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They Remember How It Started

October 25, 2003|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Tom Durkin was calling harness races at the Meadowlands when he was hired by NBC to call the first Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984. And only three years earlier he was calling races at Cahokia Downs in East St. Louis, Ill.

Tom Hammond was a sports anchor for an NBC station in Lexington, Ky., when he was hired to work the first Breeders' Cup telecast as a backstretch reporter.

Here it is, 20 years later, and the two Toms remain a part of the NBC Breeders' Cup crew.

Durkin has been the race caller every year, and Hammond will serve as the host of today's five hours of coverage.

"I remember the fear before the first Breeders' Cup was filling the 25 minutes between races," Durkin said. "I think they hired everyone in sight."

Dick Enberg and Dave Johnson were the co-hosts. Durkin rattled off nine other names that were involved, including that of the late Pete Axthelm, who died in 1991 of liver failure at 47.

"One thing I remember about that first Breeders' Cup was how fast the time rocketed by," Durkin said. "There was no need to be afraid of filling the time.

"Another thing I remember is being blown away by the amount of prize money. There may have been three or four million-dollar races in the world at the time. In the Breeders' Cup, every race was at least $1 million, and the Classic was $3 million.

"At Cahokia Downs, the sum total of all the purses for a decade wouldn't add up to a million dollars."

Hammond's work on the first Breeders' Cup led to a full-time job with NBC, where he went on to become a play-by-play announcer.

Hammond said two things made the first Breeders' Cup memorable for him:

* He went over to do a report on John Henry, the 1984 horse of the year who was not running because of an injury.

"Someone handed me a bouquet of roses for John Henry, and I'm holding them in my arms, standing next to John Henry, when he started eating them," Hammond said.

It made for some memorable shots.

* As the backstretch reporter, Hammond didn't expect to get a lot of air time. But John Henry's appetite for roses resulted in some air time, and so did Wild Again's victory, at 35-1, in the Classic.

When Hammond interviewed Bill Allen, Wild Again's owner, before the race, he asked why Allen would put up the $180,000 entry fee on a horse that couldn't win.

Allen told Hammond that the horse was going to win, that he had bet on it.

It was a rough-and-tumble race, followed by a stewards' inquiry. Eventually, Wild Again was declared the winner, although the order of finish of other horses in the race was changed.

Hammond's knowledge of horse racing, and his chat with Allen, came into play, and his reporting job didn't go unnoticed.

"I remember after the telecast, getting hugs and congratulations from John Gaines and Michael Weisman," Hammond said. "It made a memorable day even more memorable."

Gaines, the owner of Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky., is credited with creating the Breeders' Cup. Weisman, now Fox's lead baseball producer, was then the executive producer of NBC Sports.

Director John Gonzalez is another member of the NBC team who has been there from Day 1. Gonzalez initially was director and producer.

David Michaels, formerly of CBS, has been producing the Breeders' Cup telecasts since 1993.

Gonzalez and Michaels said there is no longer any worry about filling air time, even though there is more of it.

The Breeders' Cup telecasts grew from four hours to 4 1/2, then to five when the Filly & Mare Turf race was added in 1999.

Michaels has been going to Santa Anita since he was 8. He, his older brother Al, their mother Lila and their late father, Jay, were regulars in the turf club.

"It was the only time you'd catch me in a coat and tie," Michaels said.

These days, Michaels is as respected as a sports producer as his brother is as a play-by-play announcer. Yes, that Al Michaels.

David Michaels said for today's telecast, there weren't many taped features, or any set format.

"It's live television and it's horse racing," Michaels said. "With horse racing, you never know what's going to happen. It certainly is one of the craziest shows we do all year.

"It basically breaks down to five 40-minute shows. It's incredibly complicated with lots of moving parts. You have to be ready for anything."

Michaels said the prepared pieces were features on Julie Krone and Gary Stevens and a tribute to Bill Shoemaker.

"We've got a great crew, an unbelievable crew that is great to work with," he added. "We're going to be relying on them."

These days, NBC might not be hiring everyone in sight, but it's still a sizable crew.

Besides Hammond and Durkin, it includes co-host Bob Costas, who will be working his second Breeders' Cup; commentator Charlsie Cantey, her fourth; handicappers Bob Neumeier (14th) and Mike Battaglia (11th), commentators Trevor Denman (15th) and Kenny Rice (fifth), and on-horse reporter Donna Barton Brothers (fourth).

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