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Jeannine Edwards on covering the Preakness for ESPN

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?

No, and it’s sad. It’s so picturesque. I’m a lover of open space and preserving what open space is left. And, unfortunately, with a lot of these horse farms and breeders going elsewhere, what you see are these gorgeous farms being chopped up and sold off. And that’s the reality of the economic times in which we live.

Can you talk a little about what you did as an in-house TV host at Pimlico and Laurel in your early days?

I was the person on-camera in the paddock making selections and talking about the horses before each race, which is not only for the in-house fans, but also for the simulcast signal being sent out across the country.

So, I did that on a part-time basis, and actually the Maryland Jockey Club has been very good to me, because they allowed me to work there part-time while I was also doing ESPN work that would take me away. And they were so accommodating with my schedule. So, I feel at home here.

OK, let me ask you a philosophical question. From everything I read about you, it seems as if you are a true animal lover. And I consider myself an animal lover, too. And I get the beauty of horse racing and the epic nature of it and the way it resonates with some of the deepest places in our psyche. But, as I wrote in a preview of the HBO horse-racing drama, Luck, I hate seeing animals made to perform for our TV entertainment. And in the making of that show, horses died. And I just think that’s so wrong.

Me, too. Yes. I’m on Twitter, and somebody said to me in connection with the show, 'Well, we kill animals for food, so what’s the problem with the TV show?' And I tweeted back, I said, ‘We have to eat. But horses should not be giving their lives for entertainment purposes.’ I mean, I have a problem with people who hunt. Hunting for sport is so wrong on so many levels. OK, way back when, the cavemen, yes, we had to hunt to eat. But going out and hunting for the sake of saying you shot a bear is barbaric, and it’s almost beneath [being] human because we don’t need to do that any more.

But here’s my parallel question…

I know, how do you reconcile horse racing with your love of animals?

Yes, what do you say to people like me who ask you that?

I fell in love with horse racing when I was 12 years old – I wanted to be a jockey. I was so consumed with just the beauty, the athleticism, the nobleness of the athletes, the thrill of competition. And I started working at the track as a hot walker when I was 16 years old. So, I fell in love with this sport a long time ago ...

Now over the years, getting more involved in the business and eventually training on my own, you see some aspects of horse racing as a business on a daily basis,  and you try to be objective about it. I hope I’ve covered the sport objectively in my 15, 16 years for ESPN. And I believe I have. ... But I still am in love with horse racing ...

I think back to my early years. When people say to me, ‘Those were the good old days,’ for me, those early years in horse racing were the good old days, some of the best times of my life. Being out early in the morning on a race track, galloping horses, it’s so peaceful and quiet, it’s just you and the horse. And there’s just nothing like it. I miss those days.

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