It didn't take long for two things to become clear within moments of NBC coming on the air for yesterday's Preakness telecast.
The first was that it was going to be a Smarty Jones-dominated show. Secondly, the network quickly established its credentials to broadcast the race, with a stable full of knowledgeable announcers and analysts, led by the underrated Tom Hammond.
Focusing on Smarty Jones made sense. After all, the Kentucky Derby winner came to Pimlico Race Course as the only horse with a chance to win the Triple Crown and had become something of a people's favorite.
Within the first 30 minutes, NBC rode the Smarty Jones story as hard as jockey Stewart Elliott did the horse, taking the viewers to Philadelphia, the horse's hometown, as well as in the home of owners Roy and Patricia Chapman, in solid stories.
Hammond, a Kentucky native and racing veteran, was a terrific choice to serve as the traffic cop for the telecast, and he moved things around smartly. Though Bob Costas is the signature voice and face of NBC Sports, producer David Michaels, himself a veteran of the racing scene, didn't let Costas dominate in an area where he admittedly is a relative novice.
Michaels made good use of analysts Mike Battaglia and Bob Neumeier to set the scene. Battaglia was especially good in explaining to viewers through a Derby replay how The Cliff's Edge, who had been expected to present a challenge to Smarty Jones, was scratched because of a bruised heel.
Battaglia, however, had apparently had too much caffeine by the race's end, going over the top in a pair of post-race interviews with trainer John Servis, especially on the victory stand, where he gushed that Smarty Jones had become "America's horse." The always brilliant Charlsie Cantey would have been a better choice for those interviews.
Technically, save for a couple of tape glitches, Michaels and director John Gonzales were superb. Gonzales, a multiple Emmy winner for his work when NBC had the NBA, moved things adroitly during the race, with terrific low-level camera angles that framed the race nicely.
ESPN, which set the scene with nine hours of pre-race coverage spread between the main channel and ESPN2, was sharp, especially when anchors Rece Davis and Kenny Mayne were on-screen. Davis, a relative newcomer to ESPN's race coverage, is as smooth as they come, while Mayne's loopy quality in the face of the fake solemnity of the day was badly needed.
One major complaint: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was given two free passes by ESPN to campaign unchallenged for the placement of slot machines at Maryland racetracks.
The first came early in the afternoon through an interview with Jeannine Edwards, who is a veteran of Maryland racing and is at least familiar with the issues. The other came courtesy of dilettante Brooke Landau, whose principal achievement of the day was getting beer poured on her during a pointless infield interview. Neither Edwards nor Landau offered anything of a counter to Ehrlich's pro-slots views.
Channel 11 declared itself the official station of the Preakness by virtue of being the local NBC affiliate, giving it the race coverage.
That said, why didn't the station blow out the day's regular Saturday schedule the way Channel 2 did when ABC had the Preakness and give the viewers a true sense of the day around Pimlico, from inside and outside the track?
Then again, the morning's coverage featured news anchors alternately donning and doffing hats depending on whether they were doing Preakness stories or hard news, and the station's veterinarian declaring himself heterosexual despite wearing a hat. If that was any indication of what Channel 11 would have done with a full day, it was probably best that it only went for a few hours.
And it would be wonderful if someone in charge of coverage at both the local and national level would take the pledge to limit infield shots to a bare minimum, if at all. Drunk and slovenly is no way to go through life, and viewers don't need a day's worth of pictures to confirm it.