07/28/2002 11:00PM

ESPN made viewers wait too long for result


NEW YORK - You would think that for as long as the ESPN network has televised Thoroughbred racing, it would have learned something by now. But anyone who watched ESPN's telecast of Saturday's Test Stakes from Saratoga couldn't help but think otherwise.

It was bad enough that the director chose to make four ill-advised camera cuts during the running of the seven-furlong Test, one of which cost the viewer the chance to see the 4-5 favorite You get stopped on the rail going into the far turn behind the quitting Short Note. But what ESPN did after one of the most thrilling stretch battles of the year between You and Carson Hollow was really indefensible.

With a photo finish that was impossible to predict and with a Grade 1 race hanging in the balance, ESPN made the unfathomable decision to go to a commercial. This wasn't just a quick commercial break, however. ESPN assaulted the viewer with roughly four minutes of commercials. Then when the telecast returned to Saratoga, the host told us that that the outcome had been determined but he would get to that in a minute. He then read a teaser for an ESPN racing show to air this week. Only after that did we see a picture of Bobby Frankel and Jerry Bailey, the trainer and jockey of You, in the winner's circle. That was the first indication of the outcome of the Test, and it came several seconds before viewers were actually told that You had won the photo.

Look, I understand the importance of commercials, especially from such important sponsors as Visa and Long John Silver's. Their support enables races like the Test to get national television exposure. But couldn't ESPN have waited for the result of the photo before going to break? Couldn't a decision have been made on the fly to stay with the telecast and get the most important part of the story - who won - and bump something else later on, like another replay or an interview with a loser, to get those commercials in? As it turned out, ESPN wouldn't have had to wait very long. The New York Racing Association turned the photo around very quickly, and mere seconds after ESPN went to commercial, and several minutes before its viewers finally learned the outcome, the crowd at Saratoga was told that You had won the photo.

This wasn't as bad as what ABC did in the 1996 Kentucky Derby, when it went to a commercial with the photo between Grindstone and Cavonnier still in doubt. That was, after all, the Kentucky Derby. But, this was pretty bad. Can you imagine, in any other sport, having to wait nearly five minutes after the contest to find out who won? That never happens, and it never will.

However inadvertent it may have been, ESPN treated Thoroughbred racing like it was a bush league sport. What kind of contempt did ESPN show to its viewers? The vast majority of those viewers are bettors, the people who make racing go. If you were betting from home in New York on Saturday, the only way you could see the Test was on ESPN, because NYRA blacks out its home signal for races that are televised live nationally.

In theory, the more racing that is televised nationally, the better it is for the game. But if national racing telecasts lack common sense production decisions - like telling who won a race as soon as possible - then all the television exposure in the world isn't going to benefit sponsors, the fans, or the game itself. It will only do damage.

Frankel wins both photo finishes

The turnstiles at Saratoga on Sunday may have clicked 50,441 times, but there's a potential promotion that could attract even more "spinners" than would show up for a Jerry Bailey bobblehead doll. How about a Bobby Frankel rabbit's foot? If that promotion were presented at Saratoga, the spinners, not to mention a few horseplayers, would be lined up all the way to Schenectady.

Not only was the photo finish camera kind to Frankel with You in the Test, it was also his best friend in the Diana Handicap. A jump before the wire and a jump after the line, the Frankel-trained Tates Creek was a bob behind Voodoo Dancer. But Tates Creek got the bob on the wire.

Frankel's day Saturday wasn't quite as blessed as the day last year when he was put up on disqualification in the Grade 1 U.N. Handicap and Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup within the same hour, but it was lucky nonetheless. He is a great trainer and that, combined with good fortune is an unstoppable combination.

There were exciting finishes in the big races at Del Mar on Saturday, too, as less than a length separated Disturbingthepeace and Freespool at the end of the Big Crosby, and there was only a neck between Affluent and Golden Apples at the finish of the John C. Mabee/Ramona Handicap. Golden Apples was especially impressive in the Ramona, as she was seriously up against it being well off a very slow pace and in traffic on occasion. Still, Golden Apples nearly got up. Man, can she finish.