06/19/2006 11:00PM

Memo to ESPN's racing producers


Meetings at ESPN must be called, because the network's marathon inaugural coverage of the Breeders' Cup Championship program looms, and something has to be done.

ESPN covered the Belmont Stakes undercard on June 10, and its sister network ABC broadcast a two-hour Belmont Stakes program. The two networks share talent, including ace professional handicapper Randy Moss and veteran ESPN handicapper Hank Goldberg.

Yet the analyses of the races by ESPN lacked, and needs, such important information as:

* Graphic presentations of the Beyer Speed Figure pars, and the identity of the horses that can match the pars, or have run within two lengths of the pars, and thereby might be considered legitimate contenders on speed handicapping.

* Identification of the horses that fit the eligibility conditions, or class demands, of the graded stakes especially well, or not so well, buttressed by an intelligent discussion of the interplay as between speed and class.

* An objective data-based analysis of the probable early pace, notably at the first and second calls (pace figures would be superb), and how that early-pace analysis might affect the competition in the late stages.

* In turf routes, graphic presentations of the past late-speed fractions delivered by the authentic contenders from the pre-stretch call to the wire, juxtaposed to the class levels where the late speed has been demonstrated.

* At the five-minute marks, graphic presentations of the fair-value odds lines for the authentic contenders (using Moss's betting lines), juxtaposed with the actual betting lines on the tote.

* Identifying the overlays and underlays, explaining the crucial distinctions, and telling the audience where the betting edge does and does not exist.

* Making decisions, not selections, at least much of the time, when the outcome of the races figure to be difficult to predict, a mandatory direction to all on-air handicappers.

ESPN's coverage of the early Belmont Day card delivered scarcely any of the above. Rather, it delivered a running commentary on the six graded stakes that might be characterized as poorly framed, unfocused on the four fundamentals of handicapping, and in the end characterized by "selections" that were subjective and intuitive.

When Goldberg announces why his selection to win the Belmont Stakes is Bob and John, and four additional handicapping personalities follow in step, the presentation devolves to an rendition of the day-to-day racetrack blather everywhere.

"Who do you like in the next race?"

"I like this horse, for these very reasons."

But those very reasons focused inevitably on the incidental, as opposed to the fundamental, usually references to the ultimate importance of the trainers, jockeys, post positions, and recent workouts. Plus it seems everyone on the scene must comment repetitively as to how the track surface has been playing in the past couple of hours. The essential analysis gets lost, of course, or is missing in its entirety.

The audience, bettors or not, deserves better, much better, and ESPN has four months to get its act together for a better-informed broadcast on the Breeders' Cup card. The producers might be motivated by stricter allegiance to the initial purpose of the Breeders' Cup, which was a wider distribution of the sport's product, the gaming as well as the spectacle, to the general sports and sports-betting public.

As Breeders' Cup founder John Gaines observed a decade ago, the goal of reaching the general sports market had not been met, let alone approached. As evidence of the failure that surprised and disappointed him, Gaines referenced the television ratings, which have declined year after year since the highest-rated show, in 1984, the inaugural program.

NBC's coverage has been partly responsible, perhaps largely responsible, and the transition to ESPN will be judged on the network's ability to attract a wider audience, year after year, incrementally, a reversal of the annual ratings decline on NBC. The goal this year should be to exceed the recent minimalist ratings (around 1.0), which isn't unrealistic but will depend to a degree on the presentation of the program's gaming aspects.

Consider how the True North Handicap, the first of the six graded stakes on the Belmont card, might have been presented. It was a Grade 2 sprint, purse of $200,000-added, for 3-year-olds and up, and unlike most of the graded stakes run on the classics undercards, the three main contenders were obvious to most handicappers.

Both the handicapping on ESPN and on TVG, which also was broadcasting the Belmont card, focused on three contenders, Tiger, Spanish Chestnut, and Anew, with the handicappers on TVG far more focused on their individual preferences. TVG anchor Todd Schrupp preferred Tiger. Ex-jockey Gary Stevens strongly favored Spanish Chestnut, so much so he announced he was prepared to support the horse in the future book for the BC Sprint. The excellent analyst Matt Carothers preferred Anew, so much so the TVG handicapper had singled the horse on his pick-six ticket.

Suppose the ESPN audience had been informed the Beyer Speed Figure par for the True North Handicap was 106, and that on speed in sprints contenders should be expected to run within two lengths of par, or from 106 to 101 on the Beyer scale. The viewers might then examine a graphic of the horses' previous races, such as the one on this page.

Of the other horses in the field, none had run par or close to par, and none had won a Grade 2 stakes, a combination of factors that should eliminate them rather reliably as top contenders, regardless of their trainers, jockeys, post positions, and recent workouts. The analysts should have told us that.

More importantly, the ability of the 4-year-old Spanish Chestnut to win a Grade 2 stakes was debatable, notwithstanding Stevens's support of a horse he had ridden to a Grade 2 mile win as a 3-year-old. In that race, importantly, Spanish Chestnut had a speed figure three lengths below par.

Tiger looked best on speed, and Anew qualified in relation to par, but what about Anew's relative class? A top handicapper first would have pointed out his lifetime best Beyer of 108 in a starter handicap for horses that had started for a $25,000 claiming price is actually closer to a $50,000 claiming race open to all runners. Still, do claiming races compare at all to legitimate contenders in a Grade 2 stakes? Usually no, but horses in peak, improving form such as Anew have a much better chance in a Grade 2 race in which none of the other horses have won a Grade 2 at par or near par.

The True North Handicap presented a race ripe for discussion about the interplay between speed and class, and no network executive should imagine the audience does not care to tune in to these particulars. They do. In this context, network producers who imagine the viewers to be intimidated, or distracted, by the intricacies and complexities of handicapping might best recuse themselves. Racetrack executives have made the same mistakes for decades, and have paid a big price for it.

As to the early-pace analysis, the three contenders had won on the front and from slightly off the early pace. None were need-to-lead types. Anew might be challenged early by another front-runner, but two-horse duels do not normally defeat the horses that engage in them, and Anew did not need the lead regardless. Viewers need to understand that.

When the fair-value odds were presented, Tiger might have been judged a fair bet 5-2, Anew at 7-2, and Spanish Chestnut at 5-1. Late in the betting the actual odds showed Tiger at 6-5, Anew at 5-1, and Spanish Chestnut at 5-2. As the appropriate graphic would show that the conspicuous underlays were the overbet favorite Tiger and the second choice Spanish Chestnut. The overlay, and a generous overlay to be sure, was Anew at 5-1. Making decisions instead of selections, the bet belongs on Anew, and the broadcast handicappers as analysts should have told us so.

Anew grabbed the front easily out of the gate, and led wire to wire unmolested. Tiger never looked like a winner while second, and Spanish Chestnut appeared outclassed as a non-competitive third.

The handicappers as commentators on these broadcasts are not part of the problem, and are well equipped to be part of the solution. The talent may be strong, but the information is weak.

Since the only way to prosper at the races is to avoid the underlays with a vengeance and to support the overlays as intelligently as the player's know how and experience allow, ESPN has a duty of sorts to support the cause. To the extent the broadcast does exactly that, the ratings should crawl up. Eventually, so too might the stagnant customer base of Thoroughbred racing.

Tiger110WonGrade 3Paired figures last two
 111WonAlwN2XLifetime best Beyer
Spanish Chestnut92LostGrade 2Second off layoff; bounced
 100WonAlwN3XLifetime best off long layoff
Anew108Won$25K starterLifetime best Beyer
 99Won$50K claimerLifetime best Beyer
 96Won$25K NW2Lifetime best Beyer