09/01/2005 11:00PM

Experiment worth repeating


DEL MAR, Calif. - From time to time, a horse racing telecast will toss in a new wrinkle, a gimmick, a gee-whiz technological doodad designed to give viewers something to remember beyond the customary sight of well-coiffed talking heads.

There have been helicopter shots, blimp shots, isolated cameras and tracking cameras on high wires. They have used cameras and/or microphones on starting gates, stewards, jockey helmets, outriders, owners, trainers, jockeys, and assorted spouses and children of owners, trainers, and jockeys.

Each time something new was tried, in the spirit of capturing the visceral qualities of the game, it has felt like an experiment, or maybe a one-shot deal intended to impress the program brass rather than entertain and inform the audience. Week after week, no matter who has the ball, horse racing shows end up looking like a variation on the same safe themes: commentary, interviews, canned features, and arm's length images of the action.

Until last Sunday.

Last Sunday, the TVG racing network unveiled what it called its "All Access" format during the portion of the programming that originated from Del Mar and also telecast by the Fox Sports Network West2 cable channels.

Remote microphones were attached to jockey Alex Solis, trainer Jeff Mullins, and starter Gary "Towser" Brinson, while analysts Frank Lyons and Simon Bray were cut loose from their usual desk jobs to roam freely around the winner's circle and the saddling paddock. The co-hosts left at the paddock-side desk - Ken Rudulph and Todd Schrupp - filled their traditional roles.

Bray, stationed by the track, was an Energizer bunny, zipping to and fro to get snippets of post-race dialogue from anyone interesting who came into his view. Lyons, prowling the paddock, got up close and very personal with horses and their people, taking cues from his own experience rather than a director shouting stage direction in his earpiece.

"I loved it," said Lyons, a former trainer and all-around horseman. "I was in the trenches. I thought it was the best show TVG has ever done. It was certainly my favorite."

Lyons had been lobbying the show's producer, Tony Allevato, for a way to enliven the static "who do you like" formula that TVG had fallen into.

"You could get up from the TV, come back in 15 minutes and know you were going to see the same thing," Lyons said. "And you hadn't missed a beat while you were gone."

So true. It is hardly a secret that TVG and its country cousin, Magna's HRTV, have both fallen deep into dreary hole of static repetition. HRTV, a bare-bones outfit, provides the facts ma'am, just the facts, while TVG has attempted to disguise its lack of live production values with hyperactive hosts who channel rock stars, swap inside jokes, and toss out selections like barroom darts.

The "All Access" format turned all that on its head. There was no longer a need for chatty filler because, suddenly, the excitement of the live racing experience was translated to the television screen. The story line shifted from the routine "Who does Todd like?" to "What might happen next?" especially in the dynamic paddock, where Lyons could put his best Irish gab to use in concert with his expert horsemanship.

A prime example came in a maiden race, in which a royally bred colt named Margie's Wildcat was still looking for his first win at age 4. The horse was being bet, so Lyons went for a closer look. In subtle terms of conformation, he did not really like what he saw.

"If we're sitting at the desk and looking at the paddock, and he has worked 58 and change, he's 2-1, and he's a beautifully bodied horse, what else can you say?" Lyons said after the show. "But if I'm over there, and he's as crooked as can be, I can tell people why he's a 4-year-old maiden, and that he might not be the first crooked sonofagun to win, but I wouldn't bet on him.

"Now that's just useful information," Lyons went on, "and a lot more interesting than having three [bleeping] gobdaws just sitting there talking back and forth."

Makes perfect sense, except the part about the gobdaws. Lyons was asked for a definition.

"Well, it's not good," he tastefully replied.

The FSNW2 "All Access" telecast logged a 0.3 Nielsen rating in Los Angeles, which made it the third most watched cable sports show aired that day, and compared favorably with the 0.2 generated by the broadcast of the Travers program the previous afternoon on ESPN. Executive producer Allevato noted that TVG account betting handle showed a increase as well.

Unfortunately, "All Access" won't be back this Sunday, or for a while, according to Allevato.

"There is a cost factor involved," Allevato said. "The production is more expensive, mostly because of the equipment and personnel required to make it happen. But in terms of viewer reaction, it was great. A couple of e-mailers told us that it was the first time they never hit the mute button.

"The idea was to try it once at Del Mar and see how it worked out," Allevato added. "Right now, I would say we're definitely going to do it again. It's just a matter of when."

For the good of the TVG's horseplaying audience, "when" can't come soon enough.