01/24/2009 12:00AM

Rice tries to add exclamation point


ARCADIA, Calif. - Just to keep things in perspective, the Eclipse Awards Dinner on Monday night in Miami figured to be only the second most exciting event hosted by veteran broadcaster Kenny Rice over the weekend.

On Saturday night, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, the ferocious world of mixed martial arts was staging a "Day of Reckoning" super-match between reigning champion Fedor Emelianenko and former Ultimate Fighting heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski, sponsored by Affliction Clothing and the HD-Network. In the promotional posters, Arlovski is the one with the beard and the vampire teeth. Rice would be the one ringside with the microphone.

What a nice, clean-cut family man like Kenny Rice is doing mixed up with the heavily tattooed and testosteroned world of ultimate fighting remains one of those sweet mysteries of life. He is, though, the consummate pro, with a broadcasting resume that includes everything from, well, horse racing to ultimate fighting, which means Rice will give the Affliction match everything he's got, and then fly to Florida, put on a tux, and serve as a gracious, well-grounded ringmaster for Thoroughbred racing's biggest night.

In hosting his second Eclipse Awards, Rice is the latest in an ecletic family tree of dinner emcees. John Forsythe was the Bob Hope of horse racing, lending his dignified air to more shows than anyone, and Kenny Mayne had a brief run, injecting the night with his sardonic wit. There have been others, including a hilarious evening provided by Tim Conway in 1987, and a solid effort by Gary Stevens in 2004 when he was at the height of his "Seabiscuit" fame. Both of those guys were best when they went off script.

Rice succeeded Jerry O'Connell, the earnest TV heartthrob and genuine racing fan who had much better luck dating and marrying up. (If his wife, Rebecca Romijn, had been a regular at the dinner, he might still have the gig.)

As for Rice, his racing cred is without question. He has been part of ESPN and NBC racing telecasts for most of the past decade, and his Kentucky roots are deep. He even won his very own Eclipse Award, back in 1996, for local television while with WTVQ in Lexington. They say it's better to give than receive, but receiving is nice, too.

"John Forsythe to me was like the classic gentleman," Rice said from his Anaheim hotel Friday, pausing in his preparation for Affliction. "Still, I can't remember three things he might have said that night I got the award. I was busy wondering what I was going to say, because I didn't want to say anything stupid."

(As an aside, Forsythe is still very much with us, at 90, retired to his ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.)

Unless a host is professionally funny, like Conway or Mayne, it's best to play it straight. But straight does not need to mean boring. Rice, whose references reflect his abiding interests in movies and music, does not need coaching when it comes to an appreciation for the meaning of the awards.

"A good emcee just kind of lays back and lets the best moments happen," Rice said. "But I will probably listen to the acceptance speeches more than anyone there, just in case there's something to play off of. Most of the time there's nothing more that needs to be said. But sometimes you can add an exclamation point, or use something to segue into the next presenters. You go with the gut and the vibe."

The 2008 racing season was criticized roundly as being relentlessly bland. Even the best moments were qualified. Genuine hopes for a Triple Crown went down the tubes in Big Brown's Belmont. Reigning Horse of the Year Curlin raced only five times in his native land. Zenyatta, for all her brilliance, spent all her time on synthetic tracks in California, save one early season dash to Arkansas.

And yet, when the lights go down in the Fontainebleau Hotel ballroom Monday night, and the highlights reels unspool - both for the live audience and on TVG - true fans will be able to enjoy an unfiltered celebration of the best the sport had to offer. Big Brown is as good a 3-year-old champion as we've seen in the last decade. Zenyatta's coronation as the undefeated queen of her division should bring down the house, she is that popular. And Curlin truly deserves his final moment in the spotlight. The evening will commence with a dedication to Joe Hirsch, the Daily Racing Form executive columnist and Eclipse Award of Merit winner who died Jan. 9.

"Joe, to me, epitomized horse racing," Rice said. "I read him as a kid, then when I got to meet him he was incredibly nice and made me feel comfortable with a little story, maybe about someone I knew. He made you feel special, even though you knew he was going to make the next 10 guys feel good as well. Some guys, you'd now they were B.S.-ing you. Joe was encouraging you.

"In many ways, this has a chance to have as much emotional content as any Eclipse Awards program," Rice added. "Certainly because of Joe, and things I'm sure people will want to say about him through the night. And there's the possibility that Eight Belles could win. Moments like that, you can't really prepare for them."

But with a host like Rice, they are easy to enjoy.