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Taking new career for a ride

Brothers shows winning touch

During Donna Barton's riding career, dealing with the media often would become one more chore in a day that began at 4 a.m. and ended around midnight when she'd finally put down whatever book she was reading.

"I was lucky, though it might not have seemed that way at the time," she said Tuesday before leaving Kentucky for Baltimore, where she'll be a reporter on tomorrow's NBC Preakness telecast (Channel 7, 5 p.m., also available in HD). "When I was riding, especially at [Kentucky's] Turfway Park, I had a good relationship with track management. A lot of times they'd ask me to meet with the media when a TV station or reporter would come to the track."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas did the same thing. When the media pressure got heavy before a big race, he'd say, "Go talk to Donna. She's working the horses [and riding them]."

"The longer I rode, the more interviews I did," she said.

In an 11 1/2-year career, that meant a lot of talking because she was the all-time-leading money earner among female jockeys when she retired in 1998 with more than 1,000 victories. That made her comfortable on one side of the interviewing process.

After she retired and married trainer Frank Brothers, she planned to go to college. But broadcasting work kept getting in the way. "I realized if I went to college for broadcasting, I'd be turning down paying work," she said. Talk about a jockey knowing when to make the right move.

First, Fairgrounds president Bryan Krantz asked her to interview the connections of stakes winners on weekends and do the track's weekly local TV show. "I had no trouble when I was being asked the questions," she said, "but there was a lot of anxiety when it came to being the one doing the asking. The good part is that most of the subjects were friends."

She "muddled through," she said, and the next spring Churchill Downs vice president John Asher asked her to succeed him in doing the paddock show with Mike Battaglia, which was broadcast on the track channel and around the country to simulcasting outlets.

"Mike helped me to learn a lot," she said. "He'd make sure we did a little verbal jabbing [note the Battaglia-Bob Neumeier schtick in NBC's racing coverage] and try to catch me off guard. When he did, he'd jump in and rescue me. It taught me to be at ease on camera."

It was Battaglia who alerted NBC that Brothers might be a fit for its racing broadcasts, and the network gave her a shot in the 2000 Breeders' Cup races at Churchill Downs. She's been doing network reporting ever since, working big races and adding the professional bull-riding circuit this year.

Brothers will be back on horseback tomorrow, ready to interview the winning jockey, just as she did with Smarty Jones rider Stewart Elliott after he had won the Kentucky Derby. "The horse part is easy," she said. "I'm in my comfort zone, and so is the jockey."

Elliott, she said, "is a really nice guy but, if not shy, is certainly a man of few words."

Brothers -- she's ambivalent about using her maiden name, except when it will help a telecast -- will have a different mount tomorrow. She's generally rented Bob Baffert's stable pony Cisco, but he was shipping several horses to Pimlico this week and there wasn't room for Cisco.

"It won't be a problem," she said. "[Analyst] Charlsie [Cantey] knows a lot of people at Pimlico. It helps when you're not just borrowing a horse but actually renting it for the race."

Now, about those books. Brothers has gone from novels to motivational books to psychology. After starting out as a psych major at the University of Louisville, she's switching her major to marketing. "I'll be 40 when I graduate," she said, "and I don't want to be facing another five years to become a practicing psychologist."

Besides, she's already got this broadcasting business psyched out, and she is psyched up about the prospect of a Triple Crown winner.

Work wanted

Deion Sanders always managed to get his way in contract disputes as a player. Now he's trying free agency as a TV analyst after rejecting a CBS offer for $1.3 million per season to return to "The NFL Today." . . . The Preakness has become an intermezzo between the Derby and Belmont, albeit one with potentially major public interest ramifications. If Smarty Jones wins tomorrow and becomes a Triple Crown candidate, interest in the Belmont ratchets up. NBC and WEEI's Neumeier is concerned about Smarty Jones's lack of a workout since the Derby but will box him in a pair of exacta wagers with Borrego (15-1) and Rock Hard Ten (6-1) in looking for a decent payoff . . . Channel 56 will be airing three hours of live coverage, starting at noon, from tomorrow's "Hot Dog Safari" at Suffolk Downs, including some live racing with track announcer Larry Collmus's calls and analysis by Rolly Hoyt. Channel 56 anchors Christina Huey and Frank Mallicoat will host the broadcast with sports director Mike Ratte, offering features and commentary. The 15th event, created and hosted by WWZN's Eddie Andelman to benefit The Joey Fund to fight cystic fibrosis, runs from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 and available at Eastern Bank and Tedeschi stores (including Lil Peach and Store 24), with kids under 12 admitted free. Andelman, who tossed out Smarty Jones in the Derby, still isn't a believer. "If he wins the Preakness," he said, "I'll be rooting for him to win the Triple Crown." Andelman was a fan of The Cliff's Edge until he came up hurt. Now he's going with Lion Heart to win and Hard Rock Ten as a key part of "some trifectas." . . . It's a "throwback weekend," with plenty of horse racing and boxing. "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m.) originates from Providence tonight with Peter "The Pride of Providence" Manfredo meeting Anthony Bonsante in the middleweight main event. Vinnie Paz will be a studio host . . . Tomorrow night, HBO PPV ($49.95) has the Roy Jones Jr.-Antonio Tarver light heavyweight match as its feature bout. The revamped (no more George Foreman) HBO broadcast team has Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Emanuel Steward, Harold Lederman, and James Brown . . . Tonight's Omar Sheika-E.T. Whitaker bout in Philadelphia will air locally tomorrow (CN8, 7:30 p.m.) . . . NBC has the last installment of its "Budweiser Boxing Series" today (Channel 7, 3:30 p.m.) as the lead-in to the Preakness. Heavyweights Calvin Brock and Terry Smith are in the main event. Bob Papa, Raul Marquez, and Jessi Losada call the action . . . Indy's pole trials are tomorrow, with action switching between ESPN (noon-1 p.m. and 5-7 p.m.) and Channel 5 (1-3 p.m.) . . . FX has tonight's Busch race from Richmond, followed by the first installment of its "NASCAR Drivers: 360." It's for a niche market: hardcore NASCAR fans who also love 24/7 unscripted looks at drivers' daily lives. The at-home footage didn't do much for me, but the race-day stuff is good and the feelings are genuine . . . ESPN2 has the Revolution-Crew match at 4 p.m. tomorrow, with Rob Stone, Eric Wynalda, and Lorrie Fair calling the match . . . Happy first birthday to CN8 (this past Wednesday) and ESPN's "Outside The Lines Nightly," which will celebrate with a special tonight at midnight.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com 

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