NBC is saddled with another major moment in thoroughbred history but having to deal with an elephant in the Santa Anita jockeys’ room.
This weekend the Breeders’ Cup returns to the Arcadia track for a record 10th time, but none of the previous nine had the stigma of a yearlong litany of horses having to be euthanized — 36 since the Dec. 26 winter/spring opener, including another last weekend.
Jerry Bailey, the 62-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Fla.,-based Hall of Fame jockey and NBC thoroughbred analyst, can justifiably wax poetic about the surroundings and history of Santa Anita, “and that’s why I always enjoy doing it there even if it’s a long trip.”
“As far as what’s been happening …,” Bailey starts as he tries to balance optimism with realism.
Despite push-back from some in the media and a damning report on HBO’s “Real Sports,” the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors decided last June to give the track a unanimous vote of confidence and keep the event there as planned. Even after the track closed for a month last spring to assess the issue.
“I can’t tell you what the cause of the problems are there,” continued Bailey, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner who won nearly 5,900 races and earned about $300 million in a 30-plus-year riding career. “But I just believe it’s going to be a really good event and they’re doing all they can to make sure it’s a safe event.”
As part of 10-plus hours of coverage on NBC and NBCSN, climaxing with the Classic (Saturday, 5 p.m., Channel 4), the network has ample opportunities to address and access what has happened. Essay pieces written and narrated by former Sports Illustrated scribe Tim Layden will include one that covers how the 2019 season unfolded, which can’t gloss over the controversial disqualification of Maximum Security as the Kentucky Derby winner.
The Breeders’ Cup, which started in 1984 at Hollywood Park, has dealt with on-track tragedies. ESPN had the event in 2010 at Churchill Downs when Rough Sailing had a fatal injury in the Juvenile Turf, and in 2007 when Irish colt George Washington was put down in the Classic on a muddy track at Monmouth Park.
The 1990 event NBC covered at Belmont Park had two deaths — Go For Wand in the Distaff and Mr. Nickerson in the Sprint — and a New York Times headline the next day read: “Racing’s Darkest Day: A Belmont Disaster.”
Bailey might rather discuss how this Santa Anita visit marks the 10th anniversary of Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win there. He’s also apt to regale viewers with details about when he rode the biggest upset in the event’s history, 133-to-1 longshot Arcangues over favorite Bertrando in the ’93 Classic, also at Santa Anita. It was one of Bailey’s 15 career Breeders’ Cup wins.
“We’ve got to touch on the recent history [of Santa Anita] and realize, we’ve had catastrophic breakdowns in the Breeders’ Cups of the past and dealt with it, and you kind of move on,” Bailey said. “I rode for 31 years and that’s the last thing I want to have happen being on the backside of these animals. Whatever happens, it’s something we just have to deal with.”
Crossed up lines
An announcement last week that ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” will do away with its weekday half-hour scheduled show and “evolve to meet the changing habits of consumers,” incorporating any sort of breaking-news-type segments into the daily “SportsCenter” shows, defeats its purpose.
By more than just habit, our ability to locate “OTL” at 10 a.m. (except on Mondays, when NFL programming dominates the day) might be the best example of how we discovered and interpreted the Houston Astros-Brandon Taubman-Sports Illustrated story, which host Jeremy Schaap was able to meticulously explain and discuss with SI writer Stephanie Apstein.
If that was buried in a random “SportsCenter” at whatever hour it felt like delivering it, we doubt we would have kept pace.
ESPN’s compromise is creating a new hour-long Saturday morning wrap-up “OTL” instead. That’s outside our habit zone.
At least ESPN avoids having any live event leading into LAFC’s MLS Western Conference final against Seattle (Tuesday, 7 p.m.), unlike the mess it created for viewers searching for last Thursday’s LAFC-Galaxy conference semifinal where ESPN scheduled it for a 7:30 p.m. start but grinded out a 45-plus-minute overlap with an SMU-Houston college football game that could never have comfortably fit into the scheduled three-hour window.
ESPN2 ended up taking the LAFC-Galaxy pregame and first 30 minutes of the contest, with LAFC leading 1-0, before it turned it back over to ESPN, where play-by-play man Jon Champion greeted the new viewers by telling them they were seeing “without question the biggest MLS occasion of the season … some people have suggested the biggest playoff occasion ever in the 24-season history of Major League Soccer.”
It was so big, even the panelists on the next day’s “OTL” roundtable couldn’t mop up the mess, as co-host Ryan Smith said: “The battle for L.A. was going on right under our eyes and most of us missed it. … It just didn’t get a lot of attention. It was sort of at the back of the news.”
Maybe crane your neck and ask the ESPN programmers in the next room.
At least those who hung on until the end caught Champion’s description of the whole affair as “a magnificent spectacle,” and then summarized over a live shot of Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic walking off the field and grabbing his crotch in response to LAFC fans: “Is this the final exit of one of the greatest gladiators our world game has ever seen? And if it is, is it being done with a gesture that he may come to regret? But doesn’t that sum up Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The brilliant, sometimes the brutal, and occasionally the inadvisable ... an infectious mix of contradictions.”
Champion, analyst Taylor Twellman and reporter Sebastian Salazar, who endured an odd postgame exchange with LAFC coach Bob Bradley last Thursday in which Bradley told Salazar to “get lost” and walked away after a question about star Carlos Vela stepping up in big games, return for Tuesday’s telecast as well as the Nov. 10 MLS Cup.