Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Damnedest Thing I've Ever Seen?

This is the week when I officially go crazy.

This is the week when I spend hours analyzing a handful of horse races, watch the replays of those races repeatedly, and scour horse racing websites for any clue that might help me make a bet on a two-minute race.

This is the week that I dig books and old Racing Forms out of the basement, not only to find patterns in races from past years, but to relive a lot of great memories as well.

This is the week that climaxes with me in a crowded OTB, getting misty-eyed at the playing of the official song of a state where I’ve never lived.

This is the week that I actually like Dan Fogelberg.

This is Kentucky Derby Week.

It means little to most sports fans, and probably less to most racing fans than it does to me. But it was an obsession in my house when I was growing up.

The first Derby I remember watching was 1972, when I was six. I remember my brothers studying the Racing Form and talking about the race, with the name of one horse standing out—Riva Ridge. It just sounded like a winner to me. He was not the best Derby winner ever, though—or even the best from his own stable. That would happen the next year.

The ‘70s were a golden age for the Derby, with three Triple Crown winners and several near misses. The major prep races were telecast on ABC, and I spent all spring waiting for the buildup to the big day—as did everybody else in my house.

Then I got the chance to see three Derbies in person in the 1980s. The Kentucky Derby should be on anybody’s “Bucket List.” I will never forget my first glimpse of Churchill Downs. I’d seen it on TV many times, but that does not do it justice, if only due to the size of the grandstand. My idea of a racetrack was Beulah Park. I was not prepared to see the Twin Spires.

Through the years, through my career in horse racing, as well as my present incarnation outside the sport, everything has stopped for the Derby. My family is scattered across the country, but at around 6 p.m. this Saturday, I will know exactly what they’re doing.

The Derby is not only the peak of the Thoroughbred racing season, but the ultimate handicapping challenge because it is unlike any other race. No other race in North America has a field of up to 20 horses—all separate betting interests for bigger payoffs. No race features 3-year-olds racing farther than they have before. No race is run with a crowd of over 100,000—many of them partying in the infield.

I write this, I have given Saturday’s Derby past performances a quick look. This edition’s field has more question marks than a Spanish phrasebook. It looks like the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

But I say that every year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Pittsburgh Penguins: A Complete Team

The Pittsburgh Penguins will win the 2008 Stanley Cup.

This will probably sound to most of you like the empty brag of a townie. And it’s always asking for trouble to make guarantees. But, with everyone on the team healthy as the playoffs begin, it’s hard to hold out against that judgment.

Injuries subdued the team at certain points in the season, which is the main reason why the Pens are the #2 seed in the East instead of #1. You don’t have your team captain and your starting goalie out for any length of time and win the Presidents' Trophy.

Judging from Wednesday night’s 4-0 drubbing of Ottawa in the first playoff game, the team is now at full strength and should be unstoppable.

Much has been said over the past three seasons about Sidney Crosby, who has already amassed an amazing number of NHL records for someone who can’t buy beer yet. But the high ankle sprains (a phrase that is fast becoming hockey’s equivalent to “walk-off home run”) to him and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury proved to be blessings in disguise, as this season has seen the Penguins evolve into a complete team.

First, there is Evgeni Malkin. Malkin was the second pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, but until this season, he was more famous for the controversy surrounding his signing with the Penguins than anything he’d done on the ice. His play showed flashes of brilliance (he did score a goal in each of his first six NHL games), but could be inconsistent. With Crosby sidelined for several weeks, Malkin emerged as a team leader.

Fleury’s injury created a void at starting goalie. When Dany Sabourin couldn’t show consistency, the Penguins recalled Ty Conklin from Scranton-Wilkes-Barre. Conklin’s career before that point defined “journeyman,” as he has played for four NHL teams and countless minor and German professional league teams. No one was ready for his contribution. He won his first nine starts and ended the regular season with the second-best save percentage in the NHL. Not bad for a backup.

To complete a team, trades are often necessary, and this was the case with the Penguins, too. The season’s blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Thrashers brought Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a draft pick. This trade gave the Pens the scoring power they needed on the front line in addition to Crosby and Malkin. The trade was criticized because Armstrong and Christensen had made their share of contributions to the team, while Esposito, a first-round pick, was seen by some as a future franchise player. Time will tell if the Pens gave up too much for a serious Stanley Cup run, especially if they aren’t able to re-sign Hossa for next year.

For now, all the important spots are being filled, and the Penguins have emerged as the NHL’s most complete team.