01/13/2011 1:40PM

Q&A: Kenny Rice


Eclipse Award-winning broadcaster and a member of NBC Sports’s horse-racing team, he will be the emcee of the 40th annual Eclipse Awards dinner Monday night at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.

Birthdate: July 28, 1956, in McDowell, Ky.

Family: “I’m in a great relationship with a wonderful lady.”

Got into racing because . . . “I don’t think there’s another sport out there that has as many layers to a story. The horse, jockey, trainer, owner, breeder, and groom. That’s what really fascinated me about covering racing. There’s many stories out of every racing stable. I like to see how some jockeys develop, or a breeder who had that one moment and may never get it again, knowing how hard he worked to get it.”

How did you make the transition from being a fan of racing to being involved as a broadcaster? “I was the broadcaster first, then became a fan of racing. As far as being a fan, it was down on my list behind football, basketball, and baseball. I started working at a television station in Lexington, Ky., in 1980, and such a key component of Lexington is horse racing. There’s so many facets − outside of people working at racetrack − that you realize how important it is. I started going to the races and learning the sport. I was fortunate to meet up with Wayne Lukas and Bud Delp and Nick Zito real early. When I started, the Keeneland meet was going on. I knew I had to cover it. I wanted to do more than show the feature race of the day. I became aware that there were more parts to it than just the horse out on the track. Wayne was great about making analogies to which horses of his were his point guards and power forwards, his running backs and wide receivers, and I was able to relate. Nick was very helpful, too, in my formative years.”

How many years have you been the emcee at the Eclipse Awards? “This is my fourth year. Two in California. This is the second one in Florida.”

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What has been your favorite moment from those years? “Last year. I’m not sure in my lifetime I’ll see two females up for Horse of the Year. The whole thing leading up to it, with them never meeting on the track. I don’t know who has won the awards, so not knowing who was going to win, seeing the build-up, being backstage with everybody excited, and looking over at Jess Jackson and the Mosses − I don’t think too many emcees have too many moments like that.”

This year might be just as compelling: “It’s a great storyline: Does Zenyatta get it for career achievement, or does it go to Blame, who beat her?”

What is the key to being a good host? “Stay out of the way of the people really being honored. Keep it moving. Hopefully inject something that’s insightful or gets a chuckle, but remember that it’s about the people who win the awards. People aren’t flying great distances and paying a lot of money to have me tell them how I got into racing. It’s the most eclectic room you could work. There’s probably people who saw George Jessel and Henny Youngman in their prime, and then you’ve got jocks who know Ne-Yo and Usher. It’s fascinating to look at the elite, the new rich, and the inherited rich. It’s a strange and exciting room to work. I know some things I say are only going to get caught by half the people, but I say them, anyway.”

I’ve noticed you have a good sense of humor and that you move things along quickly. As an audience member, thank you: “Moving along quickly is the key thing. It is a live TV show. People watching want to see who won the award. They don’t want to see my joke book.”

How many years have you worked on NBC’s horse-racing shows, and, before that, for ESPN? “Since 1999 on NBC. My very first ESPN story was in 1982. I covered the Keeneland horse sales for them. That’s when the yearling sales went nuts, in the 1980s. They used my package, and that led to being a correspondent on the show ‘Down the Stretch’ from 1982 to 1986. I worked on some harness racing and did some reporting at the Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown and some pieces for SportsCenter. I also hosted the show ‘Today at the Races.’ I did my last show for ESPN in 2006.”

Besides doing racing for NBC, you also work on the Olympics. What is it like covering that event? “I’ve done two Olympics. The first one, in 2004 at Athens, I reported on boxing. I did play-by-play of equestrian in 2008 from Beijing, but I did that from 30 Rock in New York. I got up on Hong Kong time. I was in Athens for 33 days. You would talk to athletes from 15 countries in one day. When Andre Ward won the only gold medal for the United States in boxing and they played the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ I got a lump in my throat.”

In recent years you have been hosting Mixed Martial Arts shows on HDNet. How did that come about? “I started in 2003. Darrell Ewalt, who coordinated high definition of horse racing for NBC, moved on to be executive producer of sports for HDNet, which is owned by Mark Cuban. Darrell knew I did other sports. I did football and basketball, then boxing. Mark decided five years ago that mixed martial arts was the hottest-growing sport among young people, just out of college up to age 30, who can buy a high-def TV. They wanted me to host the show, with Bas Rutten, the former heavyweight champ of the world. Here’s a guy from Kentucky teamed up with a guy from Holland, we meet each week in Los Angeles, and we do a show on MMA that’s the most-watched show on HDNet. We’re entering our fourth year.”

What is a typical week like for you in terms of travel and broadcasting? “I come to L.A. about 48 times a year. I did the United Football League this year. I’ll do some college basketball coming up in March. I fly about 300,000 miles a year. That’s a lot of Delta miles. I’m in hotel rooms about four months out of the year, if you put it all together.”

Of all the things you have covered, what moment stands out? “In 2008, while doing the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif., I sat down for a 15-minute interview with Coach John Wooden. He was in a wheelchair, his health was failing, but he was still remarkable, razor-sharp. He had great insight about the game, how it has changed, about the student-athletes of today. It was like being in the classroom with a noted professor.”

Best horse seen? “In person, it would be Cigar. I saw Secretariat and Seattle Slew on videotape.”

Hobbies? “I love movies. I’ve written some screenplays. They have not been published, bought, or produced. I don’t play golf. That’s my hobby. I’ve enjoyed movies since I was a kid. Growing up in a small town, it was a great way to get exposed to the world.”

Favorite movie of all time? “ ‘Casablanca’ holds up. It’s got romance, unrequited love, politics. It’s got as many quoted lines as any movie ever. I’ve got three copies on DVD and VHS. I also love ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.’ If I’m on the road, flipping channels, and see that on, I’ll always watch it. That and ‘Airplane.’ I was very sad when Leslie Nielsen died. I interviewed him one time. He was hilarious. He had a whoopee cushion and was making fart noises the whole time.”

Childhood heroes? “I loved the St. Louis Cardinals, with Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood. My dad must have scoured the countryside to find a Ken Boyer glove when I was in Little League. I still have it.”

Childhood dreams? “To host the Eclipse Awards! You think that will bring me back? I was lucky that when I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted to be a professional sportscaster, and it has worked out. I realized my limited athletic ability, but I loved sports. I loved ‘Wide World of Sports’ with Jim McKay. You get to travel and you get to cover sports. How good could life be?”

People most admired? “My family. My mom, Edith; dad, Reginald; and sister, Carol. They always encouraged me. My dad and I are great friends. We take old West trips every year. We’ve been to Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood.”

Future ambitions? “I’ve never had personal ambitions. I’m glad things have worked out. God willing, I hope I’ve got a few more years of this, then I can retire. It’s not the most ambitious goal. I’m fortunate because most people don’t get to do this. But my big goal is to shower and shave and show up on time on the 17th of this month.”