Friday, May 4, 2012

For my old Kentucky home, far away

Here I am on the eve of another Kentucky Derby.

There is anticipation and angst. There is the knowledge that tradition will be renewed and history will be made tomorrow. There is the thrill of the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports" and a little voice in me wondering why I care so much anymore.

This race is, in a large way, the story of my family, even though none of us are from Kentucky and only an aunt of mine lives there. But my brothers and I know the legends of the race--who won in 1973, who lost in 1953, who didn't start in 1920. Each of us remember where we were for the Derbys of our lifetimes and who we bet on.

The first Derby I remember seeing on TV was the 1972 Derby, won by Riva Ridge (although I recall seeing the Racing Form for the Derby the year before). Then Secretariat won the Triple Crown and I was hooked.

Racing was a big part of my life when I was growing up. I learned as much as I could about the sport and its history, and it was often talked about in my house. My family thoroughly analyzed the lead-up and aftermath of every major race (as well as the fifth at Beulah Park), and I assumed that every other household did the same.

It came as a bit of culture shock when I went to college and found that I was the only person there who knew or cared about racing. (What--you mean everybody doesn't know what a trifecta is?) My college did have an equine science program, but it didn't seem to have much to do with racing. It was frustrating trying to watch major races on TV and try to be engaged in an interview with a jockey in an upcoming race while loud conversations took place in the room, most of which centered around the inability to get laid.

It was at that time, though, that I went to the Derby in person three times. I will never forget my first look at Churchill Downs' Twin Spires as I approached it from the clubhouse parking lot. Television does not do justice to the size of the grandstand, which emerges as you approach it--horse racing's greatest monument. Even though I didn't see a horse all day, there was nothing like the experience of being part of racing history.

I had the opportunity to work for Daily Racing Form for several years, and it was a grand ride. Canterbury Park, Hoosier Park, Delta was full of exciting racing and some great memories.

Economic realities set in, and my job at the Racing Form is long gone. Tomorrow is one of two days of the year (the other being the Breeders' Cup) that I visit the OTB each year. But racing will never leave me.

I will know where each member of my family will be at 6 p.m. tomorrow. We will all be somewhere--an OTB, a race book, or in front of a TV--hearing the University of Louisville Marching Band play "My Old Kentucky Home" and renewing one of the grandest traditions in sports.

In the words of horse racing commentator Harvey Pack, may the horse be with you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

We've got to get right back to where we started from

It's been a while since I last posted to The Fritz Blitz. Another winter has come and gone, and it seems as if the Pittsburgh Penguins' season is about to end as well.

As I write this, the Penguins are down 3-0 to the hated Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Pens ended their regular season with their strongest play in quite some time, punctuated by the return of the best active player in the NHL, Sidney Crosby.

After going up 3-0 in the first period of the first playoff game, the Penguins' play has been embarrassing. The series has been marked by bad turnovers, a Swiss-cheese defense, a nonexistent power play and a general lack of discipline.

In the penultimate regular season matchup between these bitter rivals, there was an altercation between Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and Pens assistant coach Tony Granato in which Laviolette accused the Pens of sending goons in toward the end of the game. It was a ridiculous charge because the fourth-line players on the ice at that time were all legitimate scoring threats.

It appeared in Sunday's third game that the Penguins were trying to prove Laviolette right.

There was Aaron Asham's cross-check and punch of Brayden Schenn in the first period, resulting in a game misconduct. There was Craig Adams' penalty and automatic suspension for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of the game. And there was the general atmosphere of a game that resembled a scene from Slap Shot.

The pundits, never big fans of the Penguins, seem to have abandoned them. This morning's recap on the NHL Network emphasized a fight between Crosby and the Flyers' Claude Giroux, coupled with an absurd quote from Laviolette, who thinks that two of the best players in hockey beating each other's heads in is somehow good for the game. The Flyers, long known as the NHL's bad boys, are coming off as the good guys to everybody outside Western Pennsylvania.

Wednesday night is the Penguins' last stand. It's hard to come back from an 0-3 deficit, but it has been done before. The Pens can do this, but it will take the best hockey they've played all season. If not, I can forget about La Coupe Stanley and go back to handicapping the Kentucky Derby.