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ESPN guilty of Derby horseplay

Oops conveys sorrow, but it can't serve as a safety net when a network becomes part of a gaffe involving one of sports' biggest events.

ESPN's Chris Lincoln was apologetic after his mistake sent the Kentucky Derby into a swirl of controversy Wednesday night. Lincoln called out numbers for the Derby's new drawing system, which would allow trainers to draft their own post position. He inadvertently called No. 15 twice, forcing Churchill Downs officials to declare a redraw.

"I learned a valuable lesson _ don't handle the draw pills," Lincoln said. "I'm just glad they have rules for this kind of thing."

Lincoln, who had played host to the draw in previous years, apparently mistook a 6 for a 15.

The real mistake, however, was made by ESPN. In letting Lincoln serve as draw announcer, the network became part of a story it simply was supposed to cover. ESPN and sister network ABC had to handle the nearly no-win situation of reporting on Lincoln's mistake without being biased.

Wednesday night's SportsCenter detailed the mistake but, in quoting Lincoln, identified him as the Kentucky Derby draw announcer, not as an ESPN announcer.

It's a classic conflict of interest.

Although Churchill Downs president and CEO Tom Meeker reportedly softened his tone Thursday, he called Lincoln "incompetent" and said he was "through" with ESPN on Wednesday.

After Saturday's race, the outcries over Lincoln's mistake may become louder, particularly if D. Wayne Lukas' Cape Town does not run well. Lukas had the first pick in the original draw and ended up with the 10th selection, and now his horse has the No. 11 post position.

There is a minimal chance the 124th running of the Derby will become known as the race ESPN messed up, but the fact the possibility even exists is why next year the network should simply turn on the cameras and let someone else handle the draw.

MORE HORSE SENSE: ESPN offers 22 hours of Derby coverage this weekend, including broadcasts of the unique "backside setting" this morning at 7 and Saturday morning at 8, as well as prerace coverage beginning 2 p.m. Saturday. CNN/SI will have a Derby preview at 5 p.m. today and a special edition of Page One With Nick Charles at 11 a.m. Saturday. ABC carries the race beginning at 4:30 p.m.

COLLINS DELIVERS: It's almost unfathomable: NBC has a collection of announcers slated to do the NBA playoffs this weekend but won't tell them which games.

Well, actually, it can't. Going into Thursday night's action, the network had three possible scenarios for Saturday and seven options for Sunday. For some, adjusting on the fly might be monumental, but former coach and player Doug Collins is too big of a talent to be fazed.

"I have all the media guides and all the different player information," Collins said. "I'll just have to watch the games and wait for something to find out if anything shakes itself down."

Collins didn't join the NBC team of Bob Costas and Isiah Thomas until late in the season after being fired in Detroit, but he has adjusted quickly to the three-man broadcast team. Collins has received critical praise from around the nation.

"The biggest adjustment there was realizing we had one more person and making a conscious effort not to talk too much," Collins said. "You don't want wall-to-wall talk; you want to let the game breathe. No. 1, we have to make sure we're not stepping on top of each other, and No. 2, we have to make sure we're not talking all the time.

"A talkathon would get in the way of the game."

FINE TUNING: While NBC's ratings are down 7 percent, TBS/TNT's playoff ratings are up 9 percent _ and they've had only two games involving Michael Jordan. ESPN will broadcast a Hollywood tribute to NASCAR's 50th anniversary, hosted by Don Johnson, at 7 p.m. Saturday. New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica debuts with his own show at 5:30 p.m. Monday on ESPN2. Hockey ratings are down, but in Detroit, the Red Wings' playoff games are drawing better than Lions' football games.