It was a day made for conspiracy theories, wasn’t it?
Horses disappearing in the fog. How did Justify really hold that lead in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes? How did Bravazo and Tenfold really get through to pass Good Magic and hit the board?
If anyone had protested to the stewards, it is easy to imagine how quickly that would have been laughed out of the room.
“Got any proof? What? The cameras were obscured by the fog? Sorry. Result stands.”
But lost in the pea soup were countless stories that will be retold and exaggerated the more the story of this race is retold.
The first telling of such stories is usually the most accurate, but Larry Collmus and Dave Rodman may beg to differ.
“As they make the turn for home,” Rodman said on Pimlico TV. “And now Justify and Mike Smith, trying to grab the lead.”
At the same time Collmus said on NBC, “As the field comes into the final furlong.” Then there was the slightest pause.
Both Collmus and Rodman were waiting – seemingly an eternity for that second or two – for Justify and his pursuers to come back into view on the TV monitors they were watching. Waiting for them to be seen by a finish-line camera that was useless to that point, superseded most of the race by other cameras in other locations around the track.
In hindsight, their calls were magnificent, both a credit to saying what they could see and not lying about what they could not. They also unwittingly joined a grand, 80-year tradition of notorious race calls that originated at Old Hilltop.
One of the greatest races in American history and arguably the most famous miscall originated at Pimlico with the same gravelly voiced man who practically wrote the book on early sportscasting.
Clem McCarthy was at the microphone for NBC Radio on Nov. 1, 1938, to call the Pimlico Special match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. As Laura Hillenbrand noted in her excellent book Seabiscuit, it was a duel so long anticipated that President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped what he was doing to listen to the race.
The biggest problem McCarthy had was the unexpectedly large crowd of 40,000 that packed Pimlico on that Tuesday afternoon. The horde choked McCarthy’s path to his normal perch high above the finish line, so he was forced to climb onto the track rail to elevate himself as much as he could. And that was not much.
As the two horses raced onto the backstretch no more than two lengths apart, McCarthy lost the view.
“Now the horse race is on, and I’m losing them there. They’re head and head. And now War Admiral has a head advantage. And Seabiscuit has got a head advantage.”
In truth McCarthy did not know where they were in relation to one another.
“They’re going into that far turn, head and head, and it is either one. Take your choice. And right there they’re coming into view now.”
McCarthy was filling. And guessing. But he was lucky that he was right.
“Watch for them now as they turn into the stretch, head and head. Both horses are under a drive. This is a real horse race. Just what we hoped we would get.”
Using a lot of words to say nothing. Finally, Seabiscuit turned into the stretch – and into McCarthy’s view.
“Seabiscuit leads by a length. Now Seabiscuit by a length-and-a-half. Woolf has put away his whip. Seabiscuit by three. Seabiscuit by three. Seabiscuit is the winner by four lengths.”
He had that right. But since he did not have the aide of television, McCarthy obviously had no idea where the horses actually were for most of the 9½-furlong race.
That, however, would not be his greatest obstacle to an accurate call.
In the spring of 1947, McCarthy was at his normal position in the announcer’s box atop the Pimlico grandstand for the 72nd running of the Preakness. He had no idea that the view would not be as clear as he needed.
As the field moved through the far turn, McCarthy told his NBC Radio audience, “It is still On Trust heading for home, but he’s got his hands full, and the crowd blocks me for a moment.”
As the late filmmaker Bud Greenspan researched and reported in the Los Angeles Times 30 years ago, “hundreds of fans, in order to get a better view of the race,” had climbed to various perches on top of and alongside the starting gate, which had been drawn to the infield near the rail on the far turn.”
Greenspan meticulously went over reels of film and discovered that while McCarthy’s view was blocked, Faultless split horses and passed On Trust and Jet Pilot. Because the riders on Faultless and Jet Pilot both wore red silks, McCarthy confused them right through to the end of the race.
“Jet Pilot by a length,” he said. “On Trust second by three. Phalanx is third, and in fourth place ...”
Then came a pause – followed by a confession.
“What am I talking about? Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve made a terrific mistake. I’ve mixed my horses, and I’ve given you the winner as Jet Pilot, and it is Faultless.”
Over the years before he died, McCarthy would joke about the miscall by saying, “You can’t lateral a horse,” poking fun at rivals like Bill Stern and Harry Wismer who had the reputation for covering mistaken calls on football games by having the wrong player “lateral” the ball to the right one.
The week before he called Saturday’s Preakness, Rodman did a podcast with me, and I brought up McCarthy’s miscall.
“It always been a challenge,” Rodman said. “It’s a great mental challenge. You get lots of nightmares that you’re going to call the wrong horse. There’s very little sleep Friday night.”
Rodman pointed out that a big stage built on the infield and some temporary tents blocked most of the backstretch view, also noting that cameras were added on the far side of the track to allow bettors to see what their investments were doing – and Rodman and Collmus to see what they were describing.
But fog? That was not in the plans.
In a strangely prescient way, Rodman said, “I’ve just got to deal with it and work around it. You just do a little bit of ad-libbing when you can’t see.”
Little did he know.
Ron Flatter’s racing column returns to its usual Friday schedule next week. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.