OK, I’ll be the bad guy.
Pay no attention to that man behind the American Pharoah sign.
The New York Racing Association and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce put together a cute show on Saturday, assembling at least 50 earnest American Pharoah fans (I counted) on the paddock horsepath fence to serve as a backdrop for one of ESPN SportsCenter’s sets.
The cable entertainment and sports network was in town for a live three-hour edition of “SportsCenter” from 9 a.m. to noon as part of a five-week, six-event “SportsCenter on the Road Summer Series.”
I don’t know what you saw from the comfort of your TV room, because I didn’t watch “SportsCenter,” but it was a little fascinating and amusing to see the engineering and craftwork that went behind the American Pharoah “rally” portion of it.
I’m not talking about technical stuff like wiring and set design, but the professionally manufactured signs and the coaching up of the fans to optimize their contribution to the show once it got rolling. This was a made-for-TV Potemkin village straight out of “Blazing Saddles,” minus the tollbooth (assuming they didn’t charge these nice people admission to be a part of this).
I don’t blame anyone for wanting Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to come to Saratoga to race. I totally don’t. These people are psyched.
It would be one of the greatest sporting events to hit these parts in a long time. For a large segment of the local community, it would be the thrill of a lifetime. I’m a big fan of Thrills of a Lifetime.
And this whole exercise was harmless fun, at least as soon as somebody realized that the Pharoah Phans’ random woo-hooing could be unnerving to the horses who were walking back and forth between the paddock and the track for training.
At that point, NYRA chief experience officer Lynn LaRocca and Mark Bardack of Ed Lewi Associates, NYRA’s PR firm, laid down the law about when it was OK to woo-hoo and when it wasn’t.
They had TV-ready bighead signs showing the faces of American Pharoah’s connections, owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza. Striped Pharoah headgear was in evidence, and signs promoted the Twitter hashtag #pharoahtoga. The fans occasionally chanted “Pharoah-toga” and “We want Pharoah” as they cooled their heels waiting for the SportsCenter broadcast to begin.
It appeared to be a distant cousin of the on-site ESPN “College GameDay” shows, where ESPN heads to a campus that is hosting a big game and lets the crazy college kids go to town behind the set during the show.
I say “distant” because there wasn’t much spontaneity to this orchestrated Pharoah deal, a post-show press release’s assertion that this was a “grassroots” movement notwithstanding. LaRocca urged the fans with the bighead signs to hold them even higher when they did a practice run before SportsCenter started.
Hey, it’s a visual world. I get it. Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, Rep. Paul Tonko, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and Saratoga chamber president Todd Shimkus were there to help the cause.
But, like I said, it was sort of fascinating to see how much exertion went into making something appear to be natural for when the cameras were on later. You see hand-made signs and hat creations and T-shirts directed at racing stars all the time at the track, but none were in evidence here.
So pay no attention to that man behind the American Pharoah sign.
But not because this was a contrived event. If “SportsCenter” is in town, you would be foolish not to spend a few bucks and take advantage of that, if for no other reason than to boost your track and your city. You have to do that. Knock yourselves out.
But, ultimately, it will have no bearing on whether the horse races here. Zilch.
Decisions by trainers and owners on where to run are not based on which marching band toots the loudest.
Zayat can say what he wants, but Baffert has the hammer here, and there isn’t a chance in hell he runs this horse under any circumstances that are less than optimal.
Everything else is just noise.
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