Friday, January 22, 2010


While Racing Fiddles, Rome Is Burning


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 22, 2010--I received a personal e mail from a friend of a friend, a faithful HRI contributor, on Tuesday. It read:

"I watch Sports Center two times a day. An hour in the morning when I am on my treadmill or stationary bike and an hour at night when I go bed.

“Yesterday was one of the racing industry’s biggest days as far as the press is concerned. It was horse racing's Oscars, its Golden Globes, horse racing's awards night.

“In the 60 minutes this morning it received eight seconds of time when they announced in passing the Horse of the Year.

“That was it – less than 10 seconds. A snowboarder scheduled to be in the Olympics had more air time because he crashed his three wheeler and was now out of the games."

The note went on about lost opportunities for racing, about how the sport doesn’t promote itself properly, etc., nothing anyone hasn’t heard before. And, of course, racing has gotten used to receiving short shrift from television. Pick a network.

I have a wonderful idea for the good folks at NTRA, no charge. Of course, it likely won’t be given serious consideration for two reasons; it wasn’t proposed in-house, and the source of the suggestion.

I don’t know how much NTRA has in its promotional budget anymore. Tough times for everyone, obviously. But if they have the wherewithal, I’d like to relate a story that should compel NTRA to seriously consider the proposal.

During Derby Week two years ago, I was pulling into the driveway when I heard an interview on nationally syndicated sports talk radio program out of Los Angeles.

When I heard that the host would be interviewing John and Brad Hennegan, who I watched grow up summers in the Saratoga press box, I knew I wouldn’t be exiting the car anytime soon.


The brothers had recently completed a documentary on horse racing, following the exploits of six horsemen who tried to win what eventually became Barbaro's Kentucky Derby.

The documentary, in limited release in various smaller markets around the country, was getting good word of mouth and print. They had made excellent use of their full-access backstretch pass.

The youthful host, an excellent broadcaster with a strong journalistic sense and the kind of audience demographics racing has coveted for decades, is smart and hip, almost to a fault, say his critics.

Well, he just loved the Hennegan brothers’ documentary. So did the industry, awarding the production the 2008 Media Eclipse in the national television feature category.

The host was fascinated with the notion that two brothers would travel 150,000 miles for a year and half to provide an inside look at six trainers who were following their dream. He was effusive in his praise of “The First Saturday in May.”

The host related his own background, explaining that he wasn’t a gambler, didn’t know much about horse racing, nor did he care all that much about it.

Then a friend introduced him to Billy Koch, grandson of successful Hollywood producer Howard W. Koch, who, in 2001, formed a racing partnership group known as Little Red Feather Racing.

Three years later, Little Red Feather Racing won the Breeders’ Cup Mile with Singletary at Lone Star Park.

The host explained to the boys that he and his wife went to the races, took a backstretch tour, the full treatment, and both fell in love with all of it, the horses, the sport, the ambience, everything.

He had no idea how exciting and fascinating the world of horse racing could be. He spoke about how his wife fell in love with the animals. His excitement was palpable and infectious.

The first time I became aware of the broadcaster, he was co-hosting a television talk show On SportsChannel with a friend and former Newsday colleague, Wallace Matthews, who later became a star as the Olympics boxing reporter for NBC Sports.

I liked Matthews, of course, but the other guy, not so much. He was incessantly hip and far too acerbic and argumentative, even if that was the purpose of this new sports-talk still in its infancy.

Now, it’s two decades later. He’s matured but is still young and hip, and seems genuinely loved by not only his audience but the sports figures he interviews from every corner of the sports world. The respect shown on both sides of the microphone seems genuine.

Twenty years ago, I was old school, and haven’t gotten any younger in terms of values or appreciation for media. The host has mellowed but has never lost his edge, and I find myself agreeing with his takes far more often than not.

I’ve come to respect his ethos, allowing for better understanding of his generation and where his audience is coming from. I might not talk the talk, but I get it now. It no longer offends my sensibilities.

Busy with my HRI duties, I don’t listen to his show very often. But whenever I’m running midday errands he is a companion, even if his audience bends toward tedium.

He’s a lot more involved in Little Red Feather Racing now than he was when he interviewed the Hennegans. When talking his horses, win or lose, he never fails to convey his love of the game and the horses. He often shares their performances via Trevor Denman race calls. Not even the mighty Francesa does that.

This host talks straight, his takes are credible, even when he's in someone’s face, earning the respect of guests and audiences alike, given the dialogue I‘ve heard. He even has a show on ESPN’s television network.

He talks street and he talks smack. He probably knows the lyrics to “Pants on the Ground.” As much as I love Rip Torn, this guy won’t be listening for Secretariat by holding clumps of turf up to his ear, nor is he the kind of hip that Lori Petty was supposed to be in the failed “Go Baby Go” campaign.

I’ve never met Jim Rome, nor appeared on his show, but he’s the kind of spokesperson who can cross-over. At least think about that. Talk to him, gauge his interest and, if it makes sense, do everything you can to get him.

And if you think you can muzzle him, then don‘t bother. Let him write his own material, say what he wants about the game, all of it, from the heart. He gets it. He puts his passion for racing on the line. If he’s becomes a lightning rod, so much the better.

Jim Rome automatically makes an often staid pastime cool. When was the last time younger generations thought horse racing was, you know, dope?

Who knows? He might even be able to breathe some life into the Eclipse ceremonies.

Written by John Pricci

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