Made for TV

Why does big-time horse racing do so well on TV?

The Kentucky Derby routinely outdraws the World Series (baseball), the Masters (golf), the NBA Finals and just about anything else that moves a ball around, and this, despite the fact that many of the sport's most loyal fans go unrated at tracks and simulcast wagering venues.

Television interest centers on the Triple Crown races. Think the various committees working for the Belmont Stakes are pulling for Orb this Saturday in Baltimore? An Orb victory at the Preakness would inspire memories of the glory days. You might even see a few men in fedoras and women in midcalf-length dresses at the final Triple Crown race in New York. There's nothing like an animal to help a nation forget its cares and woes. From Lassie up to the homesick Budweiser Clydesdale and the War Horse, animals have always made the best heroes. That's partly because they don't talk back and stand no chance of winding up in the drunk tank or on the rehab plantation.

Trying to win three horse races in five weeks against the world's best, at different tracks, in who knows what kind of weather, at different distances, is hard-core old school.

If Orb has the first two Triple Crown wins in the bank, Belmont Park will be the place to be. There will be no straight-to-video actors making picks there. It will be a starlit event. Without an Orb victory Saturday in Baltimore, the New York track will seem to age overnight. It will look like a "Cold Case" rerun, a flashback in black and white to happier times.

Here's the hard part: winning three taxing races in five weeks.

Trying to win three horse races in five weeks against the world's best, at different tracks, in who knows what kind of weather, at different distances, is hard-core old school. It's football with one bar across the front of the helmet. It's baseball with steel spikes and without relievers for all occasions. It's golf with drivers, not 3½-woods. It's tennis with wooden rackets. It's ice hockey without Darth Vader helmets.

After the Kentucky Derby, many of those who raced are pointed toward events in the fall at Saratoga. They're given most of the summer off. They're pampered, nurtured, eased into adulthood. Not the Derby winner. This one gets a few days off, not weeks or months. Then it's back on its toes, back to the track, back to business. Almost mercifully, lots of good horses drop out of the Triple Crown gantlet after the Derby. But there are always a few that choose to fiddle around at Churchill and spent no energy on the race and are eager for redemption at the Preakness; and there are always some new horses with a lot of nerve, horses held back for the Maryland race.

Here's why the top level of horse racing works so well on television. There's something for everybody: fashion, action, brevity, gambling, mystery, simplicity. Oftentimes it's the handicappers who complicate matters. According to the most recent numbers, more women than men watched the Kentucky Derby on TV. The camera shots and angles are great. The announcers and analysts don't pretend to know everything.

On to the weather: This has not been the best season for the forecasters. Tornado Week on the Weather Channel had to make do with some streaky lightning and some clouds shaped like the stuff we used to imagine as kids, bears and other animals. Tornado Week without tornadoes is like Shark Week without a nibble.

One forecasting service has Preakness day clear and beautiful; another has a 40 percent chance of showers on the books. Horse handicappers did better than the weather handicappers at the Derby.