As bad as NBC's pre-race show was for the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago -- and it was very, very bad -- the Peacock put on an excellent, substantive program before the Preakness Stakes Saturday.
Gone was the hour or so -- it felt like nine -- of fawning celebrity interviews by "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush. In a shocking turnaround, the subject of Saturday's horse-racing broadcast from Baltimore was horse racing.
NBC could easily have brought in a reporter from the news side to add a little gravitas to a three-minute report on the situation, then gone right back to Bush and his "What makes you so fabulous?" grilling of this season's TV ministars and retired athletes. But the network rolled up its sleeves and devoted a half-hour to the the Eight Belles aftermath.
Bob Costas narrated the package report, then hosted a round-table discussion on issues arising from the filly's death. He was joined by Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, who had examined Eight Belles on the track; Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, now an NBC commentator; Larry Jones, Eight Belles' trainer; and New York Times columnist William Rhoden.
The group talked about breeding, medication rules, the need for a national commission and the habitual anthropomorphization of racehorses by people around the sport -- "She loved to run!" Rhoden took on the role of gadfly, arguing that the sport of thoroughbred racing must "examine itself" because it's "dangerously close" to abusing animals for profit.
Rhoden had a heated exchange with Stevens when the former jockey took exception to Rhoden bringing up bullfighting in the discussion. "How can you compare thoroughbred racing to death sports?" a flinty Stevens asked.
"Tell me why it's not?" Rhoden said.
"Breeding to kill. Are we breeding to kill? No."
"This industry, Gary, is dangerously close. It's in that cathedral."
Stevens gave Rhoden a hard look. "You are wrong, sir," he said.
The deck was stacked against Rhoden, three industry insiders against one critic, and Rhoden, not a thoroughbred reporter, wasn't the best choice to represent the whistle-blowers. He sounded to this non-thoroughbred-writer's ears like he didn't have the depth of knowledge necessary to hold up his end of the debate, and he got trounced.
In the packaged report, Costas labeled the views of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesters "extreme," but perhaps NBC could have found a vet or trainer who'd have made better points for the reform side.
But all in all it was a thousand times better than the celebrity-fluff pre-race show from the Derby. It shouldn't take the death of a racehorse for a TV network to understand that the story of a sporting event is the sporting event itself and sometimes the issues surrounding it, not which TV stars show up to spend some money and get their picture taken.
Let's hope the lesson sticks. To borrow a term, it's a long shot.