Of the 70 Triple Crown events that the Columbia Broadcasting System has telecast since 1951 none ever received as much acclaim from racing fans as this year's Preakness. For almost an entire hour, thoroughbred racing and television combined to produce an artistic achievement. Oh, there have been better races than the 1974 Preakness and perhaps better overall telecasts, too, but any time a horse sustains a drive from last place to first by squeezing his way inside a wall of competitors, as Little Current did, television has the capability of capturing the event as no other medium can. And CBS did it, illuminating for viewers the dangers that horse and rider confront in a time span not much longer than it takes to snap one's fingers a dozen times.
This Saturday CBS will telecast the Belmont Stakes. It will then do the Marlboro Cup from Belmont in September and that, as things stand now, is all the live thoroughbred racing any of the three major networks plan to deliver until the first Saturday of next May. Mention television to most people involved with racing—in TV or the sport itself—and almost immediately they begin to twitch. It is baffling that a sport which in 1973 drew 47 million people (almost 2.5 million more than major league baseball and pro football combined), generated more than $4 billion in wagering and had Secretariat flying its banner can somehow manage to remain virtually invisible on the tube.
"The reason there is not more racing on television," says E. Barry Ryan of the Jockey Club, which is supposed to be the conscience of the thoroughbred sport, "is that we continue to live in the dark ages. Racing people won't get together on anything. People in golf got their sport on television and it made golf. But I have to wonder how many people watch a classic golf match compared to a classic horse race."
Well, two times as many people saw Cannonade capture this year's Kentucky Derby on television as saw Gary Player win the Masters. But golf delivers sponsors while racing sits still. Granted, some advertisers seem to believe that anytime horses are brought into America's living rooms, rugs get dirtied, but racing's image is attributable at least partly to the lack of a sensible national TV policy. Even on local stations only New York has a weekly program of live races, and it exists only because the state's Off-Track Betting Corporation puts up some $500,000 a year so that the armchair bettor can see his money run.
John Forsythe, formerly television's Bachelor Father, did a racing show two years ago at Hollywood Park and says, "Horse racing is a rich fabric. If its promoters can concentrate on the human aspect, then racing has a future. It is not enough to live in the past and say, 'We never had television before and we got along all right.' Without television today there is no way to interest the young in horse racing."
Over the years, racing shows have thrust more experts at the public than seems possible, and most of them were shills. (Who can forget ex-jockey Sammy Renick's pitches: "In what other sport can you see two horses racing through the stretch head to head?") CBS's man is Frank I. Wright and as an active trainer of a string of 17 runners he is an authentic expert indeed. "Frank is made for television," a fellow trainer said last week. "He fits it as comfortably as a body fits a casket. He seriously ought to consider giving up training for the tube."
But Wright, who will be 52 on Belmont Day, is not about to do that. "I've put 27 years into training," he says, "and it's my life. My father owned horses in Illinois, and if I got good marks in school he allowed me to work around the stables in the summer and travel with the horses. That's probably the only thing that got me through high school and college.
"I did some announcing in New York and Maryland, but it wasn't until Canonero II won the 1971 Derby that CBS asked me to do some work for them. I speak Spanish and they felt I could help with Canonero's owner, trainer and jockey, if he kept on winning. The people who hire me for TV [Wright also does 40 Saturday shows in New York in addition to his CBS stint] do not want me to fascinate the audience with my smile. They want somebody who can talk to trainers and jockeys and explain a sport that is strange to many people. Most people have a knowledge of baseball, football or basketball. Not too many have a knowledge of horses. I believe I can talk to a Ron Turcotte or Angel Cordero and get them to say something meaningful. I ought to be able to. They have had to explain things to me when I put them on one of my horses and it lost."
It was Wright's explanation of Little Current's Preakness move, using superior slow-motion replays, that brought praise for CBS after a confusing Derby telecast—an unavoidable confusion considering the size of the field. The ratings for this year's Derby were higher than for Secretariat's (54% of the sets on were tuned in compared to 50% in 1973). The Preakness ratings, however, showed a drop from Secretariat's 45% share to Little Current's 36%. Since 1952, when Hill Gail, Blue Man and One Count split the Triple Crown and grabbed an overall 55.5% share of the audience, the public decided that these were the most interesting horses to watch: 1958, Tim Tam-Silky Sullivan (54%); 1959, Tomy Lee-Sword Dancer (53.7%); 1955, Swaps-Nashua (53.4%); 1953, Native Dancer (51.4%); 1957, Iron Liege-Bold Ruler-Gallant Man (50%); 1956, Needles-Fabius (49.3%); 1973, Secretariat (49%); 1963, Chateaugay-Candy Spots (48.9%); 1962, Decidedly (48.2%).
Obviously, people will look at good horses if racing will allow them to.