01/17/2013 3:39PM

Hovdey: Eclipse Awards host Jeannine Edwards makes best of a tough situation


The Eclipse Awards dinner on Saturday night at Gulfstream Park lands smack in the middle of an excruciating news week from which there seems to be no immediate relief.

Will there be Rick Dutrow jokes at the ceremony? Lasix one-liners? Knee-slappers at the horse meat in British hamburgers? Aaarrrgh! Give us a break.

Enter Jeannine Edwards, gracious host of the ceremonies who is being asked for a second consecutive year to ringmaster what can be anything from a diverting couple of hours in horse racing’s candy store to a long slog into an endless night of predictable winners and their oh-so-grateful connections.

Bear in mind, the Eclipse Awards dinner was not always a television show. Heaven forbid. Now it is, though, courtesy this year of HRTV, and with it comes the responsibility not to bore too much. As the only woman to front the awards ceremony since its debut in New York, in 1972, Edwards at least gets to wear a color other than black if she wants. The rest of them, not so lucky.

Movie star John Forsythe, the longest serving host, looked great in a tuxedo because he actually wore one around the house, so it was no big deal.

Comedian Tim Conway, a man of many costumes, gave his turn as Eclipse Awards host a Friars Club vibe.

Actor/racing fan Jerry O’Connell, well paid to look good in anything, played host to three Eclipse dinners and scored a ton of autographs.

Jockey/actor Gary Stevens enjoyed his hosting duties mostly because he didn’t have to reduce to get into his tux. (How do the pants shrink in a year?)

Broadcaster Kenny Rice, another three-time host, also calls cage fighting play-by-play in formal wear so the Eclipse dinner was a snap.

And then there was Kenny Mayne, ESPN’s answer to Mort Sahl, whose patter as host played like the beat comic who has had a good night if he makes the guys in the band laugh. I forget . . . what did he wear?

“Here’s the thing,” said Edwards, who was packing to head for Florida. “I’m not a natural comedian or a quick wit. I wish I was somebody who could just rattle off the one-liners, but it doesn’t come easily. So it takes some work and some planning for me to try to be funny.”

That’s so honest it’s almost hilarious. And don’t feel bad, Jeannine. Recall the last words of the great British actor Edmund Kean: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Edwards may not be Ellen DeGeneres – the only woman to have fronted both the Oscars and the Emmys all by her lonesome – but she is a seasoned pro at the microphone and knows how to hit her mark. She made her bones working on the backstretch and then as a racing broadcaster before ESPN threw her into the deep end of the sports pool.

“I’ve been on the road almost every week since last August, doing either football or basketball,” Edwards noted. “I’m comfortable doing those events, but there’s nothing like the comfort level you have when you are amongst a crowd where 80 percent of the people you know, many of them for 20 or 30 years.”

Still, she calls hosting the Eclipse Awards “daunting,” even though she is basically performing for family.

“It’s easier just looking into a camera,” she said. “You don’t see faces looking back at you.”

Lord, I know how she feels. That’s why I shave only once a week.

“My goal is to hopefully keep things moving and make it at least mildly entertaining for people,” Edwards said, which is an admirable goal sometimes made difficult by honorees who have failed to learn the lesson of the Gettysburg Address. That one came in at under 300 words.

(At last year’s awards Edwards could have done a full wardrobe change and spa treatment during the heartfelt speeches of Dr. Kendall Hansen, for the eponymous 2-year-old colt Hansen, and Martin Schwartz, for turf female champ Stacelita.)

“I know,” Edwards said, dreading the spectre of acceptance filibuster. “But there’s not much the host can do about it. And you hate to cut someone short, because I do understand that this is their moment to shine, a chance they’ve been waiting for to be recognized for their achievement.”

Despite an attempt at “and the winner is” drama, most of the awards this year hold little suspense. The envelopes might as well be transparent. It will be interesting to see if either Fort Larned or Little Mike can prevent Wise Dan from a three-title sweep, or if Dale Romans can muscle Todd Pletcher aside for honors among trainers. Otherwise it is safe to say that at some point in the evening the crowd will hear from Ramon Dominguez, the sport’s dominant athlete, and Mort Fink, Wise Dan’s proud owner and breeder, as well as the deserving folks behind Royal Delta, Groupie Doll, I’ll Have Another, Shanghai Bobby, Beholder, Trinniberg, and Zagora.

“In a way I think it’s great the sport has stars that have risen above the crop, standouts like Shanghai Bobby,” Edwards said. “The sport does not necessarily have stars on a regular basis, so these are something for fans to get excited about. On a night like the Eclipse Awards you’d like to have some drama, so about the best you can hope for is a blend of a few standouts and a few categories up in the air.”

And then, whatever the host can bring.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I’m going to do to top the ‘Tebow,’ ” said Edwards, who dramatically took a knee in her ball gown at the top of last year’s program, invoking the gods of showbiz to see her through. “I feel like I need to come up with something to top the Tebow so I don’t let everybody down. I do have a few ideas.”