10/26/2009 3:21PM

Laugh Track


Horseplayers have no sense of humor, or if they do, it is the sense of humor found more frequently on a battlefield or in a hospital emergency ward. The laugh lines are dark, mordant, off key and defintely off color.

Rick Reilly, the ESPN Magazine essayist, humorist and latter-day George Plimpton, can turn a great phrase. But usually they're not shooting at him while he does it. He managed to work in a few wisecracks last Saturday when he left his comfort zone to elbow Trevor Denman aside and call the first race at Santa Anita Park. Live, without a net. Whether or not he left them rolling in the aisles in the Turf Club or the Paddock Room is doubtful. It's a tough crowd. For Reilly, getting to the end of 6 furlongs without fainting was victory enough. 

The stunt was taped for ESPN's upcoming coverage of the Breeders' Cup. More to the point, Reilly did just fine, or at least better than anyone had a right to expect. He approached the challenge with the respect of someone who had cut at least one row of his journalistic teeth writing for the L.A. Times, when Thoroughbred racing was considered a local franchise with major league standing. Reilly tried to prepare accordingly. 

"Doing just one race is absolutely suicidal," Trevor Denman observed. "You need to do ten, and probably twenty to get any kind of feel for it."

"I could have used about 80,000," Reilly said. "I thought a six-horse field was too many. I was hoping one of them would wake up today with a cramp."

"I told him to breathe," Denman said. Good advice.

Reilly began his call with, "And they're off and I hope I'm not," followed closely by a tribute to the beautiful mountain backdrop, and then, with a rookie's surprise, "...they go behind a TV screen--who put a TV screen there!?" Rick my man, we've been wondering about that idiotic blind spot for years. To make things interesting, there were carnival rides in the infield on that particular day, prompting Reilly to note, "Now they go through the Tilt-a-Whirl, the inflatable Spider-Man." And at one point he said a horse was so far back it was "like he's got Kirstie Alley on his back," although I'm not sure why being ridden by a Scientologist would get a laugh. Oh well.

Reilly finished with dramatic flourish, picking up the move by eventual winner Bad Boy and demanding, in good fun, "Somebody test that horse!" (The Bad Boy thing opens a whole different can of spam, since fans of "Trainspotting" will recall that was the name of the horse Begby bet at Doncaster who came in at 16-1, bless him.) Afterwards, Reilly emerged from the announcer's booth limp. Adrenalin's a bitch.

"That was scary. I did a fifth of vodka and it didn't help at all. How bad was I?" he wondered. "Were there just giant gaps? And that giant TV screen is brutal, like some kind of black hole. You don't know when they're coming out of there. Thanks, by the way, for the carnival rides."

Denman was standing to one side, grinning.

"For three days I bothered this guy, while I called races into a tape recorder," Reilly said, nodding at Trevor. "He tells me, 'Look at the colors.' But I didn't know what he meant exactly. I thought he was talking about saddle blanket colors. I told him I couldn't see them when they came around the final turn because they were facing me. 'Of course you can,' he said. 'The jockeys are wearing them.' Wearing them? The saddle blankets? Jargon screwed me again."