When you have only a couple of minutes of actual horse race, but 90 minutes of broadcast time to fill, you have to make some choices and do some inventing.
ABC's solution yesterday in its telecast of the Preakness was to craft story lines loaded with much exaggeration and overcommit to them.
The network used almost none of its air time, though, to try to give viewers a sense of the pageantry, the crowd or what it felt like to be at Pimlico Race Course. The lack of racetrack atmosphere was a disappointment.
The big pre-race story line was about Kentucky Derby-winner Lil E. Tee -- "the scrawny foal" now "a mighty champion," chasing "The Impossible Dream" and the "Holy Grail." Jim McKay told viewers, Lil E. Tee's story "was the stuff movies are made of."
The second biggest story line was about Casual Lies, runner-up at the Kentucky Derby. ABC crafted a moody, taped feature story from the diary of Shelley Riley, the horse's owner and trainer. Charlsie Cantey told viewers Casual Lies' story was "a movie script come to life."
Neither Casual Lies nor Lil E. Tee turned out to be the Hollywood material ABC promised yesterday, as Pine Bluff won the race. And ABC's coverage never quite recovered.
The telecast was not without its moments.
Once the puffed-up story lines and pre-race hype of the taped reports and anchor talk gave way to coverage of the actual race, the telecast came to life.
Cameras placed in the gates captured the tension of the trainers, jockeys and horses as the animals were led in. And the owners were wired with earpieces and microphones, so that McKay could talk to them moments before the race was about to begin. Though nothing exciting was said, viewers did get a sense of the owners' nervousness. ABC's army of cameras kept viewers in good position throughout the race, offering a clear picture of who was winning and where the challenges were coming from.
But once the race ended, ABC went to the jockey and trainers of Lil E. Tee and the owner of Casual Lies before even giving us more than a glimpse of Chris McCarron, a former local jockey who rode the winner. McCarron was a story line the network should have been better prepared to pursue once the race ended, whether or not they chose to highlight it in the pre-race show.
ABC did have John Ed Anthony, owner of Pine Bluff, wired, so that it could get to him after the race. That was a good call. But Anthony seemed more interested in making his way down to the track than in talking to McKay.
Typical of ABC's luck yesterday at Pimlico and a good example of its overcommitment to Lil E. Tee and Casual Lies, was McKay's post-race chat with Riley as she stood in the stands right after the race.
"Well, what did you think of the race?" McKay asked her.
"I really had a lot of trouble seeing it," she said. "So, I really don't know."