05/25/2012 4:40PM

Hovdey: Whitaker eager to see another Triple Crown


Jack Whitaker does not want to sound greedy. After all, having turned 88 on the day before this year’s Preakness, there already had been 10 Triple Crown winners in his lifetime. But then, when I’ll Have Another came through the following afternoon to beat Bodemeister in their Pimlico thriller, Whitaker let his mind wander through the memories of Triple Crowns past and figured it was high time to do it again.

“I’ve seen a few, yes, but I’ve been to the brink so many times, too,” Whitaker said this week from his home in eastern Pennsylvania. “Kauai King, he ran into Amberoid. And Majestic Prince – that was a real heartbreaker.”

It does not actually say “Broadcasting Icon” on his business card, but it might as well. Whitaker spent so many years as the face and voice of the greatest televised American sporting events that those same events, minus his presence, have seemed somehow less significant. Few commentators have managed to weave intellect and emotion with such aplomb, while still reporting the correct score.

Whitaker complains that his power of recall has faded, but his facile summoning of Triple Crown tidbits triggered massive flashbacks. Suddenly there was Whitaker, urbane and erudite – before I even knew what “urbane” or “erudite” meant – commanding the screen of our console Zenith during those distant Saturdays in May and early June.

[I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Derby, Preakness winner runs for Triple Crown]

It was thanks to Whitaker that I learned the name of the winner of the 1966 Derby and Preakness was not pronounced “COW-eye” King. For all I knew, he was fluent in Hawaiian.

It was Whitaker who talked me down from the ledge after my teenage hero Damascus blew the Derby in 1968, and then, five weeks later, it was Whitaker who made me understand that Damascus may have been brilliant in winning the Belmont, but that true nobility rested with the runner-up, Cool Reception, who fractured a leg in the running.

And it was Whitaker, along with his cohorts Heywood Hale Broun and Chick Anderson, who lorded over the televised grandeur of Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown, elevating the moments immediately before the climactic Belmont Stakes with a dramatic anticipation that only could have been satisfied by the performance that ensued.

Whitaker, a native Pennsylvanian, began his career in local Philadelphia radio and TV, doing play-by-play for the Eagles and then branching out to broadcast New York Giants games as well. He went to work for CBS Sports in 1961.

“Baseball was my first love,” Whitaker said. “I had to learn about horse racing and golf, so they were acquired tastes. But I liked them both because of the tremendous people I met in those sports. In both, you lose more than you win, so it takes a little bit of chutzpah to practice either one.”

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

At the time, horse racing was in the midst of a Triple Crown drought, dating back to Citation’s sweep in 1948. With each passing year, as hopes rose and fell with the likes of Carry Back, Northern Dancer, and Majestic Prince, Whitaker had to deal with the question at the top of the Derby show each spring: “Is this the year?” The answer had become habitually “No.”

Which is why, when asked to name his greatest moment as a broadcaster, Whitaker consistenly cites the ’73 Belmont and Secretariat’s 31-length victory, thereby becoming the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century.

“There were so many great moments,” Whitaker said. “A couple of great Masters tournaments. The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when Watson chipped in to win. But just to have been part of that 1973 Belmont was worth a whole career.”

The career to which he referred included any number of Super Bowls, Olympics, Opens, and more. The contribution he made to those events in bringing them to a global audience was honored last month at the Sports Emmys with the Lifetime Achievement Award. And yes, at some point, horse racing was mentioned.

As far as Whitaker’s second best racing moment, he rifled the highlight reels for a few seconds before landing on the 1976 Marlboro Cup.

“It wasn’t like Secretariat, but it was pretty thrilling,” Whitaker said. “Forego was carrying 137 pounds. He was way back at the head of the stretch, maybe 10 lengths, and somehow Bill Shoemaker got him across first. I remember watching Shoe weighing in. He looked like he was carrying almost twice his own weight! It was one of those days I was glad I was there.”

Whitaker will be at Belmont Park in spirit on June 9 and rooting for I’ll Have Another when the colt makes his Triple Crown attempt. Still, he reserves the right to let his loyalties stray to the horse owned by his Pennsylvania neighbors, Jaime and Phyllis Wyeth.

“I don’t know that much about I’ll Have Another’s breeding or anything like that, but he looks like the real McCoy,” Whitaker said. “I’d love to see a Triple Crown, and I think it would do a lot to bolster the sport. But I’m still hankering to see Union Rags run a big one. He could be a spoiler, and we’ve seen a lot more of them than Triple Crown winners.”