10/22/2002 11:00PM

Costas gets fill-in role as TV host

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Bob Costas, the 15-time Emmy Award-winning sports commentator, will fill in for Tom Hammond as host of NBC-TV's broadcast of the Breeders' Cup on Saturday, NBC officials said Wednesday, stressing the words "fill in."

"People keep asking me the same question: Who can replace Tom Hammond?" said Charlsie Cantey, the broadcast's co-host. "I've only had one answer: nobody. Because it's not possible."

Hammond, perhaps racing's most recognizable broadcast face after Jim McKay, is currently recovering from double-bypass heart surgery, which he underwent unexpectedly last week after a routine physical. Hammond has worked every Breeders' Cup broadcast since its inception in 1984, and took over for McKay as host of the Triple Crown broadcast in 2000 after NBC took over the rights from McKay's network, ABC.

"This is the event that is closest to my heart, because it's what got me onto the NBC ship to start with," Hammond said earlier this week, referring to the Breeders' Cup. "Obviously I'm going to really miss being there."

The longtime producer of the Breeders' Cup broadcast, David Michaels, said on Wednesday that Hammond will contribute a short pre-recorded piece taped at the broadcaster's home in Lexington, Ky., at the beginning of the broadcast that "tells us how he sees the day." The piece will be Hammond's sole contribution, Michaels said.

Costas, though, will not pick up all of Hammond's responsibilities and airtime, Michaels said. Instead, the other members of the broadcast team, including handicappers Bob Neumeier and Mike Battaglia, plus reporters Kenny Rice and Donna Barton Brothers, will take on additional roles during the five-hour broadcast. In fact, the role of Costas, who has appeared sporadically in the past on NBC's racing broadcasts and has never been known as an intense or knowledgeable racing fan, will be limited, Michaels said.

"Bob Costas is a great host, and he does an amazing job in a lot of sports, but this is the most complicated show I've ever been a part of, as far as moving parts," Michaels said. "So we're going to need to use the people with experience."

"It's our challenge to ratchet up our game and fill in where Tom would have," said Neumeier.

From a television standpoint, broadcast officials said they believed that the most intriguing stories of the Breeders' Cup this year centered on the number of horses coming into the Breeders' Cup off long layoffs. Additionally, officials cited the participation this year of jockeys Patrick Valenzuela and Mike Smith, and three female trainers, Laura de Seroux, Kathleen O'Connell, and Criquette Head-Maarek.

Without Hammond acting as a "traffic cop," though, Michaels admitted that he was a bit nervous.

"I don't really know what this stew is going to taste like, but we'll see," Michaels said.