11/02/2004 12:00AM

Wanted by racing: One eloquent voice


TUCSON, Ariz. - Horse racing today has lost not only its innocence, but, tragically, its eloquence as well.

Listening to the present gabble and thinking back to days when racing had magical voices, one is reminded of the great talkers of racing's past.

Jocularity and inanity have taken over for articulate commentary, and missing entirely is an element that once made racing worth hearing as well as watching: eloquence of expression.

Two of its greatest practitioners have disappeared: Woody Broun by death, and Jack Whitaker by whatever strange methods the television industry takes in ridding itself of its exceptional talent. If age is the rationale, it is a false one, for it does not dim the beauty of speech and delivery. Woody Broun was a delight to hear to the day he died, and we all should thank his son that "Woody's World" has been preserved on tape and still can be heard on ESPN.

It was not hard to understand why Woody Broun's essays - and they were essays in the purest sense - were lyrical. His father was one of America's great columnists, and Woody grew up with words. They fascinated him, and he fancied and fashioned them, into sentences and passages of beauty about racing and the horse. The title of one of his books described him to perfection: "Tumultuous Merriment."

Jack Whitaker happily is still around, and it is too bad that the Johnny-come-latelys who call the shots don't bring him back to add class and conversational beauty to their telecasts.

When Broun and Whitaker were around, along with a younger Jim McKay, their essays on the grace and greatness of racing equaled, and often transcended, the television signal itself. A viewer could close his eyes and be uplifted not by the pounding of hooves or the flashing of silks, but by the exquisite description and sheer beauty of narration of those superb talents. Wonderful words still can move the spirit and the soul, and they are absent almost entirely from what passes as racing commentary these days.

There is a tendency now to cater to the lowest common denominator, particularly in television. For someone raised on the drama of Edward R. Murrow from wartime London, or the depth of perception of a Bill Moyers, or the authoritative pronouncements of Walter Cronkite, the dean of anchormen, the harsh clanging and clacking of today's racing personalities leaves a vast void.

Those fortunate to have been around radio in the days when Win Elliot raised racing to heights on the airwaves with his "CBS Sports Special" on Friday and Saturday afternoons, and his "Schaefer Circle of Sports" from New York in the summer and Hialeah in the winter, have to mourn what passes for racing commentary today.

Surely, racing can find a personality with charisma, with a way with words that can lift a show from the commonplace to the extraordinary, as Tom Durkin can do at times with a race call.

Two who can are Frank Deford, the most eloquent voice in sports today, and Bill Nack, both of Sports Illustrated fame. Both are writers who can give verbal eloquence to their intelligent insights. Deford has written novels and screenplays, is a member of the sportswriters' Hall of Fame, and illuminates sports shows today with his brilliance. Nack may be the best racing writer in America. I first met him a lifetime ago on a cold winter morning at a riding stable in Chicago. He was a kid, working as a groom, rubbing a horse I owned. Our ways parted, and Bill went on to write and talk like a poet. I had him speak at a racing meeting a few years ago, and he was so lyrical that Dave Johnson - one of the very best of racing's voices today, who was in the audience - still remembers Nack's lines. Television could use Nack, and could use far more of Dave Johnson, who knows all breeds and how to talk about them. It also can use a rising talent like Jay Privman.

D.G. Van Clief, the new boss of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, says public relations will replace advertising as the main thrust of that organization. A great start would be to find a spokesperson for racing whose personality and magic with words and knowledge of the game could captivate and capture a new audience for the sport. It would be a search worth undertaking, and it could start with Frank Deford and Bill Nack.