Analyzing NBC's Preakness: 90 Minutes is 30 Too Many

Published in the May 26 Blood-Horse
They have similar hair styles and both train good horses, so perhaps Bob Baffert was beginning to panic when Kentucky Derby winner John Ward got all the air time to launch one-liners on NBC's coverage of the Preakness. With Baffert's Point Given knotting the score with Ward's Monarchos, however, expect a tight battle of witticisms for the upcoming Belmont.

Ward was the star of the Preakness coverage, at least up until the running of the race. On the eternal fame of winning on the first Saturday in May: "They paint the Derby on you and it won't wash off." On conditioners who over-train their runners: "If they tried to get themselves as fit as they got their horses, some of them wouldn't be able to get to work the next day." And just before post time: "I'd be a fool if I wasn't nervous right now."

Ward also waxed poetic on what the Derby win meant to him in the Big Picture. "I imagine on your deathbed that's what you think about." The contrast with Baffert couldn't be sharper. Baffert's deathbed thought probably runs to: "I guess we'll have to move the party here." The white-haired wonder from California celebrated his Preakness triumph by making a hat out of the winning trainer's silver bowl. This, however, was a move he's executed before in Baltimore. New York will require fresher material.

Ninety minutes of Preakness coverage remains a half-hour too long, whether on ABC or NBC. The network did little but rehash and overanalyze the Derby. A sentimental piece on Seattle Slew and owners Karen and Mickey Taylor helped, as did a Ward/Jorge Chavez feature. But please, guys, can we leave out, or at least tone down, the maudlin soundtrack? This isn't a John Tesh tape.

The middle of the show felt puffed up, with little substance. Bob Costas pretending to be interested in Jim McKay's Preakness memories did not go smoothly; ditto hosts Tom Hammond and Charlsie Cantey discussing Kentucky's Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome.

Things really began to unravel when the horses hit the track. Just when momentum for the race should be building, NBC again slipped in a film piece of a contrived rivalry between Congaree and Monarchos. The horses are the stars. Show them on the track. Something, by the way, which wasn't done during the debacle of a post parade. As the parade got to number seven--Monarchos, the star of the show--the camera picked up Mr. John, who'd already been introduced. And that was that. The post parade broke down into a Chinese fire drill, and the viewers never saw breeding, owner, trainer, or jockey listings of horses seven through 11, which happened to include the two favorites, Monarchos and Point Given, and Dollar Bill, the fourth choice. However, that stirring rendition of "Maryland, My Maryland" was covered every note of the way.

Some of the dead air in the middle of the show could have been used to introduce us to the Preakness horses who didn't run in the Derby. Sure, they were longshots, and granted, the Preakness wound up running to form, but why not identify the second tier and eliminate the potential embarrassment of having a winner whose name hadn't been mentioned in the previous hour?

Race-caller Tom Durkin's overwrought "Congaree stumbles!" as the gates opened exaggerated what appeared to be simply a sideways step. The horse immediately attended the pace.

Race camerawork was fine, up to a point. Point Given's gradual move outside of horses was clearly in view--until an inexplicable cut to a close-up on the failing speed managed to miss the winner's dramatic push to the leaders. The best shot occurred turning for home when we saw winning rider Gary Stevens look over his shoulder three times trying in vain to locate Monarchos.

The post-race podium segment was pandemonium as usual with too many people squeezed into too tight a space. This would include one too many network announcers. Cantey is more than qualified to handle the chores. Can we vote Costas off the island?

There is no Triple Crown-winning potential for the network in New York, but there could be an interesting rubber match in the Belmont if the contestants go on with it. That leaves three weeks for everyone to sharpen their acts before hitting Broadway.