06/15/2006 11:00PM

Nice moments, but they didn't add up


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The 2006 Triple Crown is already ancient history, a week after the Belmont Stakes. Its impact, though, will linger through the rest of the season, with Jazil and Bernardini shaping the debate, and news of Barbaro's ongoing health dominating the Department of What Might Have Been.

Lost in the four-legged shuffle was the radical transition from the Triple Crown's familiar, single-network presentation to this year's rift in the television universe. NBC provided the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness while ABC took over for the Belmont Stakes, a result of the New York Racing Association cutting a separate deal.

It should be recalled that the Triple Crown has been divided among various networks in the past, including a period during which ABC had exclusive rights to the Derby. Fond memories are triggered, including Jim McKay's insightful observations and elegant essays, blunt, forceful commentary from Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, and the sight of Howard Cossell attempting to control a microphone, an umbrella, and a hairpiece during a blustery 1982 telecast.

The modern ABC team on hand for its maiden voyage at the Belmont Stakes included an arsenal of technological wonders, with cameras seemingly deployed in every corner of the vast Belmont acreage. There were nearly as many hosts, reporters, and analysts on camera (10) as there were horses in the Belmont field (12).

They had the unenviable task of presenting a Triple Crown race without the possibility of crowning a Triple Crown winner. Neither could they fall back upon the comforting continuity of at least a Derby or a Preakness winner in the field. There was, in fact, a pervasive feeling to the two-hour telecast that the Belmont Stakes was actually the third most important story of the day, falling in quietly behind updates on the condition of Derby hero Barbaro, and the wrestling match between fledgling analyst Jerry Bailey and cucumber-cool Randy Moss for the best chunks of voice time.

It is assumed that there was a conversation at some point during the week as to the general outline of the show, its framing and organization. Why, then, was there no formal setting of the stage - by either the roaming Brent Musburger (who solved the windy day with a damn fine hat) or apparent host Terry Gannon (who was heard before he was even seen)? Where were the replays and analysis of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, at least in relation to the horses who showed up for the Belmont? And what purpose did it serve to advertise a two-hour Belmont Stakes show when most of the first hour was devoted to features on Barbaro?

In the end, the ABC telecast was very much like a jigsaw puzzle, with colorful pieces spread all over the card table just waiting to be properly joined. It never happened. But at least there were good moments.

Kenny Mayne had two of them, with barely a minute of air time in the two hours, nailing the winners of both the Manhattan ("I'm only gonna say it once - Cacique") and the Belmont ("I'll say it once, Terry - Jazil"). This is great, but Mayne can bring a lot more to the game than handicapping.

Without his regular ESPN partner Mayne, Randy Moss was a straight man without a setup. But whoever appointed Moss to the rank of Chief Debunker of Foolish Notions deserves a pat on the back.

One by one, inserting as required, Moss dashed the idea that a) horse racing fans were heartless exploiters of noble beasts, b) that there was some sort of frustrating Triple Crown hex borne by 38-year-old trainer Todd Pletcher, c) that the Triple Crown needed drastic revamping to survive, and d) that the Dubai sheikhs could not win a Triple Crown race, which they did twice this year, only not by horses trained in Dubai.

Bailey (who was never formally introduced to viewers) was sharp and almost always on the money, although his packaged feature on the perils of the starting gate was rendered mostly moot by the potentially disastrous flip of Miraculous Miss as the Acorn Stakes field awaited its start. It would have been enlightening to have watched exactly how the brave assistant starters got her dislodged from under the gate - there was a camera in place - but instead viewers were stuck with three heads talking about what could have been shown. (Remember, boys and girls - it's called teleVISION.)

At one point, when the Belmont Stakes finally emerged as the primary tale, the camera displayed the forbidding gates of the Belmont security barns, as Musburger described them as the place where the Belmont horses were being "protected." From what, exactly.

The presentation of the Belmont itself was a relief from the helter-skelter cutting of many major races. In all, there were only seven cuts (including a head-on down the backstretch that could have been lost and a disorienting pan around the first turn from under, then over the outside rail). But those are small complaints in an otherwise crystal-clear look at the race, and whoever decided to put an isolated camera on Jazil earned his pay, and then some.

It is being said that the same ABC team will be in place this fall when the network's cable cousin, ESPN, does its first Breeders' Cup. There is plenty of time to fix the disjointed wrinkles revealed by the Belmont, and by then, hopefully, Barbaro will be old, healthy news. Still, if possible - and I'm only gonna say it once - let's have more Kenny.