01/30/2014 1:35PM

Jay Hovdey: In racing, as in football, the two best rarely meet for the title


Celebrity statistician Nate Silver has characterized the Seahawks-Broncos matchup in the Super Bowl on Sunday as one of only eight times in the XLVIII-year history of the game that the two best teams from the regular season have made it to the big day.

“The numbers say it’s going to be a tie,” Silver told Stephen Colbert this week.

In Thoroughbred racing, it is every bit as unlikely for the best horses in the land to reach the end of the long season at the same time, in the same place, with everything on the line. When it happens, though, in one of those singular moments, it can look like the 1957 Trenton Handicap at Garden State Park, where Bold Ruler beat Gallant Man and Round Table, or the 1964 Washington D.C. International at Laurel Race Course, where old Kelso beat young rival Gun Bow in record time.

“A furlong or so of Kelso is enough to make any horse feel a little sorry for himself,” explained racing writer Charles Hatton, which was of little comfort to Gun Bow fans.

The 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup had a real ‘Hawks-Broncos vibe, with the three best horses in the land entering the gate at Belmont Park in nasty New York weather. Exceller ended up beating Seattle Slew by a nose at the end of 1 1/2 miles, but as can happen to some Super Bowl squads, the third player that day turned in a dud when the sloppy track and a slipped saddle ruined Affirmed’s afternoon.

Likewise, the 55,259 fans who showed up at Aqueduct for the 1967 Woodward Stakes were fully justified in expecting a race for the ages, with Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser throwing down at 1 1/4 miles.

As it turned out, Frank Whiteley, who trained Damascus, used the crack miler Hedevar to pester the uncompromising Dr. Fager on the lead, a perfectly legal tactic but ultimately unsatisfying as theater. This did the trick, and Damascus looped past Dr. Fager to win by 10 lengths, while a subpar Buckpasser edged the tired but game Dr. Fager for second.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Enberg, who did the play-by-play for eight Super Bowls, also hosted the NBC telecast of the Breeders’ Cup for its first seven runnings, which included the 1989 Classic showdown between the two best horses in the land, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Enberg will be the first guy to tell you that there is never a guarantee that the championship game – or race – will come out the way it did that day, with Sunday Silence winning a thriller.

“There’s racing luck in every sport,” Enberg said. “It can be a fiber wide in tennis, or the ball’s off the fingertips of a receiver wide-open in the end zone, and the whole course of the season is changed.”

Enberg observed that the enjoyment of a championship event is already deeply ingrained before it even begins, no matter who is on the field or on the track.

“In many ways, it’s all about the buildup,” Enberg said. “The week leading up to the Super Bowl has become almost inseparable from the game itself. The atmosphere in terms of being either behind the microphone or in the stands is all electric, a magical time. It should give you shivvers if you’re at the Derby when they play ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’

“Just take Del Mar as an example,” he added, “and the way the crowd builds to a crescendo for the first race on opening day when the bell rings and the season’s underway.”

Living just down the road in Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar is Enberg’s home track. Unfortunately, his current day job calling the action on local Fox Sports for the San Diego Padres gets in the way of his summer racing fun. Enberg is already looking forward to the short Del Mar meet added in the fall this year, with hopes that a Breeders’ Cup might someday follow.

“It’s the big events and the great confrontations that explains why we love what we do,” Enberg said. “Like Red Smith said when he was asked why he didn’t get into another line of journalism with supposedly more depth than sports: ‘Why would I want to do that? In sports, truth strangles fiction.’ ”

Enberg, 79, was honored last weekend in Los Angeles at the 64th annual Golden Mike Awards with the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California’s Broadcast Legend Award. There was just enough room in the trophy case at home next to his 14 Emmy Awards and Hall of Fame baubles from the NFL and NBA.

“That was fun because it took me back to 1965, when Gene Autry hired me to go to work for Channel 5 in Los Angeles,” Enberg said. “Then I got involved with UCLA basketball for nine seasons, when they won eight NCAA titles. That tends to make a guy a pretty good announcer.”

Any secrets to his success?

“You don’t want to laugh too hard at your own jokes, or outcheer the audience,” Enberg said. “The idea is to build to the moment and let them cheer the outcome. I’m looking forward to it happening on Sunday.”