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Former jockeys give racing broadcasts a bold voice
During his brief career as a racing analyst on television, former jockey Johnny Sellers would drink two beers before each broadcast.
“Two Heinekens,” said Dave Johnson, who worked with Sellers. “Never more than two. But he had to have those two.”
Charlsie Cantey, who did racing telecasts on and off horseback for 30 years after riding steeplechasers and show jumpers, used beta blockers, similar to what golfers take to cure their putting yips, before many of her shows.
“The only show that didn’t make me nervous was the first one I ever did, back in 1975,” Cantey said. “Ignorance was bliss. I didn’t get stage fright until after that first show, and then it never left me.”
Cantey had been galloping horses for the power-packed Frank Whiteley stable when she was drafted by the New York Racing Association for its Eclipse Award-winning weekly shows on station WOR-TV. With no experience, she went to her sister, Barbara Howar, the Washington socialite who had made numerous TV appearances, for advice.
“Just look at the camera and smile a lot,” Howar told her sister.
Where Sellers and Cantey, and that jockey-turned-telecaster pioneer, the irrepressible Sammy Renick, have tread, now come Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, and most recently, Richard Migliore, who have all traded their goggles for microphones with scant if any sign of fear or intimidation. These former jockeys have proved they can offer a strong, insightful, articulate voice despite entering the business with little to no television experience or background in broadcast journalism. Even more important, their hands-on experience as riders has allowed them to provide insights that more experienced TV personalities cannot.
By most accounts, Migliore is off to a good start with HRTV and telecasts generated by NYRA’s TV department. The rider of horses who won 4,450 races, Migliore rebounded from numerous injuries, including at least two that could have been fatal, before a spill at Aqueduct in January 2010 led to surgery that left him with two plates and eight screws in his neck. The day he announced his retirement, the week of the 2010 Belmont Stakes, one of the first people to call was Amy Zimmerman, the award-winning executive producer for HRTV and associate producer for racing for NBC and ESPN.
Twenty-one years before, Zimmerman had watched “A Cup of Courage: The Jockey’s Story” on the Discovery channel. It was a documentary about the dangers of race-riding and featured, among others, Angel Cordero, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, and Migliore.
“Richie was very good on that show, talking about the day he broke his neck in a spill at Belmont Park,” Zimmerman said. “It was something that just stuck with me over the years. He was so articulate. From that moment on, I thought of him as someone who could help a telecast and be a great ambassador for racing at the same time.”
Migliore, still in the throes of rehabilitation, was wearing a neck brace when Zimmerman called. They had gotten closer when Migliore spent about two years riding on the Southern California circuit.
“I wasn’t physically able to be doing much of anything,” he said. “So Amy and I just left it open, something to talk about some more when I got back on my feet.”
By the fall, Migliore was in the HRTV fold, part of the network’s team that went to Churchill Downs for Breeders’ Cup coverage. Migliore joined NYRA for broadcasting and promotional duties in February.
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve had these options,” said Migliore, 47. “Many jockeys don’t get these opportunities when they have to quit.”
During the Triple Crown, Richard Migliore discusses the pitalls of riding at Belmont Park.
That Migliore has quickly taken stands on controversial races shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who know him. For all of his 30-year career, which began with an Eclipse Award as an apprentice, he felt that if he had the might of right on his side, that was no time to blend into the woodwork. The story of the day he destroyed the telephone to the stewards in the jockeys’ room, during a heated conversation about a disqualification, is funny now, but it was a rubber crutch then. “It was bad enough that they gave me days,” he said soon afterward, “but did they have to send me a bill for the phone, too?”
In 2003, when the Miami Herald suggested that Jose Santos had used a battery when he and Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby, it was Migliore who organized the Belmont jockeys’ room in protesting the story.
“We feel that the charges that have come up are unfounded and unfair,” Migliore said in a statement he drafted on behalf of the other jockeys. “This has tarnished a great ride by a great rider in a great race.”
This year’s Belmont Stakes, crying for commentary, had to go no further than Migliore. Animal Kingdom, winner of the Derby, finished sixth in New York after his jockey, John Velazquez, was almost knocked out of the saddle and lost an iron at the start. Barry Irwin, one of the owners of Animal Kingdom, felt that the culprit was Rajiv Maragh, who rode Isn’t He Perfect, one of two horses outside Animal Kingdom in the gate.
The horse between Animal Kingdom and Isn’t He Perfect was Mucho Macho Man, whom Maragh had ridden in the Derby and the Preakness before he was replaced by Ramon Dominguez in the Belmont.
On Steve Byk’s satellite radio show two days after the race, Migliore said: “My opinion is that [Maragh] came over on purpose. He had it in his head. He was upset they took him off the horse, Mucho Macho Man, and he was looking for some comeuppance.”
On balance, though, Migliore would prefer reporting to pot-stirring. One of the hats he wears, after all, has NYRA’s letters on the front.
“This is a job that makes me look like a bug boy going into one of the best jocks’ rooms in the world, and I know it’s going to take time,” he said. “There’s a danger of the analyst becoming the story, and I’m going to do my best to prevent that from happening. It’s a fine line between just describing an incident without getting too opinionated. Very rarely, when a jockey does something, will it be a mindless mistake. They go inside with a horse, or outside, but there’s usually a good reason for what they do. The Belmont situation was something that could have been avoided. When I give an opinion, the important thing is to do it without deliberately cutting anyone down.”
This was the trap that Eddie Arcaro, working for ABC, fell into during the 3-year-old campaign of Seattle Slew, the eventual Triple Crown champion in 1977. Arcaro, who rode five Derby winners, repeatedly disparaged Seattle Slew and his jockey, Jean Cruguet.
“It wasn’t especially what Eddie said, it was the way he said it,” said a veteran broadcasting executive, who didn’t want his name used because he still works in the industry. “All the way through, he was unable to keep it from sounding personal.”
Unlike Migliore, who had some TV experience putting together several NYRA features called “Richie’s Racing Vault” several years before he retired from riding, Arcaro came aboard with ABC largely because of a friendship with Howard Cosell, the ubiquitous broadcaster who was one of the network’s biggest meal tickets. Cosell was also instrumental in the hiring of Bill Hartack, another five-time Derby winner who preceded Arcaro. Try as he would, Cosell was unable to goad the perceptive Hartack into saying much that was inflammatory.
“Hartack’s strong suit was his rapport with horsemen,” said a member of the production team that worked on the broadcasts with Hartack. “They respected him enough that they would talk to him and share things. But on the air, he didn’t want to say anything that might get him smacked around. He knew enough about the game’s imperfections that he didn’t want to say anything that might make it worse.”
Doing the 1980 Preakness telecast, Arcaro quickly considered whether the winner, Codex, and his jockey, Angel Cordero, had fouled the Kentucky Derby winner, Genuine Risk. Said Arcaro: “The foul couldn’t have been much more flagrant.”
Many fans agreed, but the stewards didn’t, and neither did the Maryland Racing Commission, which denied an appeal by the owners of Genuine Risk.
Before Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown races, Arcaro criticized Cruguet’s ride in the Flamingo, a Derby prep race at Hialeah, even though the colt won by four lengths.
“He knows better than to let a horse move at the five-eighths pole,” Arcaro said. “And holding a horse in the stretch is the one thing he shouldn’t be doing.”
Sammy Renick, who in 1947 became the first jockey to do racing on TV and, according to the New York Times, was also the first athlete to do TV commentary, was known to disagree with Arcaro. After Seattle Slew’s Flamingo, Renick defended Cruguet.
“I thought he rode the horse perfectly,” Renick said.
Renick was known to hum to the horses he rode, but hand him a microphone and his style was hardly pianissimo. His career was winding down in the 1970s, when Dave Johnson’s was just taking off. They worked a Travers together, a telecast that required a rehearsal the morning of the race. They picked a horse at random as the make-believe winner. After the Travers, the rehearsal horse won again, at least according to Renick.
“That was a hard one to wiggle out of,” Johnson said.
More recently, Johnson worked with riders Herb McCauley and Otto Thorwarth, who have won more than 4,500 races between them. Thorwarth played the part of Ron Turcotte to good notices in the movie “Secretariat.”
“Otto was on the seven-hour show we did on the Breeders’ Cup on Sirius [satellite radio], and he was terrific,” Johnson said. “He could have a good future in broadcasting if he wanted to go in that direction. Herb was with us on the New York City OTB show for a while. He’s very likeable, a natural behind the microphone. He would weave stories of his riding experiences into what we were watching on any given day. He even rode John Henry for a while, very early in his career, and he told some interesting stories about that. I think it’s a shame Herb never got a chance to do racing on a national network.”
If he had, McCauley would have been facing a bar that’s been set fairly high with Bailey and Stevens.
“Well, Bailey and Stevens, what can you say about them?” Johnson said. “They are the Brian Williams and Bob Schieffer of horse racing commentary.”
At 42, the injuries had piled up by 2005, and Stevens, riding the last of his 4,888 winners, almost immediately went into TV broadcasting.
“Six months before I quit riding, I was in a lot of pain, and I knew I didn’t have much time left on the track,” said Stevens, who now works for HRTV. “I had financial obligations. My wife did the math, and we figured I needed to do something with a fairly good amount of return.”
Before Stevens worked for TVG, before he signed with NBC starting with the 2006 Kentucky Derby, he had already through happenstance worked a Breeders’ Cup and a Triple Crown race. In 1987, he had several promising mounts for the Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park, but he broke his ankle in a gate accident about a week before, and NBC drafted him for the telecast. In 1996, the year before he was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame, Stevens hurt his shoulder just when he was supposed to ride Editor’s Note in the Belmont Stakes. Rene Douglas took over and won the race. Stevens, doing the telecast for ABC with Jim McKay and Al Michaels, might have had mixed emotions about the result, but it was a broadcast that helped pave the way for what he is doing today.
“All the stars were aligned,” Stevens said. “Charlsie Cantey had retired [in 2005], and NBC, which was doing the Derby and the Preakness, had an opening on its team.”
Bailey, who won 5,893 races and made the Hall of Fame in 1995, was also somewhat battle-tested for broadcasting before his retirement from riding in 2006. In 1984, Bailey won the Flamingo at Hialeah with Time for a Change, upsetting the heavy Derby favorite, Devil’s Bag, and his future wife, Suzee, interviewed him in the winner’s circle. They were married in 1985.
“Suzee had a TV background, and that didn’t hurt when it came time for me to try it,” Bailey said.
Later in 1984, Bailey, sidelined with a broken shoulder, joined Dave Johnson for the telecast of the Gate Dancer Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.
“I was a raw beginner,” Bailey said. “Dave was very nice to me. He made me feel very comfortable.”
In 1997, on the day Silver Charm added the Preakness to his Kentucky Derby win, Bailey rode some early races on the card at Pimlico. By Preakness time, he had joined the ABC crew as an analyst for the race.
Bailey is in the final year of his second three-year contract with ESPN, a partner of ABC’s.
“I’m not sure what direction the future will take,” Bailey said. “But I’ve been very happy with ESPN.”
His agent, Sandy Montag with the internationally known IMG, negotiated both contracts.
“There was no auditioning,” Montag said. “Mark Shapiro of ESPN (who has since left the network) is one of my best friends. Jerry had already been before a camera. He is personable, very smart, is passionate about the sport. The timing was perfect for ESPN to hire him.”
Bailey and Stevens are not shy about criticizing jockeys, some of whom they rode against.
“I’m paid to do a job, and I call them the way I see them,” Stevens said. “I was my own biggest critic when I rode, and if there’s something going on that’s not obvious to the viewer, I’m obligated to zero in on it. I think the riders are aware that this is part of my job. There’s not a [jockeys’] room in the country that I’m not comfortable walking into.”
Bailey questioned why Kent Desormeaux pulled up the Triple Crown aspirant Big Brown so early in the 2008 Belmont.
“When you see a [riding] mistake, you have to talk about it,” Bailey said. “You’d be selling out your audience if you did anything less.”
In the recent telecast of the Haskell at Monmouth Park, Bailey was all over the place, commenting about jockeys, trainers, and equipment changes. Coil, the Bob Baffert-trained winner who was ridden by Martin Garcia, ran without blinkers for the first time in five starts.
“Ruler On Ice is ridden by Jose Valdivia,” Bailey said during the post parade, referring to the third-place finisher. “Valdivia has won a Breeders’ Cup race , but he’s been unable to build on that win. Still, he’s capable of a big win on any given day.”
Later, Bailey said: “They took the blinkers off of Coil, and boy, did it pay dividends. Baffert is very good at making adjustments. The blinkers off, and the fact that [Garcia] didn’t panic, those were the keys. Not in a million years did Martin think he would be that far back early. But the ground he saved on the rail early in the race was a big help.”
Amy Zimmerman, the veteran racing producer, stresses how former jockeys can bring far more to telecasts than just commentary and analysis.
“At this year’s Preakness, there was Sway Away, a horse who was swaybacked,” Zimmerman said. “Gary was sitting on a couch in the trailer with the production staff, talking about the difficulties a jockey has when he rides a sway. He developed that conversation into a tremendous educational piece. He said the biggest problem was that it was like sitting in a bucket, and you can’t see what’s going on ahead of you. It was compelling television.”
Stevens started with TVG before moving on to HRTV. The first jockey TVG used was the Hall of Famer Julie Krone. Her stint was short-lived.
“It was our fault,” said Tony Allevato, executive vice president of TVG. “We had her in the wrong role. I regret that very much. She was sitting behind a desk for four hours a day, five days a week. That was too much to expect from a jockey just getting her feet wet in TV. Jockeys need to be used in a more limited way to be effective. You don’t want a former rider sitting in a studio in January, on a Wednesday afternoon, talking about Beyer numbers. That’s not what they would do best.”
Allevato was working for ABC in 1993, when Steve Cauthen, the Hall of Fame rider of Affirmed, came on board to do the entire Triple Crown. Dave Johnson, who worked the same Triple Crown, said that Cauthen wasn’t enamored with the assignment, but Allevato had another explanation.
“Steve was there because he was an ex-rider,” Allevato said, “and giving that perspective should have been the way he was used. Instead, they used him in an Al Michaels-type role, sort of a co-host. It didn’t work out.”
Cauthen didn’t return the next year.
Right now, TVG doesn’t have an ex-jockey working on-camera, but Allevato said the network is looking at a couple of high-profile riders and plans to add another jockey eventually.
In the days of first Bill Hartack, later Eddie Arcaro, having more than one jockey working nationally would have amounted to overkill. Not anymore. Nowadays, any number can play.
Christine's top five
One man's version of the all-time best broadcasters who came from the jockey ranks:
1. Brough Scott
Scott, a former steeplechase rider, has done most of his work across the Atlantic, but he was an analyst for NBC during the first five years of the Breeders’ Cup. I miss him. “Scott’s columns on racing and other sports are not just columns, they’re essays,” says one of his admirers. “And incredibly, on the air, he doesn’t just comment, it’s as though he’s reading one of his essays.” Well, you can’t please everybody. “You used to be the world’s worst jockey,” someone once wrote Scott. “Now you are the world’s worst commentator. Please shut up.”
2. Jerry Bailey
Bailey or Stevens, Stevens or Bailey, the choice for the runner-up boiled down to the closest of photos. Give me another week, and I’ll have them reversed. “My job is to paint a picture before the race, process the result, and react,” Bailey says. He does all three superbly.
3. Gary Stevens
The drive that carried Stevens into the Racing Hall of Fame hasn’t deserted him in broadcasting. “I know when I’ve had a decent broadcast, and I know when I’ve done poorly,” he said. “Just like with my rides, I’m never completely satisfied with any of the shows I’ve done.”
4. Chris McCarron
McCarron’s broadcasting vita is relatively brief. After his last ride, he went on to other pursuits, such as the front office at Santa Anita and his riding academy in Kentucky. Had he done more work on the tube, his place on this list might have been even higher.
5. Charlsie Cantey
Canty was so good at what she did, she probably could have done a dog show on television and pulled it off. Probably? She’s done dog shows and not just any dog show, but the hallowed Westminster Kennel Club’s annual championship in New York. Drop the dogs, Charlsie. Racing still needs you.