Wire Act

Apparently there are influential people in the Thoroughbred industry who feel the sport is doing so well in attracting new fans that no changes are warranted, no improvements necessary or desirable. Nothing should be done to jostle the sunny status quo. Then there are others who are actually conscious.

The latest insider hubbub has to do with the wire-cam employed by NBC Nov. 4 as part of its coverage of the Breeders' Cup. The camera, which travels along a set of cables in concert with the horses that it tracks, is used to great effect overseas, and lends a you-are-there, virtual-reality feel to the telecast of races. As such, it actually has the potential to grab young, Generation-Computer-Games people, and perhaps even interest them in watching a couple of horse races.

No wonder the wire-cam is seen as evil.

In its news columns following the Breeders' Cup, Daily Racing Form took note of "vociferous objections from racing purists" to the wire-cam. Surely voluminous amounts of calls were placed to "racing purists" in the minutes and hours following the telecast. Perhaps they piggybacked on political campaign calls already going out: "Do you favor Gore or Bush, and how do you feel about wire-cam?"

The racing industry is a lot like Europe in the Dark Ages -- come up with a new idea and be prepared to burn at the stake. Poker players know that sitting pat with a losing hand isn't the best way to pad a bankroll. Racing, as it's been presented on television the past 20 years, preaches only to the choir. The ratings suggest few new customers. This apparently doesn't bother some folks. Nor does the fact the profile of race enthusiasts reveals a graying base; that the sport is below the radar as far as younger fans go; that racing hasn't even shared in the explosion of gambling that rages through casinos and over the Internet across the country. The status quo motto: If it ain't working, don't fix it.

The wire-cam isn't perfect. During the Breeders' Cup telecast, its cables got in the way of backstretch shots, and the camera inexplicably stopped short of the finish line, giving viewers a tough angle to gauge close finishes. It needs to stay farther ahead of the runners to give the best possible scope to the field. But what it does do is eliminate the bothersome cuts from one angle to another that unfailingly disorient viewers. And despite what the "purists" may have thought, two of the biggest closing moves Breeders' Cup Day, by War Chant and Honest Lady, were picked up by wire-cam. War Chant, briefly off-camera straightening for home, was in view for the last eighth of the Mile (gr. IT), and Honest Lady, too far back to be picked up by any camera, was in focus for at least the final sixteenth of the Sprint (gr. I). In tandem with a good race-caller, there is plenty of time to see a closer catching the leaders.

Whatever wire-cam's growing pains, which seem vastly solvable through experience, the upside is exciting. Somewhere, some teenager, looking up from his PlayStation 2, might actually catch something out of the corner of his eye that makes him take a closer look. If you don't believe in its potential, get a copy of Crimplene's victory in the 2000 Vodafone Nassau Stakes (Eng-I). It is the most visually stunning horse race you've seen.

The Form stated that "NBC would never think of suddenly televising the World Series in a radically different way from the one that viewers had spent their lives watching." Huh? Go back 20 or 30 or 40 years. See how many times NBC used a radar gun or "Pitch Trac" or hot and cold hitting zones. Count how many times they promoted next Thursday's prime-time line-up or showed their sitcom stars sitting in the stands. At the risk of revealing my age, there weren't even ... gasp ... instant replays when I was a kid. Today they've got cameras trained on every nook and cranny of the dugout; they're pointing up players' nostrils. In a word, it's radically different. Thanks to advances in technology.

A bugler bringing horses out onto the track is an untouchable tradition. Taking a photo in the winner's circle after a race is an untouchable tradition. The kind of camera used to show a race is not. It is subject to changes in technology and the effort to attract fans. Let's blow out the torches and embrace the 21st Century.