for racingalso hurts the sport's ability to market itself in a unified manner.

As for this year's Preakness, McKay agrees with many that the absence ofDerby winner Grindstone and Derby favorite Unbridled's Song may cost the racesome national interest, which could hurt, especially considering that ABC'sratings for the Derby were up 23 percent from 1995.

"I still think it will be a heck of a horse race," he said. "It's stillquite possible that the 3-year-old champion and even the Horse of the Yearcould come out of this race, because Grindstone's done and we don't know aboutUnbridled's Song.

"But there will be 90,000 people here anyway, because the Preakness is thebig happening in the state of Maryland, along with Orioles Opening Day."

And things will be normal again because Jim McKay is back.

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