Saturday, May 30, 2009

A One Man Band

The entire Cleveland Cavaliers team owes LeBron James an apology. Including, and maybe especially, Mike Brown.

That young man did everything he could to put the city of Cleveland on his back and drag it, singlehandedly, to the NBA finals. Shame on the rest of the team, and shame on Mike Brown for his ineffective and lazy coaching. LeBron deserves better.

I'll start the movement right here. Fire Mike Brown.

Lord Stanley's Cup

It's a million little things.

It's the work in the corners. The backchecking. The sparks of inspiration at the right time. The deals for just the right players. The pain of last year. The hope of this year. The love of the fans. The hate of the opponents. The tradition of hockey and of sportsmanship from time immemorial.

It all starts, and finishes, tonight.


Monday, May 18, 2009

The real winner?

The history books will say that Mine That Bird won the 2009 Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Preakness, but that might not prove to be the real story.

The real winner could be horse racing itself.

This is the first time in a few years that I’ve seen the sports world this excited about horse racing. Mine That Bird’s 50-1 victory put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and jockey Calvin Borel on The Tonight Show. Rachel Alexandra’s game win was the top story on SportsCenter and has a nation anticipating a rematch in the Belmont.

For all the recent talk about horse racing’s decline—and its many problems that have not gone away—the rumors of its death may be greatly exaggerated.

There was another time when horse racing was on a downward arc. General anti-gambling sentiment hit America around the turn of the 20th century. Many tracks closed. Churchill Downs went bankrupt, and the Kentucky Derby was a relatively minor stakes.

Key to the Derby’s resurrection—and the sport’s in general—were wins by a longshot and a filly.

First there was Donerail’s victory at 91-1 in the 1913 Derby—still the longest shot to win the race. Then there was Regret, who was undefeated when she became the first filly to win the Derby in 1915. These were the first in a series of notable wins in the 1910s and 1920s that brought the Derby back into the national spotlight and helped to make horse racing one of America’s most popular spectator sports.

Other sports have gone through down cycles, too. SI ran an article declaring the NBA dead—the year before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were drafted. The NHL was off network TV for years, but now it’s on NBC and several cable channels. And, while I don’t really consider it a sport—but it proves my point—professional wrestling was late-night TV filler before the Wrestlemania phenomenon of the 1980s.

Could we be seeing the beginnings of a Thoroughbred renaissance? Can horse racing be the top story on SportsCenter more than twice a year? Will we soon see Calvin Borel stickers next to NASCAR decals on people’s cars?

Stranger things have happened….

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One for the ages

The best NHL playoff series I have ever seen ended in ignominy for the Capitals, who, frankly, deserved better. They didn't deserve to win, not the way they played, but they deserved a close game. But as ever in the sands of time, the Penguins have the Capitals' number, again and again and again. And I will not complain.

In an epic win, one big statistic stands out. The Pengins did not take one single penalty. Not one. I wonder what the stat miners will make of that?

On to the Eastern Conference Finals, versus either the Hurricanes or the Bruins. Bring 'em on.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pre-game jitters

What a great kid Geno Malkin is. Can you imagine a young hot-shot player in any other sport (and even most other hockey players) saying so sincerely how much he loves his dad? And his parents are likewise awesome.

Tonight's game six against the Capitals could be decisive. The Penguins took a while to find their stride this series, but they appear to have settled in well with Saturday's win at Washington. They were able to mostly contain Ovechkin and Varlamov, the exceptional rookie goaltender, is showing a great deal of vulnerability. Most impressive of all, though, is the way Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi are matching up against Ovechkin's line.

The team is keeping mum about Sergei Gonchar's injury for now but I'm really hoping it's not that serious, and thinking it probably ended his season. I'm sure I'm being a total homer here, but to me, that was a fineable, suspension-worthy dirty hit. There is no other reason he had to stick out his leg that way except intent to do harm.

I plan to try to get back to blogging here more often again but for now life is kind of in the way. In the meantime, GO PENS!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mine That Bird?

Mine That Bird.

Mine That Bird.

Days later, it’s still hard to believe. Mine That Bird, last seen finishing off the board in the Sunland Park Derby, will have his name on Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses for as long as they make them.

I don’t know of a single serious handicapper who had him. I had to cash in a voucher at the OTB after the Derby, and the line was comprised of a handful of drunks who liked the name.

One wag noted that there are probably some rich ornithologists out there. Maybe some Charlie Parker fans, too. I imagine Peter Griffin had him:

So now, Andy Beyer, Randy Moss (not that one) and all the other public handicappers are trying to figure it out. Remembering my dad’s admonition that “they all look good after the race,” I submit the following:

1. Mine That Bird enjoys running through a moat. There was no evidence of this in his past performances, as he had not raced on an off track before last Saturday. While he had some off-track ability in his bloodline, so did several others in the field. There are just some eventualities that you can’t predict in this game.

2. This is a weak 3-year-old crop (forget about Rachel Alexandra for the moment), made worse by several key injuries. By the time the Derby came around, the top four finishers in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile were all out of action, as were the two best hopefuls to arise from the Derby preps, I Want Revenge and Quality Road. But even so, several of this year’s Derby entrants would have wound up in the Withers or the Federico Tesio at this time last season because they wouldn’t have had enough graded stakes earnings. Mine That Bird didn’t have to beat as much as he would have in some other years.

3. To paraphrase the salesmen in The Music Man, Calvin Borel knows the territory. Borel must have been really good to some old man who plays Skee Ball (inside joke for you Dogma fans) at some point. In two of the last three Derbys, “Bo-Rail” has made his patented (OK, he hasn’t really patented it, but maybe he should) move from far back along the Churchill rail, and the holes opened up for him at the right time.

4. It could be that Mine That Bird is better than his prep race form suggests. He was named Canada’s 2-year-old of the year, which is not chopped liver. The Preakness will tell whether the gelding is a one-hit wonder. Remember that Canonero II—who came to the 1971 Derby off a loss in a $3,500 handicap in Venezuela—shocked the world with his victory, then followed it up by setting a track record while winning the Preakness.

There is one thing we know for sure.

The legend of the Kentucky Derby has gotten bigger.

If you missed it, or just want to relive it, sit back and enjoy.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The obligatory 2009 Kentucky Derby blog entry

Many Kentucky Derbys have had 20 starters, but I haven’t seen a recent one where the pool of talent was shallower.

Several horses that would not have had the graded earnings to break into the field in past years have, due to attrition, been able to give their owners free access to the best Derby parties, and little else.

Consider that six horses each have only a maiden win, and only three have won a Grade 1 stakes. One of the race’s “buzz” horses, Dunkirk, is eligible for a non-winners-of-three allowance.

Then there are horses that have raced on synthetic tracks in all or most of their starts. Synthetic surfaces are as different from dirt as dirt is from turf. The Derby is not the place to make your dirt debut. Note that none of the top four finishers in the 2008 Derby had raced on a synthetic track. I don’t think that was just a coincidence. (Nor was it Just A Coincidence—he ran last week.)

All this has made my handicapping a bit easier this year—almost too easy.

My first group of horses to eliminate is those who are clearly overmatched: Mine That Bird, Join In The Dance, Atomic Rain, Nowhere to Hide, and Flying Private.

Then there are those who have not started on dirt, or have shown poor form on dirt: Mr. Hot Stuff, Advice, Hold Me Back, Chocolate Candy, and Pioneerof The Nile.

Which leaves us with 10 horses.

Regal Ransom and Desert Party—Here we go again. Sheikh Mohammed is determined to have things his way by prepping his horses in Dubai instead of the U.S. This has not worked in the past, and I don’t see this year being an exception. These horses’ 2-year-old starts in the U.S. were not outstanding enough to overcome the unorthodox training strategy (although you might want to throw Desert Party in your exotics if the track is muddy). It’s also telling that Frankie Dettori didn’t come over to ride one of them.

Summer Bird—I was looking at this one as a live longshot after the move he made at the end of the Arkansas Derby until I looked at his past performances. March 1 of the 3-year-old year is the latest racing debut for a Derby starter I can recall. His connections are asking for too much, too soon.

Dunkirk—I’ve never seen so much support at the Derby for a horse who has never won a stakes. Trainer Todd Pletcher blamed a slow pace for Dunkirk’s loss in the Florida Derby. In what universe is six furlongs in 1:10.3 slow? Watch the replay of that race and you’ll see that he just couldn’t stay with Quality Road down the lane.

General Quarters—He’s been one of the feel-good stories because his owner-trainer is a 75-year-old retired teacher. He looked good in the Sam F. Davis (and the Blue Grass, of course, but that was on a rubber track), where he handed Musket Man his only loss. I watched both the Davis and the Tampa Bay Derby (where Musket Man won) and didn’t see a real excuse for either loss. Then again, all races at Tampa Bay Downs look like a stampede through a sandbar. I prefer Musket Man because his overall record is more consistent.

And now, in honor of Dr. Demento, it’s Funny Five time!

5. WEST SIDE BERNIE—Every year, there’s a plodder who comes in third or fourth and messes up everybody’s gimmicks. This one is a late-closer with dirt experience, and he’s been getting a share of the purse against the big boys. He could be this year’s Denis of Cork.

4. MUSKET MAN—Don’t overlook a horse who has never been off the board, especially one with that all-important dirt experience.

3. FRIESAN FIRE—The karma choice. After all the undeserved abuse his connections have taken after Eight Belles’ death last year, it would be so great for them—and the sport—to see them win it all. I would feel a little better, though, if the horse’s last race weren’t seven weeks ago. Could move up one—or two—notches if the track is sloppy.

2. PAPA CLEM—I thought of him as a one-dimensional speedball, but the Arkansas Derby reverses that judgment. He showed that he doesn’t need the lead, and his kind of tactical speed is very dangerous in the Derby.

Call me a chalk-eating weasel, but on paper and on video, there is a clear number one this year….

1. I WANT REVENGE—He was just one of several contenders on the West Coast plasti-tracks, but a move to the New York dirt gave him another gear. Reminds me of what happened when Cigar was moved from turf to dirt. If you have any doubts, just watch this:

Anything that could have gone wrong did for I Want Revenge in the Wood—a horrible start, traffic problems in the stretch, and a pace that was down to a crawl—but he still won. Barring a true disaster, I don’t see what else the Derby could throw at him.

That’s it. Your mileage may vary.