06/05/2001 12:00AM

Something old, something new


TUCSON, Ariz. - Eloquence is a lost art these days, particularly in the broadcasting and telecasting of horse racing.

The most eloquent voice of all - Heywood Hale Broun - is not heard at all, and his closest successor, Jack Whitaker, is heard far too seldom. Today's producers opt instead for two guys batting .198 in handicapping and joking between themselves, or for commentators who can ride while holding a microphone in one hand asking a jockey when he knew he had it won, or if he had a good trip.

Broun, son of one of the nation's best known journalists of the last century, learned language as a youngster from his father's magic storehouse of words. He mastered the art of putting them together the way the Egyptians did with huge stones and pyramids, fashioning them to last for the ages.

Whitaker can face a microphone without a Teleprompter and speak sentences that are symphonies. To appreciate how good his lyrical music is one only has to listen instead to those who have taken his place.

I learned of his artistry early on, on a little station called WPPA in Pottsville, in the hard coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania, where author John O'Hara, Whitaker, and I were the only three guys ever run out of town.

With Broun not working and Whitaker used sparingly, it was exhilarating news to hear that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association had finally come to its senses and done something right with television.

I criticized the early efforts at buffoonery of some of the Television Games Network's talent (using the word loosely), and happily the juvenile antics have been muted.

I shuddered at the bad taste of the NTRA commercials, particularly the most asinine one of all, in which a mother drags her little daughter away from her father's casket because "it's time for the double."

I rejoiced, therefore, to hear that NTRA has signed with CBS for four programs ranging from an hour to 1 1/2 hours, each program showing from two to four major events, with two of the best racing commentators in the business scheduled to do the air work. One can be assured, assuming a little direction from someone who knows racing (a hopeful but dangerous assumption) that these shows will be entertaining, articulate, and educating, with Dave Johnson and Gary Seibel as leadoff hitters.

I worked on WOR-TV in New York for years with Johnson, and with Gary Seibel on various network shows, and I know their skills firsthand.

Johnson is a racing artist, perhaps known mainly for his race calls but really at his superb best ad-libbing, making incisive comments, asking intelligent questions and then listening to the answers and thus able to carry on meaningful racing dialogue. He is the best racing interviewer on television today, and using him to emcee the new shows is an inspiration.

Gary Seibel, a real racing talent sadly misused by TVG as just one more talking head, should have been a major sportscasting star years ago. That he is not is a mystery; to this point his talents have been limited to network bowling and his miscast role with TVG. His looks, voice, and personality are television gold, and working with Johnson he will be part of a duo that racing regulars will understand and appreciate and newcomers will learn quickly to fancy.

Getting back to Woody Broun, he went to Louisville for the Derby this year and wound up in a convalescent hospital in Lexington with a broken leg suffered in a fall. I dropped him a note telling how much his skills are missed and wishing him well, and to my astonishment back came a little book, long loved and deeply missed since I sold my racing library - collected over a lifetime - years ago on moving west.

The book is 101 years old, a rare gem called "Stable Conversation." It was written by a racing secretary named Murray Howe, and it contains hilarious conversations between owners and grooms, then better known as swipes, mostly discussing excuses for why horses got beat. It was so successful that two years later, in 1903, Howe published a tiny jewel of a pamphlet called "The Excuse Book" that Bob Baffert and his confederates should seek and study today. It would refresh their repetitive routines.

Someone suggested in these pages recently that today's vets should receive Golden Syringe awards for what they have injected into racing and its horses. A better idea: Golden Voice awards for Heywood Hale Broun and Jack Whitaker while they are still here to smell the roses. Have Tiffany do justice to the incomparable treasures they were for racing.

Just make sure the trophies are glorious enough to reflect the lyrical excitement these two created, the way they brought the thrills and chills of racing to vibrant life for veterans and newcomers alike. Their skills are a lost art.