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As ABC comes to finish line, McKay's not looking back

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ABC producer Curt Gowdy Jr.'s office in the main production trailer atPimlico - barely larger than the closet on the other side of the door - wasfilled to bursting yesterday around noon, 4 1/2 hours before the telecast.

One by one, the announce crew piled into the tiny room, to touch base withGowdy, yes, but also to draw on the wisdom of their leader, Jim McKay.

And McKay, 78, greeted them all - from co-anchor Al Michaels to analystsDave Johnson, Charlsie Cantey and Hank Goldberg and reporter Lesley Visser -with a wry smile and his trademark warmth and grace."This looks like thecocktail scene out of the Marx Brothers' `A Night at the Opera,' " said McKay,scanning the room.

If this was indeed McKay's final Preakness telecast - NBC will take overthe Triple Crown next year - then let it be noted that he approached it muchas Groucho Marx would have, with good humor and sparkling wit.

People have tried to draw some drama out of the personal significance ofthis Preakness to McKay, given that it takes place in his adopted hometown andis on the site where his legendary broadcasting career began 53 years ago.

If you listened carefully at the end of the Kentucky Derby telecast twoweeks ago and at the Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico last week, you just might haveheard a catch in McKay's throat, the slightest acknowledgement of how muchthis all means to him.

But McKay's line - and he is sticking to it, with no on-air mention of thefinality of the race telecast - is that this is just another assignment, whoseimportance, emotional or otherwise, will be felt somewhere down theroad."Everybody's asked me that, `How does it feel?' I say, `As it alwayshas,' " McKay said over lunch at the network's makeshift commissary yesterday."Maybe a year from now, a week or two before the Derby, maybe I'll feel theabsence of it, and it will be like missing the old firehouse dog. Right now,it feels exactly as it always has."

To punctuate his point, McKay told the story of a former golf announcingcolleague, Henry Longhurst, who, after working a U.S. Open, declared that hewould no longer play the game."I'll play no more," said McKay, affectingLonghurst's English accent. "He said, `Once you've sucked all the juice out ofthe orange, there's no need to hold onto the rind. Perhaps a peach or a pear,but not the orange.' "

But horse racing has been such a delicious orange to peel for McKay.

At Pimlico in 1947, a young James McManus, a newspaperman with The EveningSun, launched not only his own broadcasting career, but also that oftelevision in Baltimore, as he called races on what would become WMAR (Channel2).

When ABC grabbed first the Kentucky Derby in 1975, the Preakness in 1977and the Belmont in 1980 from CBS, McKay, who lives with his wife, Margaret, ontheir horse farm in Monkton, became the logical host. In recent years, he hasshared duties with Michaels."This is what I'm going to miss most about nothaving this," said Michaels, sitting across the lunch table, motioning toMcKay. "This is one of the rare opportunities that two people of the samegenre [play-by-play announcers] have had a chance to work together. It's beengreat. It's been wonderful."

Losing the Triple Crown races is just another page in today's fluid sportstelevision world, where properties come and go in the blink of an eye.

ABC's 30-year history with the NFL is the longest standing currentrelationship between a broadcast network and a major sport, but the nextlongest is NBC's 10 years with the NBA."We'll never make a big deal out ofthis being our last Triple Crown, because basically people don't care. Theyjust want to know what channel it's on," McKay said. "Margaret and I, in partbecause of our age and also because of losing properties like horse racing,have sort of adopted that approach, that there is no such thing as a bad day."

For now, McKay says signing off at the close of the 1988 Winter Olympicsfrom Calgary, marking the end of ABC's run of telecasting Olympics that ranvirtually uninterrupted from 1964, was the most emotional parting betweenhimself and a sports property to date.

It's not as if McKay is done with ABC or sports broadcasting. He signed amulti-year contract extension with the network last year, and will be a partof ABC's British Open coverage this summer. He will contribute essays to therevival of "Wide World of Sports," the show he served as host for more than 20years.

And he's not done with racing. The Maryland Million - an event McKay helpedcreate to showcase Maryland-sired thoroughbreds - is still going strong eachfall at Laurel.

So, don't be surprised if you see Jim McKay at Pimlico this time next year,because the rind doesn't get separated from the orange that easily.

He just won't be holding a microphone."It will be different, certainly, butI'll look forward to watching the race," he said. "That will be very nice."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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