11/20/2001 12:00AM

Racing on TV needs minority input


NEW YORK - As the Thoroughbred racing and wagering industry struggles to connect with a new and growing fan base on television, it has filled the airwaves with images of young corporate-type men and attractive women handicapping the races. Today's racing shows are essentially barren of a minority-group presence, even in such diverse locations as New York and California.

At Aqueduct Racetrack in Jamaica, N.Y., attendance reflects New York City's ethnic makeup. Approximately half the patrons are African-American, Hispanic, or Asian. However, minority-group patrons have long been puzzled by a lack of anyone who looks them on-camera.

"Maybe they think none of us knows enough about racing to do something like that. But we can talk about the sport and handicap, too," said James Carter, a 48-year-old African-American who has been coming to the track for 12 years.

"I see the point," said NYRA Chief Executive Officer Barry K. Schwartz, when asked about the composition of the association's in-house broadcasting crew. "I'm surprised it hasn't come up in our meetings."

Currently, NYRA fields seven full-time employees who appear on its in-house telecasts. None represent minority groups.

And while NYRA has no imminent plan to recruit a minority voice, Schwartz conceded, "It would absolutely be good for racing."

New York Post handicapper John DaSilva is the lone minority-group member who is a regular in New York's press box. "Of course there's a void," said DaSilva, who is Hispanic and who scrutinizes many of the in-house shows across the country.

Many people who are in a position to hire for the in-house shows, including Bill Finley, who runs the New York City OTB show, said they have never been approached by a minority-group applicant. But it is easy to see how such potential applicants, who have few working role models, would consider the door to be closed.

Howard Hong, who is of Korean descent, has been the main broadcaster on the pre-race show at Turf Paradise in Phoenix for 11 years. "The trend now is more towards what you look like than anything else," Hong said, referring to hiring practices, "and it has produced some bad results."

He said he was shocked by the lack of knowledge and broadcasting ability by some of his counterparts on other shows, and refers to them as "the talking heads."

Hong broke into the business when he offered to do the show for free at tiny Rillito Park. When his general manager there took the job at Turf Paradise, Hong was asked to go along. "Qualified people who want a break should get one," Hong said. "I just hope other people aren't too narrow-minded."

When Television Games Network started up, it took an unusual approach by pairing well-versed racing personalities on-camera with newcomers to the sport. That opened the door for racing novice Ken Rudolph, an African-American journalist from California.

"When I came to TVG, I only knew about Bob Baffert and Charismatic," Rudolph said. Rudolph's expertise has increased to the point where TVG gave him the anchor spot on its telecast of The Jockey Club Gold Cup earlier this year.

Rudolph said he has been approached by many minority-group racing fans. "We're glad you're on the show," is their most common response, he said.

Many industry insiders contend that today's racing executives are anything but biased, and point to the many promotions geared specifically at bringing minority-group patrons to the track. But so far, at least, most of these executives lack the skills or motivation to find minority-group applicants to fill on-air positions. Perhaps this is a direct result of their own ranks being so terribly bare of minority-group members.

Paul Volponi is the racing editor for Gambling Times. His first novel, "Rikers," will be published by Black Heron Press in April 2002.