Kentucky Derby

ABC needs to get this Belmont right

I'm not worried about Big Brown when it comes to Saturday's 140th running of the Belmont Stakes.

I'm not worried about big-mouth trainer Rick Dutrow.

I'm not even worried about the inside post position, or the Japanese invader, Casino Drive, or the Long Island weather, or the sandy track or the gremlins of racing luck.

Three little letters worry me about Saturday.

ABC.

After all, since the ”Thrill of victory/agony of defeat“ network, in association with the megalomaniacs at ESPN, secured the telecast rights to the third leg of racing's Triple Crown, ABC has not exactly bathed itself in broadcast glory.

Two years ago, the network's first Belmont coverage in six summers, ABC managed to put on one of the worst telecasts of a major sporting event in modern television history.

The accidental comedy began with host Brent Musburger sporting a fedora, as if he were a caricature of some track-side tout, and traveled downhill from there.

Graphics were misspelled. Names were mispronounced. Awkward dead air ran rampant. Camera work was confusing. The network lollygagged around the Belmont Park paddock as if trying to find a lost ball in high weeds.

When the race finally began, the director spent an inordinate amount of time using a camera shot of the horses' rear ends. Anyone in racing will tell you: Never stand behind a horse.

Last year's broadcast, in which Rags to Riches became the first filly to win the race in 102 years, was an improvement, but then the telecast couldn't help but improve. Analyst Jerry Bailey turned in a second strong showing, in particular, though someone needs to give Hammerin' Hank Goldberg a brisk walk around shedrow

To be fair, ABC's presentation might not appear so shoddy if it did not come right behind NBC's usual top-notch coverage of the first two legs.

The comparisons aren't flattering. From classy host (and Lexington's own) Tom Hammond, to weighty moderator Bob Costas, to the witty byplay of Bob Neumeier and Mike Battaglia, NBC knows what it's doing with horse racing.

The Preakness proved it. Since the coverage of the filly Eight Belles' breakdown dominated the two weeks after the Derby, the network resisted the temptation to go maudlin and instead produced an interesting and relevant round-table discussion that included Eight Belles' trainer Larry Jones, former jockey Gary Stevens, New York Times columnist William Rhoden and on-call veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage.

The discussion was entertaining and authentic enough that, at one point, you thought Stevens and Rhoden might come to blows.

But now it's back to ABC, which has been fortunate that not a lot of the general public has been paying attention the past two years. Barbaro's tragic injury in the Preakness sapped the suspense from the 2006 Belmont. When Derby winner Street Sense decided against a rematch with Preakness victor Curlin, the drama was drained last year.

Understandably, ratings suffered. NBC's last Belmont broadcast drew 7.7 million viewers despite the lack of a potential Triple Crown. In '06, ABC's number dropped to five million. Last year, it dipped to 4.9 million.

Viewers should return Saturday. The numbers might not be in the Smarty Jones neighborhood of 2004 when the race rewarded NBC with nearly 22 million viewers, but they figure to be robust, considering the very real possibility of the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.

I have no fear Big Brown will be ready.

But will ABC be ready?

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