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

ABC producer Curt Gowdy Jr.'s office in the main production trailer at Pimlico - barely larger than the closet on the other side of the door - was filled 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 with Gowdy, 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 analysts Dave Johnson, Charlsie Cantey and Hank Goldberg and reporter Lesley Visser - with a wry smile and his trademark warmth and grace."This looks like the cocktail 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 over the Triple Crown next year - then let it be noted that he approached it much as Groucho Marx would have, with good humor and sparkling wit.


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

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

But McKay's line - and he is sticking to it, with no on-air mention of the finality of the race telecast - is that this is just another assignment, whose importance, emotional or otherwise, will be felt somewhere down the road."Everybody's asked me that, 'How does it feel?' I say, 'As it always has,' " 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 the absence 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 announcing colleague, Henry Longhurst, who, after working a U.S. Open, declared that he would no longer play the game."I'll play no more," said McKay, affecting Longhurst's English accent. "He said, 'Once you've sucked all the juice out of the 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 Evening Sun, launched not only his own broadcasting career, but also that of television in Baltimore, as he called races on what would become WMAR (Channel 2).

When ABC grabbed first the Kentucky Derby in 1975, the Preakness in 1977 and the Belmont in 1980 from CBS, McKay, who lives with his wife, Margaret, on their horse farm in Monkton, became the logical host. In recent years, he has shared duties with Michaels."This is what I'm going to miss most about not having this," said Michaels, sitting across the lunch table, motioning to McKay. "This is one of the rare opportunities that two people of the same genre [play-by-play announcers] have had a chance to work together. It's been great. It's been wonderful."

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


ABC's 30-year history with the NFL is the longest standing current relationship between a broadcast network and a major sport, but the next longest is NBC's 10 years with the NBA."We'll never make a big deal out of this being our last Triple Crown, because basically people don't care. They just want to know what channel it's on," McKay said. "Margaret and I, in part because 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 Olympics from Calgary, marking the end of ABC's run of telecasting Olympics that ran virtually uninterrupted from 1964, was the most emotional parting between himself and a sports property to date.

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

And he's not done with racing. The Maryland Million - an event McKay helped create to showcase Maryland-sired thoroughbreds - is still going strong each fall 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, but I'll look forward to watching the race," he said. "That will be very nice."