Friday, May 15, 2009


NEWS: Mine That Bird wins the Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-to-1.
VIEWS: When a long shot wins a race and a handicapper doesn’t have him, he’ll go back to the Form to try to see what he might have overlooked. Then he’ll either smack his head in frustration for missing clues or shake it in disbelief that such a thing could happen.

Each of the two 50-to-1 shots that have won the Derby in the race’s last five runnings fits into one of those categories. Giacomo, the 2005 winner, had won just one of seven pre-Derby starts, but he’d challenged in several other good races while consistently staging late rallies that indicated he might be helped by the 1 ¼-miles Derby distance, 1/8-mile longer than any contestant had run. Further, he’d recorded four over-90 scores, topped by a 98, in the Beyer speed ratings that are the most-reliable gauge of a horse’s ability. He was the first Derby winner not to have achieved at least a 100 on that scale beforehand, but he’d been close. He was an underappreciated horse, and anyone who bet on him (alas, I didn’t) could take a bow.

Mine The Bird wasn't underappreciated. Yes, he’d won four of his eight previous starts, but all the victories had come in slow times against so-so opposition at Woodbine Park in Canada, a track that doesn’t rate with the best in the U.S. He’d displayed no consistent running style, meaning either he was hard to control or his trainer didn’t know what to do with him. Moreover, his highest pre-Derby Beyer was an 81, for heaven’s sake, the sort of score posted by contestants in $10,000 claiming races. How the guy won I have no idea. There oughta be an investigation.

Also, Mine That Bird is a terrible name.

NEWS: New York Yankees cut ticket prices on the best seats in their new stadium.
VIEWS: To the many reasons not to like the Yankees, a couple more were added when they opened their new stadium in the Bronx last month. One is that, like many other teams before them, they extorted public funds and credit to build themselves a new playground and then priced John and Joan Q. out the place. The other was their audacity in pricing the tickets in their new digs, with a breathtaking top of $2,500 per.

Mulling the idea of paying $2,500 to watch a single sporting event is discombobulating, giving us middle-class Americans a sense of what it’s like to be a Somali goat herder watching a rerun of “The Price Is Right.” I’d consider writing a four-figure check for a ringside seat to see Muhammad Ali fight Mike Tyson if were both magically restored to their primes, but certainly not to watch the Yanks play the Orioles on a chilly Wednesday night in May. The Yanks offer a comfortably padded chair with a good view of the action and easy access to food and lavatories, but that sounds like watching a game on television from home, doesn’t it? Hey, for twenty five hundred bucks you can buy a state-of-the-art TV set and watch all 162 Yankee games on cable, plus the playoffs should they qualify. And you could flick over to Nickelodeon between innings.

But now, faced with the recession and embarrassing rows of empty prime seats, the team has halved its top to $1,250 and reduced other “premium” tiers accordingly. That’s much better, don’t you think? Just kidding. My idea of a properly priced evening at the ballpark is paying $20 for an upper-deck, behind-home-plate seat to watch the D’backs at Chase Field here in the Desert Metropolis. If they raise it to $25, they lose me.

NEWS: Manny Ramirez gets a 50-game suspension after a drug that restores gonad function after steroid use is found in his medical records.
VIEWS: Revelations about ballplayers using steroids or related drugs are old stuff, but the Manny affair is different. That’s because his drug use came this season, not in the pre-2005 days before Major League Baseball began making a serious show of combating the potent muscle builders. It showed that “juicing” is alive and well in the erstwhile National Pastime.

That should come as no real surprise because the rewards for successful cheating remain high, as witnessed by the Dodger slugger’s current two-year, $50 million contract. This very definitely was true during the game’s long head-in-the-sand period. It still holds because the dopers always are ahead of the testers technologically. Steroid use is as smart a move now as it was then, albeit a riskier one.

Before the Manny bust, many people regarded baseball’s Steroids Era as a 1990-2005 phenomenon. Power-hitting records of that period are suspect; now the suspicions expand. It used to be that juicers like Mark McGwire were seen as exceptions to the “clean” rule, but a couple of veteran players of that time told me (off the record, of course) that they guessed that about one-third of their fellow Big Leaguers were users, and the true figure could have been higher. Users once were seen as edge-seekers, but maybe they were just trying to keep up with the competition.

Maybe they still are.

Friday, May 1, 2009


The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow (Saturday, 5/2) and I’ll be there as usual-- or, at least, my money will. I’ll be at a table in the clubhouse at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, my local track, watching the proceedings through the miracle of simulcast. The experience doesn’t beat the real thing at big, barny old Churchill Downs in Louisville, where I’ve been many times, but it’s a respectable second.

The Derby is America’s foremost horse race, which is kind of too bad because it isn’t the best contest the sport presents annually. It’s in the spring, near the beginning of the racing season, and its field is limited to three-year-olds, who are equine teenagers. The Breeders’ Cup Classic, an open-age event staged in November, is a truer championship test, but it lacks the Derby’s weight of tradition and hype and so goes off less sung.

But because the Derby is an Event with a capital “E” it has something no other horse race can match: an audience whose demographics pretty much mirror that of other mass entertainments. By that I mean it attracts people of both sexes and all ages in the adult range. Especially welcome at Churchill or the simulcast outlets are young or youngish women, often bedecked in the elaborate hats that have become part of the Derby scene. There’s nothing like a fashion show to bring out the ladies.

That’s in marked contrast to the usual racing crowd, which is overwhelmingly male and dowdy and predominantly, uh, elderly. Okay, old. I’m a regular in the TV carrels at Turf Paradise on Saturdays, when many of the better races are run, and at 71 I think I bring down the average age of the house. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee a time when the erstwhile Sport of Kings will be in even worse shape than it is now.

It’s no mystery why racing has become the preserve of the long in tooth. Picking winners is a scholarly pursuit that involves the diligent study of the Daily Racing Form, whose dense pages of numbers contain the histories of every horse running at every track in the nation on a given day. It requires an iron butt and the ability to concentrate, two things notably lacking among today’s young. Generations brought up on video games that deliver kills or their equivalent every few seconds—and with easy access to casino games that offer payoffs at a similar rate—are not about to strain their eyes and brains trying to dope out the third race at Santa Anita.

By me that’s too bad, because the reward of being right at the track goes beyond any monetary return. Most gambling games are exercises in statistical probability, with the only skill being the ability to recognize the true odds of any choice. Picking a winner at the track involves weighing such diverse factors as speed, distance, venue, age, weight, track condition, the fitness of the animals and the relative abilities of their human connections. When you’re successful you have real reason to pat yourself on the back.

I got my schooling in the handicapper’s art from the best possible source, Sam “The Genius” Lewin. Sam, a smart man and an expansive character, made a nice living living up to his nickname at the East Coast tracks in days past. In 1968 I did a feature story on him for the Wall Street Journal, and a publisher saw it and ordered up a book written by me in Sam’s voice. The product, titled “The Education of a Horseplayer,” came out the next year. Used copies—some fetching more than their original price-- are still offered on the internet. The book’s approaches remain valid even though its examples are long out of date.

Space prohibits me from relaying much of Sam’s wisdom here, but I can pass on his guiding principle. It’s the motto “Pace Makes the Race.” That means that the manner in which a race is run determines its outcome.

To elucidate, horses generally exhibit one of three distinct running styles: they like to take the lead in the early going, stay with the pack or trail the field before making their runs. A front-runner who goes unchallenged almost always wins. When two or more horses vie for the early lead, the late runners come into the picture.

Cigarette holder jutting, Sam would pore over the DRF tables, seeking to envision which horse or horses would move out smartly, which would challenge at mid-race, which would surge late. When his mental picture was clear he’d put his money down, sometimes quite a lot.

As I’ve said, it’s usually more complicated than that, but sometimes it’s less so. On some days the numbers just sit on the pages, unresponsive, but on other, rarer, days—when you aren’t diverted by the tote board, your companions’ conversation or your dinner plans-- they seem to talk to you. You become powerful, omnipotent. You float to the windows to collect. You fill out the IRS forms required of big winners.

A day like that is wonderful in a way that never gets old. It keeps you coming back far more often than it should.

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