TV or Not TV

One thing you have to say for racing today, there is plenty of TV coverage, from TVG and MSG to several of the major networks. And the on-air talent comes not only from the broadcasting industry, but from all walks of the sport.

We saw the roots of racing’s TV coverage when trainer Frank Wright and former exercise rider Charlsie Cantey became analysts for local TV in New York and then moved up to national coverage of the Triple Crown, both providing a new and informative way of presenting racing to the public. In the mid-to-late ‘70s, ABC signed the legendary Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro to provide color to the Triple Crown coverage along with the iconic Howard Cosell.

Today, the coverage of racing is dominated in many ways by women, following in the footsteps of Cantey, most with a racing background, having grown up around horses and racing. We also have former jockeys covering the sport based on their experiences in the saddle. We even have a trainer like Tom Amoss providing commentary, including races in which he is participating. And of course there are the handicappers who break down the races from a bettor’s perspective.

Naturally there are people who are critical of some of the coverage, some of whom criticize the on-air talent. I, like everyone, have my favorites and non-favorites.

But take it from me; doing TV can be a frightening experience in the beginning. Of course, for some it comes easy and they are a natural in front of a camera.

Over the years I have done my share of TV, but just being interviewed, not as an actual part of the telecast. I have seen the inner workings of putting on a racing show, as an in-studio advisor on the telecasts of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Washington D.C. International for ABC, the latter back in 1989 when Tony Allevato, now executive producer of television for the New York Racing Association and president of NYRA Bets, was basically a gofer on his way to becoming assistant producer. And I have been fortunate enough to have been interviewed by Charlie Rose, the Jim Lehrer Report, the Today Show, National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News, ESPN, and many other national and local shows.
Although I became more comfortable in front of the camera the more I did it, the beginning of my TV experience was a nightmare. And that was on tape. If it had been live coverage I would have hidden under a rock and never showed my face again.

It was 1992. I had just begun writing full-time for the Daily Racing Form after years of freelancing for other publications. I had come up with the idea of doing a weekly feature called Derby Watch, in which copy editor Steve Feldman and I would rank the top 30 3-year-olds in a chart format, with the horse’s last race, next race, and brief quotes from each trainer on how their horse was doing and all the latest developments pertaining to that horse.

It was a unique feature that proved to be extremely popular, so much so that ESPN contacted our editor and offered to fly me to New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby to do a segment, explaining the concept of Derby Watch and discussing the 3-year-old picture.

I was a bit apprehensive, having never been in front of a camera and having no desire to put my mug on TV. But, because of the publicity DRF and Derby Watch would get, I was encouraged to go. So, off I went to New Orleans for the first time.

Everything was going smoothly until I had to attend a rehearsal meeting to go over the show and my segment. I was given a lead-in and was supposed to say exactly what I was going to say on the show. But all I kept doing was going over what I was going to say. “No, say it exactly as you will on the show,” I was told. But I couldn’t do it, because I knew if I got it right I would never be able to get it right again. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t do it that way. So, I started off as a disaster in rehearsal.

The morning of the race, I was walking from the backstretch to the track, starting to feel the effects of a cold coming on. With a chilly wind blowing in my face and knowing we were doing the show from on the roof of the grandstand, I became panicky. I would not be able to do it. My mind was blank and my nose was running. All day long I kept going over in my mind what I was going to say, memorizing every word, and getting it all completed in the designated amount of time, never realizing that when they said I had 45 seconds or 90 seconds, or whatever it was, they meant right on the button and not five seconds or 10 seconds longer or shorter. So I kept timing myself all day, while alleviating my fears with a bowl of Cajun beans and rice, which was spicy enough at least to get up into my sinuses.

I kept saying to myself, “Thank God this is going to be taped before the actual show,” which is something I demanded. Even so, I became more of a wreck as the day wore on. Finally, it was time and I made my way up to the roof where I was to be interviewed by Dave Johnson on a wooden platform.

He introduced me and briefly mentioned Derby Watch and threw it to me. I went through my routine perfectly. I couldn’t believe it was over and I had pulled it off even with all the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. But then I heard those dreaded words from the director, “OK, let’s do it again.” What? Why? I had nailed it. My relief had turned into panic once again. No way I could duplicate that.

“First off,” the director informed me, “this was supposed to be (let’s say for memory’s sake) 90 seconds and you took three minutes. Second, look where you are.” I then realized that while I was speaking I was drifting the entire time and ended up on the other end of the platform. Well, somehow I managed to shorten it on the second try and made sure my feet were planted in one spot. I was expecting rave reviews from friends and acquaintances, but all people kept asking me was, “Did you have a cold? You were sniffling all the time.”

Oh, brother, that was it. I vowed never to subject myself to such torture again. Thank God that debacle was over. But lo and behold, Derby Watch had become so popular, ESPN for some bizarre reason, asked me to come down to New Orleans again the following year. And again I was persuaded to go. But at least this year it would be easier. I at least had experience and I insisted on doing the interview indoors this time, where I wouldn’t be subjected to the elements.

So, off I went once again. This time I brought a little pad with me where I wrote out my entire script and timed it right on the button. This time I was being interviewed by Bob Neumeier. I asked Bob to let me know when they were cutting to a video so I could just read from my notepad.

I didn’t feel as nervous this time, but my body reminded me that wasn’t the case when a simple swiss cheese sandwich sent me into the bathroom for a prolonged period of time.

We went into one of the large rooms to do the taping. I figured I just needed to memorize the first few words to get me going, and then I would be on a roll. I would start by saying, “This year’s crop has been very wide open … blah, blah, blah.”

OK, cameras ready. I was ready. But Bob’s introduction to me was so long that when he finally asked me, “So, Steve, what do you think of this year’s crop?” I had forgotten everything I was going to say. Not only did my mind go blank, so did my vocal chords. My mouth opened as if to speak and nothing came out. Not a peep. I just stood there like a moron with my mouth remaining open.

Bob was very nice about it and brought me a glass of water. OK, this time would be different. This time I would not start by talking about the crop. This time I would start with the simple words, “Well, Bob.” I just needed that little simple lead-in to get something to come out of my mouth and then I would be fine.

So, as Bob was going through his long-winded intro, I kept repeating to myself, “Well, Bob … Well, Bob … Well, Bob.”

“So, Steve, what do you think of this year’s crop?”

“Well, Bob ………,” Nothing. Dead silence. I had said “Well, Bob” so many times in my head I couldn’t remember what came after that and once again froze.

This time, Bob not only gave me another glass of water, he started massaging the back of my neck. As it turned out, they must have felt so sorry for the pathetic person I had become they used video through the majority of the interview so I was able to read the words off my notepad. Somehow, I had actually regressed from the disaster of the previous year.

Oh, my God, what if that were live? I would have single-handedly destroyed the reputation of ESPN. I vowed never to do TV live and, in fact, would never do TV again.

Well, over the next 27 years I have done plenty of TV interviews, many of them live, but never as part of a time-restricted segment in which I had to do all the talking. Ask me whatever you want in a normal interview, live or taped, but no way would I ever go through that nightmare again.

So, whenever I watch these segments on TV and the person on air is talking for 45 seconds or 90 seconds by memory and doing it so naturally, I think back to how difficult that really is to talk for that long with a precise time restriction hanging over your head, at least for a wandering mind like mine with a short attention span.

I remember being on an ESPN panel with Randy Moss, back when he was a newspaper writer with hair, and marveled at how good he was and came to the realization how bad I was. You can say he went in one direction and I went in another … as far away from television as I could get.

I am reliving all these horrific moments to say that when you watch racing on TV and listen to how smooth and natural people are when delivering their monologues, don’t take it for granted. It’s a lot harder than you think.

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