Derby too crowded, but still classic


The TV Repairman:

Jim McKay started checking the field for tomorrow's 121st Kentucky Derby (ABC, 4:30 p.m.) and paused. He went back to reading and, after an hour or so, broke for lunch. He returned to familiarizing with the field and finally finished. It had been a long day.

"The 19-horse field is dangerous, no question about it," said the man who has been showing up at Churchill Downs every first Saturday in May since forever. Not only dangerous, but not really fair to the horses, owners, trainers and everyone else involved, McKay might have added.

It was in 1974 that the field was even bigger than tomorrow's, 23 steeds lining up for what resembled a cavalry charge past the grandstand the first time. A horse named Little Current was a rank outsider, 16 horses carrying better odds.

He was to go on to easy victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and an argument can be made for "Current" being robbed of the Triple Crown because the Derby opened the entry box to all comers. The horse was cooked once he broke 23rd and last out of post position No. 10.

Horses were all over the place. Little Current could pass only two in the first half-mile. He picked up four more in the next half-mile, but only a quarter-mile remained. He passed 10 more horses by the top of the stretch. He was seventh but 10 lengths back. He missed the show spot by less than a length, finishing fifth to odds-on favorite Cannonade.

ABC spent an isolated camera on the late-running Little Current and it showed he ran maybe a quarter-mile extra, going around horses who didn't belong in the race but were serving to fulfill a lifelong dream of an owner "to have a horse in the Derby."

So it's not perfect. But it's still "the most exciting two minutes in sports."

By edition time today, Charlsie Cantey had eliminated just one of the potential 19 starters from consideration as a likely winner.

* Good line from TNT play-by-play man Ron Thulin on San Antonio's colorful rebounding star Dennis Rodman: "He reminds me of a fishing lure." He has 15 tattoos, blond hair and some sort of bow spray-painted on the back.

* A ring goodie on pay-per-view tomorrow (9 p.m.) has Oscar De La Hoya taking on Rafael Ruelas. . . . Meanwhile, the bout on CBS' "The Show" Sunday (2 p.m.) has welterweight champ Buddy McGirt taking on a solid junior middleweight, Joe Gatti.

* Of course, Mike Tyson was bad as a commentator on Showtime last weekend. You were expecting maybe Sir Laurence Olivier?

* ESPN2, while proudly announcing it has just gone by the 20 million mark in subscribers, was interrupted by the circulation department, which said the number is already up to 21.2 million. And, yes, United Cable of Baltimore will be joining up by either the fall, next spring or in mid-199-something.

* ESPN will do up to 32 Stanley Cup playoff games beginning with tomorrow's Quebec-Rangers match.

* Bill Brown, one of the men most responsible for all the Emmys Home Team Sports has won with its coverage of sports, has been named executive producer and director of programming for the cable outfit. . . . Here's a good move: Barry Melrose, just zapped as coach of the Los Angeles Kings, is aboard as a commentator for ESPN/ESPN2 coverage of the NHL playoffs.

* Is it a plus or a minus TNT and TBS having a "reporter" at each of the NBA playoff games it covers? The vote here is minus, but then I'm not that interested when a coach tells his team it has to improve its rebounding when the opposition is playing volleyball on the offensive glass.

* OK, so you didn't like the movie HBO did on Mike Tyson. Give it another chance with "Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion" at the end of the month (May 25). It will be the 30th anniversary of the famed Muhammad Ali-Liston "anchor punch" fight in Lewiston, Maine.

* Tommy Morrison looked a little shaky beating a journeyman on ESPN Monday night, but anyone who can win a fight with a solar plexus shot can't be overlooked. Great White Hope No. 230 now goes against Razor Ruddock for the International Boxing Council title June 10. Where Ruddock has been lo these many months is anyone's guess.

* Mike Pearl, Turner's honcho for pro hoops, isn't whistling "Dixie" when he says Reggie Theus is going to be around for a long time as a commentator. He's terrific in a studio.

* Am I the only one in the solar system who sees those graphics at the upper left of the picture giving score, period, time remaining, temperature, barometric pressure, high and low tides and, of course, a sponsor's logo as a huge distraction taking up way too much of the screen?

* It was sort of enjoyable during the Orioles' home opener Monday listening to commentator John Lowenstein explain away Leo Gomez showing up 10 to 15 pounds too heavy. "You need that extra weight, cuz you lose it during the season," he insisted. Yeah!

* Wait a minute, it's a "sweeps" month, and ABC tosses a remake of the old "Battle of the Network Superstars" at us in

prime time? Aren't you sorry you missed it (last night)?

* CBS has the NCAA men's gymnastics title meet tomorrow (2:30 p.m.), then it's off to the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta an hour


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