10/30/2006 1:00AM

Insider still a fan at heart


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Tom Hammond will be feeling like a displaced person Saturday afternoon as he stares down at the freshly chalked grass of Notre Dame Stadium. His head will be plugged into doing the NBC play-by-play of the game between the heavily favored Fighting Irish and the Tar Heels of North Carolina, but his heart will be at Churchill Downs, where the telecast of the Breeders' Cup World Championships will transpire.

"It leaves a big gap," said Hammond, who escaped from the pigeonhole of horse racing to become a multitasking sportscaster for NBC, the former home of the Breeders' Cup. "It was because of the Breeders' Cup that I got my chance to do other things for NBC, so I owe them a lot."

Hammond was either host or co-host of the Cup since 1987, with the exception of 2002, when a heart attack kept him out of the role.

"At the end of the show last year, I said how proud we were to have been there for the birth and the adolescence of the Breeders' Cup," Hammond said. "But, like 22-year-olds everywhere, it came time to leave home."

In contrast to Hammond's melancholy afternoon, the 2006 Breeders' Cup will be a coming-out party of sorts for Randy Moss, a veteran print journalist who made the leap to television in 1999 with a last-minute job for ESPN on the Preakness undercard. On Saturday, Moss will play a major role in ESPN's maiden Breeders' Cup voyage, along with host Chris Fowler and celebrity analyst Jerry Bailey.

"After seven hours, I just hope the audience hasn't overdosed on me," Moss said this week, before heading for Louisville.

Not much chance of that. The best thing about Moss is that he's a know-it-all who doesn't show it. Instead, he lets his knowledge leak out in easy, conversational tidbits, punctuated by an insider's thirst for even more insight. In Moss, racing fans have a guy on their side, a combination horseplayer and super-fan, the ultimate TV analyst.

"A sports editor once asked me in a job interview if I saw myself as a writer who just happened to like horse racing, or if I was a horse racing guy who liked to write," Moss said. "That was easy to answer - I'm a horse racing guy. I got the job anyway."

In some ways, Moss has been preparing for Saturday all his life. He was already handicapping the races at an early age, in his native Little Rock, Ark., where a racing fan had to think beyond the Oaklawn Park meeting each spring to satisfy a penchant for the ponies.

Moss was writing for the Arkansas Democrat when the Breeders' Cup was inaugurated at Hollywood Park on Nov. 10, 1984. Sadly, there was nothing in the travel budget to send him to Los Angeles for the big day, so he covered it from afar.

Moss made it to the second Breeders' Cup in 1985, staged at Aqueduct, and came away from the experience toting a real, live, mind-boggling New York story.

"We were in Manhattan, a bunch of us in the car, and a guy in combat camouflage comes walking across the street, face blackened and everything," Moss began. "One of the guys in the car points at him, pretending to aim, and this guy wheels and draws down on us with a real gun. Before I could hit the floor, he raises the gun, throws his head back, and lets out an insane kind of laugh."

In Moss, viewers seem to get that perfect blend of reporter and handicapper. He is deeply embedded in the Beyer system of assigning each horse a number for every race, giving him a perspective that will satisfy the wonks in the crowd. And yet Moss is firmly committed to the storytelling side of his job. Few television reporters spend more time on the backstretch before a big event than Moss.

The ESPN producers have tapped into the experience Moss brings to their table by consulting him on editorial decisions. Moss noted that some of the network's top feature writers, producers, and editors have been crafting vignettes with a variety of Breeders' Cup angles.

"In fact, that's going to be the difficulty of a show like this with 'only' seven hours," Moss said of Saturday's telecast. "Each race is essentially the centerpiece of a 40-minute show. Yet there are so many compelling stories within each race, we'll be facing some tough calls on which stories to present."

Still, a show like the Breeders' Cup always comes back to the live sport, and what is being said by the talking heads. It is also a sophisticated day of racing, with considerably less pomp and popular appeal than the Triple Crown events, drawing fewer casual observers to the tube. Moss insists this is not the time to be talking down to an audience, explaining furlongs and exactas.

"We'd like to pick winners, sure," Moss noted. "But I hope the success of the show doesn't depend on it. If our analysis of the races brings the audience a better understanding of what's going on, that's great. I just hope we help them have a good time."