Bingo markers don't make pretty post-position drawing

May 13, 1998|By John Eisenberg

The dramatic high point of this year's Preakness comes today, not Saturday.

The race itself is Saturday, but a race is a race is a race, right? As former NFL star Duane Thomas said of the Super Bowl, "If this is the ultimate, why are they going to hold it again next year?"

Today, we get once-in-a-lifetime mystery, intrigue and theatrical fireworks at Pimlico.

We get to watch the best and brightest of the racing industry try not to humiliate themselves for the second time in two weeks on ESPN.

We get the Preakness edition of the "new and improved" Triple Crown post-position draw, a simple, small-scale, bingo-style operation that proved too complicated before the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.

Can the sport get it right the first time for a change? Or will the draw again disintegrate into a combination of "America's Funniest Home Videos" and racing's version of a corporate meltdown?

That's today's high drama -- and comedy, too. Who needs the last episode of "Seinfeld"? We have better: racing experts trying to organize a few horses into a starting gate without having to resort to a do-over.

They couldn't do it before the Derby, that's for sure. Great-grandmothers, Kiwanis club vice presidents and elementary school students can run a bingo game without messing up, but racing needed a mulligan.

Today, after countless hours of planning, staging, brainstorming, trouble-shooting and prayer, they'll try to get it right the first time.

Can (gasp) Maryland save racing's good name?

Pimlico oddsmaker Clem Florio said yesterday that the odds were 13-5 in favor of a first-time success.

Any takers?

Only the reputation of the entire racing industry is at stake.

Another mix-up would fortify the impression that the sport can't gallop and chew gum at the same time. (You in the back, no smart comments!)

Another mix-up probably would relegate the broadcast of next year's Triple Crown to Comedy Central.

See what we mean? What drama.

The irony is that the Triple Crown tracks had intended to improve television ratings for the post-position draws this year, but not by luring the ghouls who watch auto races for wrecks and figure skating for falls.

That's who will tune in today, anticipating another red-faced disaster shown on live TV.

Anyway, the tracks had intended to improve the ratings by infusing the draws with the same kind of decision-making drama that occurs at the NFL draft.

True, no one with any semblance of a life regards the draft as anything other than a total snore-a-thon.

Still, racing's idea for a new draw was good.

In place of the usual system of pulling numbered gate assignments out of a hopper, there would be two draws matching each horse with a numbered "draft pick." The connections of the horse with the first pick then would choose their gate assignment, followed by the connections of the horse with the second pick, etc.

The idea was to add strategy and decision-making to the process, as well as that staple of all modern sports events, ignorant second-guessing.

The problem in Kentucky occurred when ESPN commentator Chris Lincoln incorrectly read the wording on one of the balls, necessitating in a do-over.

Two Churchill Downs officials were on the podium with Lincoln and supposed to help, but they stood in the background doing their Al Gore imitations as Lincoln decided to handle the whole business by himself. There was plenty of blame to go around.

There are several ways for Pimlico and Triple Crown officials to make sure nothing goes wrong today.

They could use enormous red rubber balls with gigantic neon numbers, for instance, instead of little balls with little numbers. Sort of an "Alice in Wonderland" theme, in other words.

Alas, a jockey not paying attention could get squashed by a ball coming out of the massive, industrial-sized hopper that would be required. Can't have that.

Another idea would be to assign each ball a corporate sponsor, making it all but impossible for Lincoln or anyone to mistake one ball for another.

Just imagine the patter: "D. Wayne Lukas puts his right hand in the hopper and comes out with the Jiffy Lube No. 3 Ball! Hey, how about a hand for Wayne and Jiffy Lube, racing fans! And let's not forget that that Viagra No. 5 Ball is still in the hopper! The tension is really building, isn't it?"

That would accomplish two goals, enhancing the draw while raising corporate dollars.

Makes too much sense. It'll never happen.

In the end, it appears Pimlico officials are just going to hope practice makes perfect.

"We're going to draw the old-fashioned way," said Lenny Hale, Pimlico's vice president of racing. "Presumably, we won't have to do it twice."

It's a good sign that they're going to use the Ravens' new quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, to pull some lots. Imagine if it had been Harbaugh's predecessor, Vinny Testaverde. Can you fumble a gate assignment?

With the sure-handed Harbaugh setting the tone, the chances of a first-time completion seem good.

"But you never know what can happen," Hale said.

Thus, there is the high drama of the whole week, coming three days before the race.

Can racing gallop and chew gum at the same time?

Let's find out.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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