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Back in Saddle, Network Barely Misses a Step

May 06, 2001|MIKE PENNER

The "athletes" don't talk to reporters after they perform, but they're not baseball players.

They "run for the roses," but they're not blitzing Washington Huskies, they're not backpedaling Purdue Boilermakers, and the road to pay dirt is 2,200 yards and a cloud of dust.

They run "beneath the twin spires," but they're not Dallas Mavericks.

(No, David Robinson and Tim Duncan had to wait until NBC wrapped up its coverage of the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby before tipping off against Mark Cuban's slingshot-toting Mavericks.)

This was NBC's first Derby since the 101st running of the "most famous two minutes in American sports," and all you had to do was connect the cliches to know that the network had been doing its homework during the last 26 years.

Were all the requisite camera angles, lifted from ABC's old playbook, covered? Let's see . . .

Opening panoramic view of Churchill Downs' storied twin spires? Check.

Rose blossoms rustling in the gentle Kentucky breeze? Check.

Foals frolicking in the fields? Check.

Women in the stands wearing the most ridiculous-looking hats this side of the Disney Angels? Check.

There was even the obligatory over-reaching literary reference during the prerace show. Shortly after Chris Fowler quoted Keats on ESPN's pre-Derby special, NBC's Bob Costas was referencing John Steinbeck, who, "in attendance here some 40 years ago, called [the Derby] 'an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion. One of the most beautiful and satisfying things I have ever experienced.' "

This is the inherent problem with a Derby telecast: So little content, so much time to fill. The athletes, as NBC's commentating crew called the horses, run for two minutes and then they're done. It's a two-minute sporting event, preceded by 67 minutes of forecasting and foreshadowing.

To break it down another way: The prerace show is 33 1/2 times as long as the actual race.

If television covered college football in similar fashion, the pregame show would last five days.

Since the athletes don't talk, you have to stretch to fill those 67 minutes. The key: slow-motion footage. See the trainers walk around the stables in slow-motion. See the horses take their training runs in slow-motion. See the jockeys strap on their helmets in slow-motion.

But NBC is the industry leader in padding out a sports telecast. Given more than two weeks' worth of live sports content at last year's Sydney Olympics, NBC delayed it all, boiled it down to easy-to-eat morsels to be chewed in between prime-time commercials, then pared it down some more in order to make way for melodramatic soft-focus profiles on how the longshot middle-distance runner from Kentucky overcame a tragic foot infection, depression, extreme diarrhea, colitis, severe weight loss and was "left for dead" before resurrecting his career with a miracle remedy of rancid buttermilk . . . oh, sorry, that was Saturday's Derby runner-up Invisible Ink.

It's an adaptable, if occasionally confusing, formula: Have violins, will travel. NBC loves this stuff, and can pitch it anywhere. This year's Derby provided a bountiful feast; Congaree, we learned, suffered a "difficult and dangerous birth" that resulted in five broken ribs that nearly punctured his heart, had to be placed in an oxygen tent, overcame pneumonia and a chipped knee en route to its post at Churchill Hill Downs.

Finally, the mournful music gave way to the race--a surprising race, a controversial race, complete with a interference charge levied by the runner-up against the winning jockey.

This, NBC could handle.

Tom Durkin's call captured the excitement of Monarchos' late charge from deep in the pack to upset prohibitive favorite Point Given and hold off Invisible Ink for the victory. NBC's sideline reporters swarmed, piranha-like, once word spread that John Velasquez, Invisible Ink's rider, had claimed a foul on Monarchos' jockey, Jorge Chavez.

Bob Neumeier all but conked Velasquez on the head with his microphone as he "eavesdropped" on Velasquez on the phone with track stewards as he protested Chavez's ride. This did not sit well with Velasquez, who turned to Neumeier and waved an angry finger in his face, blurting, "Excuse me!" But Neumeier was relentless. As Velasquez left the phone hanging by its cord and tried to stomp away, Neumeier grabbed him by the shoulder, wrestled him back on camera and got the answer he wanted. Full-contact television journalism, at its finest.

Mike Battaglia followed suit, shoving his microphone under Chavez' nose while Chavez was on another phone, giving the steward his version of events. Intrusive, yes. But it yielded the necessary information--immediately. Viewers heard both sides of the debate as quickly as it reached the stewards. And as soon as Chavez' ride was declared legal, Durkin was on camera with the chief of stewards, who explained why the ruling was made, that "no contact" had been made "in any shape or form."

This was followed by an isolated-camera replay of Monarchos' winning ride, focusing on Chavez and his horse from first stride to last. It was a telling replay, revealing the tactics Chavez employed as he weaved his way through the pack, picking off one horse after another, giving you a feel for how fast Monarchos was moving. On a fast track, packed hard for speed, it was the second fastest time ever clocked at the Derby, behind Secretariat in 1973.

It was insightful and educational--for the viewer and, with luck, NBC. A good story was told in good time. No violins or gauze over the camera lens required.

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