09/05/2006 12:00AM

ESPN runs with a great idea


TUCSON, Ariz. - Somewhere, high above, Bill King is smiling broadly.

Better make that laughing, at the announcement of ESPN's "new" concept of a Thoroughbred race on ESPN2 at halftime of a pro football game on ESPN.

King, one of America's greatest sports promoters in the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, not only introduced that idea, but also executed it, on CBS television, 28 years ago, without channel switching.

Since he was ahead of the parade in everything he did, I safely assume he knows about what's happening now through celestial e-mail, or whatever he uses to keep up to date.

He told all who would listen in 1978 that televising horse racing as a halftime attraction during a football game was the way to get it on TV, and was the only sport that could tell a complete story in that time frame. And he did it.

A Southern boy full of big ideas, he lived in a sumptuous apartment high above Louisville, Ky., from where he promoted giant boat shows and motorcycle races across the country. He dabbled in promoting boxing, and was on the scene when a young kid named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., ready to "whup someone" who had stolen his bike, met a cop who steered him into a gym ring in Louisville. Bill King saw his promise long before the kid became a Sunni Muslim, and turned into the world's best-known sports celebrity under the name of Muhammad Ali.

To give you an idea of how respected Bill King was, the late promotional genius Sonny Werblin thought Bill was the best, and consulted with him often. They became close friends. Other close friends included Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese of the old Brooklyn Dodgers and Paul Hornung, the Golden Boy of Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers. Both were King's golfing buddies, and would regale guests at King's parties and social events with never-ending tales of their sports.

In 1976 King built a beautiful little harness racetrack, which he called Louisville Downs. He had no illusions about it becoming a colossus like its Thoroughbred neighbor nearby, but he was, as usual, thinking ahead.

When King decided to put racing from Louisville Downs on regional television, it was Sonny Werblin who told him "Go!" That was the beginning of the revolution called simulcasting that changed American horse racing forever.

King ultimately sold Louisville Downs to Churchill Downs, which found it a perfect setting for its Sports Spectrum for offtrack betting.

But back to why Bill is smiling down on us today.

Louisville Downs was a compact little plant, handling $233,000 a night. One day Bill called and said he had an assignment. He was going to offer a purse of $200,000 for a race for 2-year-old pacers, to be called, appropriately, the Kentucky Pacing Derby.

King had a plan for his race.

He had good friends at CBS television, and he told one of them about his halftime idea. CBS liked it, better than marching bands or fireworks, and the Kentucky Pacing Derby was on CBS, coast-to-coast.

The plan was for Brent Musburger, then with CBS, to set the scene.

I would call the race, and Brent and I would do a wrap-up, all in 10 minutes.

Along the way CBS was embarrassed by a tennis tournament in Las Vegas billed as winner-take-all, that turned out not to be winner-take-all. Bill's friend left CBS. His successor cut the halftime idea to eight minutes.

The NFL game, as I recall, although unimportant, was the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams. Halftime came. Well, almost came. The last two minutes of play took 15 or so, with multiple penalties and time outs. I do recall clearly that the nation's top 2-year-old pacers were on the track for 21 minutes, and then had the most perfect start imaginable from behind the mobile gate. So much for the expertise of trainers knowing what horses, young or old, will or will not tolerate.

As the football game dragged on, the director first told us, "We'll have six minutes." Then five. Then four. As it turned out, we had just enough time for Musburger to introduce me, two minutes for the call of the mile, and Brent to sign off.

I'm sure ESPN will have your idea under control now, Bill. Twenty-eight years late, and almost but not quite as good as you executed it.

Smile on, good friend. You're still way ahead of the parade, after all this time.