HAND HIM THE REMOTE: The joys of staying home to see the Preakness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are two ways to watch the 118th running of the Preakness Stakes on May 15:

* You can join 50,000 or so beer-swilling, boisterous slobs along the infield at Pimlico, where you can eat and drink and smoke and spit excessively all afternoon long, listen to some reasonably loud rock bands, gaze at some oddly and barely dressed fellow (( race-goers, slum with a bunch of preened preppies trying to act cool, create an unsightly amount of garbage, stand in very long lines for the privilege of either betting or urinating and, ultimately, not even get close to viewing the race.

* You can stay at home and actually see the race on television.

You can come over and watch with me, if you wish. I've got food and drink. (I hope you all like Rolling Rock and Fresca. They were on sale.) I've got a 27-inch color TV with surround sound. I've got free parking. I'll even book your bets. And you can bring ladders or scaffolding, if you want, but you will be expected in that case to at least do some work.

I love the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. (The Belmont Stakes suffers in comparison unless a horse has a shot at the Triple Crown.) They are at once compelling and concise. In fact, both Derby and Preakness races mirror many American marriages: A lot of buildup, a lot of anticipation, a lot of expectation, a lot of interest, then it's over in two minutes and everybody's got an excuse.

ABC Sports will be on hand for the 16th consecutive year, which is the only reason you really need to stay home and watch on television. For ABC largely does an excellent job. To wit:

(1) It documents the race with 20 or so cameras.

(2) It has a cast of announcers with uncommon expertise.

(3) It wires everyone for sound.

On the downside, for all its technology and refinement, the network still hasn't figured out the way to interview the winning horse.

The interesting thing about the Preakness telecast is this -- there's a whole lot of pre-game and then not much game. ABC is on the air from 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m., and even though some of the telecast is devoted to the Pimlico Special race, what you essentially have is a one-hour, pre-race program for a two-minute race. That means the pre-game is 30 times longer than the game itself.

With Maryland resident and horseman Jim McKay overseeing the proceedings for ABC, the telecast becomes a de facto celebration of the state. (Speaking of which, if the black-eyed Susan is the state flower, how come all I ever see are dandelions?) When McKay says, "We're in Baltimore. Where else would you want to be today?" -- as he did going into one commercial break just before the '91 Preakness -- you know he means it.

And McKay's top-of-the-telecast openings -- when he sets the story line for the day -- remain magnificent. They are well-written, romantic, passionate and complete. Then, when McKay throws the telecast to co-anchor (and fellow horseman) Al Michaels, all seems right. Michaels is measured and sensible; he allows the pace of the telecast to gallop along in perfect rhythm. They bring us all the pertinent information in picture-perfect fashion.

Add to this mix Jack Whitaker, who composes essays of style and grace, and Charlsie Cantey, who conducts interviews sensibly, and viewers get a very comfortable ride to post time. (It's at post time that the troubles begin. But more on that later, because I'm in such a good mood just thinking about the imminent playing of "Maryland, My Maryland."

Ah, "Maryland, My Maryland." Being a former longtime resident of the state, I'm a sentimental sucker for that baby. (Of course, I must admit that when I heard "Maryland, My Maryland" while I was attending classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, all I could think about, frankly, were parking tickets.)

"Maryland, My Maryland" is "My Old Kentucky Home" without the bourbon. Phyllis George always sheds a tear when she hears "My Old Kentucky Home." I always blow my nose -- sure, sure, sometimes it's just allergies -- when I hear "Maryland, My Maryland."

(Footnote: When they strike up "The Sidewalks of New York" before the Belmont Stakes, it doesn't have quite the same effect of "My Old Kentucky Home" or "Maryland, My Maryland." I mean, those sidewalks of New York are really dirty these days, aren't they?)

Now, sometime just before or after they play "Maryland, My Maryland" would be a good moment to step away from the television. That's about the time that the ABC announcers make their race predictions. And believe you me: Like the rest of the perpetual losers who inhabit racetrack grandstands, ABC's best and brightest can't buy a winning ticket.

The folks at ABC couldn't pick Tiny Tim out of a police lineup.

Actually, ABC race caller Dave Johnson did select Pine Bluff correctly at last year's Preakness. But during the 1991 Triple Crown season, the ABC prognosticators -- McKay, Michaels, Cantey and Johnson -- went a collective zero for 12. As Michaels pointed out during the '92 Preakness telecast, "We haven't had a winner since Sea Biscuit."

When the race begins, Johnson takes over. Johnson is best known for his emphatic "Down the stretch they come!!!" call near race's end. But in recent years, Johnson's overall call of ABC's races increasingly has suffered. He sometimes loses track of key horses and ignores important movement in the middle of the pack. It's as if he's so concerned with his "Down the stretch they come!!!" that he loses concentration. He's straining so hard to look for the stretch, he can't find the rest of the race. Heck, it seems like I've heard him implore "Down the stretch they come!!!" as soon as the horses have left the starting gate or as late as the winning horse crosses the finish line.

Speaking of winners: Throughout the day, you'll hear a lot of talk about a horse's "career earnings" and how, if the same horse captures all three races of the Triple Crown, he'll win a $5 million bonus. Yeah, right. When's the last time you saw Secretariat on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" discussing his summer home in Cannes? The horses don't see any of the money. In fact, horses have a worse deal than big-time college athletes on scholarship; horses don't even get any cars or summer jobs or under-the-stable payments. The horse gets nothing, until he's put out to stud. The horse just stands all day and eats hay. What, you think Affirmed has a barn with a view now that he's such a Triple Crown hotshot? I tell you, it's a dog's life being a horse.

Shortly after the race ends comes the Oh My God I Can't Believe I Live In Maryland And I Hope Nobody I Know Is Watching This Anywhere Nationwide segment.

I speak, of course, of the somewhat embarrassing "presentation ceremony," in which Pimlico owner Joe De Francis annually declares William Donald Schaefer to be the best governor in the nation. Schaefer follows De Francis' introduction by saying something relatively hokey. At that moment, you really wish there had been a new shopping mall he could've been christening somewhere else that afternoon -- and then you take a look at the calendar to check for the next state election.

But if you make it through that political quagmire, you deserve to be rewarded. And you will be. You see, stuff always happens on television. Those of you who went to last year's Preakness missed it; I'm here to make sure you don't miss this stuff again this year:

Following the '92 Preakness presentation ceremony, McKay spoke to winning jockey Chris McCarron on the victory stand, and this was part of their exchange:

McKay: Let's have another look at that stretch run. How 'bout that, Chris? There, it will be coming up on the monitor just down below us here. (Pause) Boy, you're going to need a shower, you know that?

McCarron: Yeah . . . why, do I smell?

McKay (apologetic): No. Mud, mud . . .

I nearly fell off my ladder when I heard that one.

NORMAN CHAD is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. He has covered sports broadcasting for the Washington Post, the National and Sports Illustrated.

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