The joys of staying home to see the Preakness

HAND HIM THE REMOTE:

May 02, 1993|By NORMAN CHAD

There are two ways to watch the 118th running of the Preakness Stakes on May 15:

* You can join 50,000 or so beer-swilling, boisterous slobs along the infield at Pimlico, where you can eat and drink and smoke and spit excessively all afternoon long, listen to some reasonably loud rock bands, gaze at some oddly and barely dressed fellow (( race-goers, slum with a bunch of preened preppies trying to act cool, create an unsightly amount of garbage, stand in very long lines for the privilege of either betting or urinating and, ultimately, not even get close to viewing the race.

* You can stay at home and actually see the race on television.

You can come over and watch with me, if you wish. I've got food and drink. (I hope you all like Rolling Rock and Fresca. They were on sale.) I've got a 27-inch color TV with surround sound. I've got free parking. I'll even book your bets. And you can bring ladders or scaffolding, if you want, but you will be expected in that case to at least do some work.

I love the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. (The Belmont Stakes suffers in comparison unless a horse has a shot at the Triple Crown.) They are at once compelling and concise. In fact, both Derby and Preakness races mirror many American marriages: A lot of buildup, a lot of anticipation, a lot of expectation, a lot of interest, then it's over in two minutes and everybody's got an excuse.

ABC Sports will be on hand for the 16th consecutive year, which is the only reason you really need to stay home and watch on television. For ABC largely does an excellent job. To wit:

(1) It documents the race with 20 or so cameras.

(2) It has a cast of announcers with uncommon expertise.

(3) It wires everyone for sound.

On the downside, for all its technology and refinement, the network still hasn't figured out the way to interview the winning horse.

The interesting thing about the Preakness telecast is this -- there's a whole lot of pre-game and then not much game. ABC is on the air from 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m., and even though some of the telecast is devoted to the Pimlico Special race, what you essentially have is a one-hour, pre-race program for a two-minute race. That means the pre-game is 30 times longer than the game itself.

With Maryland resident and horseman Jim McKay overseeing the proceedings for ABC, the telecast becomes a de facto celebration of the state. (Speaking of which, if the black-eyed Susan is the state flower, how come all I ever see are dandelions?) When McKay says, "We're in Baltimore. Where else would you want to be today?" -- as he did going into one commercial break just before the '91 Preakness -- you know he means it.

And McKay's top-of-the-telecast openings -- when he sets the story line for the day -- remain magnificent. They are well-written, romantic, passionate and complete. Then, when McKay throws the telecast to co-anchor (and fellow horseman) Al Michaels, all seems right. Michaels is measured and sensible; he allows the pace of the telecast to gallop along in perfect rhythm. They bring us all the pertinent information in picture-perfect fashion.

Add to this mix Jack Whitaker, who composes essays of style and grace, and Charlsie Cantey, who conducts interviews sensibly, and viewers get a very comfortable ride to post time. (It's at post time that the troubles begin. But more on that later, because I'm in such a good mood just thinking about the imminent playing of "Maryland, My Maryland."

Ah, "Maryland, My Maryland." Being a former longtime resident of the state, I'm a sentimental sucker for that baby. (Of course, I must admit that when I heard "Maryland, My Maryland" while I was attending classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, all I could think about, frankly, were parking tickets.)

"Maryland, My Maryland" is "My Old Kentucky Home" without the bourbon. Phyllis George always sheds a tear when she hears "My Old Kentucky Home." I always blow my nose -- sure, sure, sometimes it's just allergies -- when I hear "Maryland, My Maryland."

(Footnote: When they strike up "The Sidewalks of New York" before the Belmont Stakes, it doesn't have quite the same effect of "My Old Kentucky Home" or "Maryland, My Maryland." I mean, those sidewalks of New York are really dirty these days, aren't they?)

Now, sometime just before or after they play "Maryland, My Maryland" would be a good moment to step away from the television. That's about the time that the ABC announcers make their race predictions. And believe you me: Like the rest of the perpetual losers who inhabit racetrack grandstands, ABC's best and brightest can't buy a winning ticket.

The folks at ABC couldn't pick Tiny Tim out of a police lineup.

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