Saturday, May 14, 2011


One of the nice things about living in the Phoenix area is that there are many real people—i.e., Chicagoans—here; so many, in fact, that the place would pretty much empty out if we all had to go back.

Just about anything you can get in Chicago, you also can get here. My favorite lunchtime treats, including Chicago-style hotdogs, Italian beef and gyros, are close at hand, often at places with “Chicago” in their names. Besides excellent brisket sandwiches, Goldman’s Deli at Hayden and Indian Bend in Scottsdale has Cubs, Sox, Bulls and Bears photos on its walls. I’m in one of them, watching a patented Michael Jordan slam dunk at a long-past NBA All-Star-Weekend contest.

Although the natives don’t like to hear it, we Chicagoans also feel right at home in Arizona when it comes to politics. Pocket-stuffing politicians are as much a part of the desert landscape as they are on the gray streets of the famously corrupt Windy City, and maybe more so.

There’s a difference in the latter regard, though, and an important one. Chicago pols look, talk and act like crooks, and don’t much care who knows it. In Arizona they come off as family-values, law-and-order pillars of the community; as my mother would have put it, “butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.” Still, when it comes to pillage, they can hold their own in any league.

Some of the scams pulled off here have been breathtaking even by Chicago standards. Topping the list is the so-called alternative-fuels caper of 2000. Jeff Groscost, then the blow-dried State House speaker from suburban Mesa, snuck through the legislature a bill to give rebates from state coffers of up to 40% of the price of new SUVs and pickup trucks to buyers who had propane or natural-gas systems installed in the vehicles, whether or not they ever used them. Then he spread the word among friends and neighbors, along with the name of a henchman whose company did such installations. Before the whistle was blown this crowd bilked the state treasury out of $200 million, a Haul of Fame haul. Best, even after it was revealed, nobody went to jail, proving that, in Arizona, if you make the law you aren’t breaking it.

Now fast-forward to the present past numerous similar episodes, including the current investigations of our beloved “World’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio for, among other things, misappropriating $100 million in county funds. Maybe you’ve read about our Fiesta Bowl scandal, which didn’t approach the alternative-fuels mess in depth but certainly exceeded it in breadth.

The Fiesta Bowl was begun in 1971, partly as a way to make sure that our local U., Arizona State, had a New Year’s date; the Sun Devils played in its first three editions, and in four of the first five. From there it clambered to big-time status, eventually joining the long-established Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls as venues for the annual national championship game for our nation’s football-playing scholars. In the process it brought many tourist dollars to the Phoenix area.

But while the Fiesta Bowl was doing good it also was doing well for those in and around it. It turns out that the non-profit, tax-exempt bowl corporation was a goodie bag for those in the know, providing excessive salaries and expense accounts to its administrators and game tickets, junkets, backdoor campaign contributions and other nifty gifties to pal-pols. Among its internal beneficences were a four-day, $33,000 birthday bash at Pebble Beach Golf Club for its executive director, John Junker; $13,000 in wedding expenses for a Junker aide; and a $1,200 outing for visiting firemen at a local strip club.

The names of the politicians on the bowl’s freebies list included the president of the State Senate and the speaker of the House. They, and others, have been busy writing belated reimbursement checks and updating their financial-disclosure forms in an effort to wash off some of the resulting publicity stink. In that category is Jim Lane, the mayor of my home city of Scottsdale. The bowl hosted and catered a fund raiser for him while he was running for the office in 2008, and he only lately got around to paying for it. He didn’t pay sooner because he never got a bill, he’s explained.

The hits kept on coming even after the scandal’s first inklings broke in the Arizona Republic. The bowl paid $55,000 to Grant Woods, a former state attorney general, to conduct an internal audit of its operations. He swiftly produced a document that found no wrongdoing by anyone. When continuing reports of misdeeds finally forced a fuller investigation, it came out that Woods had paid $20,000 from his fee for assistance to a bowl lobbyist, who went on to “prep” the employees Woods interviewed. “Key people may have lied to me,” Woods sheepishly told The Republic.

Incidentally, that newspaper’s publisher, John Zidich, should have had a front-row seat for the shenanigans because he’d been a Fiesta Bowl director for six years before resigning last month.

Yes, the sun shines here every day, and the area sparkles with a day-before-yesterday newness foreign to cities Back East. But the winds carry the same odors we Chicago transplants are used to.

In a way, it’s comforting.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Usually, there’s good news and bad news about trying to pick a Kentucky Derby winner, and this year is no exception. It’s always difficult because the entrants are equine adolescents who are still growing and developing, none will have run the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles, and the big field of 20 horses makes bumping and jostling inevitable, putting a premium on racing luck. The good news is that, in the absence of a strong favorite, the above factors conspire to ensure a good payout no matter who wins.

Betting on favorites isn’t much fun, so I’m planning to ignore the likely, lukewarm betting choices—Dialed In and Uncle Mo—in favor of a four-horse, $2 exacta box of mid-range picks, costing me $24. My selections will be Archarcharch, the Arkansas Derby winner whose morning-line odds are 10-1; Shackleford, who should be at or near the early lead at 12-1; Midnight Interlude (10-1), who won the Santa Anita Derby from a far-outside post after being momentarily knocked off stride in the home stretch; and late-running Nehro (6-1), who came up just short in a couple of 1 1/8-milers and should benefit from the added distance, despite a poor post position.

That’ll be a 1-14-15-19 ticket. In order of preference my picks are 1. Nehro, 2. Archarcharch, 3. Midnight Interlude and 4. Shackleford. The exacta should be worth more than $100 if any of the four finish 1-2.

I’ll also put a what-the-heck $5 win ticket on Pants on Fire, who won the tough Louisiana Derby. I like his odds of 20-1 and his rider, Rosie Napravnik, who’d be the first female jockey to win the race.

The best idea, of course, is to make your own choices, but even if you don’t, try to watch the race. It’s always a great show.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Never is a long time, during which many unlikely things can happen, so the saying “never say never” probably is apt. Still, when applied to thoroughbred racing’s annual Triple Crown series, it’s hard to avoid using the “n” word.

No horse has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed did it in 1978, and from the looks of things none is likely to do it in the cycle that begins with next Saturday’s Derby (May 7). That’s not so much a commentary on the immediate field as it is on the general state of my favorite participant sport (when you bet, you participate).

Few enterprises anywhere are as badly run as the erstwhile Sport of Kings, and its clinging to tradition in staging the Triple Crown races, its best yearly shot at attention in an ever-more-crowded sports’ calendar, is the best evidence. That’s because the timing and conditions of the TC’s components, established willy-nilly in years long past, run directly contrary to recent and current trends at the ovals. The fact that everyone in the sport knows this has made not a whit of difference.

To win a Triple Crown today a colt or filly (a colt officially becomes a horse and a filly a mare at age five) would have to overcome his or her own history in addition to strong competition and the vicissitudes of racing luck. Worse, given the fate of some of those who have vied seriously for the honor of late, owners and trainers risk the careers or even the lives of their most-valuable animals to even try it.

The Triple Crown never has been easy to win, which is one reason it’s one of sports’ most cherished prizes. Since 1930, when the writer Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form coined the name, it has been captured but 10 times, and that number jumps by just one if you go back to 1919, when Sir Barton won it unawares.

It starts the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, which at 1 ¼ miles is the farthest by 1/8-mile any competitor will have run. Two weeks later comes the 1 3/16ths-miles Preakness Stakes at the old Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. The final leg, staged three weeks after that, is the hardest—the Belmont Stakes in New York, which, at 1 ½ miles, covers a longer distance than all but a few American thoroughbreds ever run. Winning three grueling, highly contested races in a five-week span becomes all the harder when it’s noted that the three-year-olds that are eligible for the series are the equivalent of 16-year-old humans, well short of their mature strength and development.

In years long past, such a feat was at least thinkable. Race horses then, well, raced. Citation, the 1948 TC winner, came to Churchill Downs on Derby Day with 16 starts under his cinch. The great Secretariat, the 1972 champ, had 12 pre-Derby races and Affirmed 13. By contrast, most of the entrants in Saturday’s go will have stepped on a track in earnest only four or five times, all at distances shorter than that of any of the Triple Crown tests.

That’s mostly because the economic focus of the sport long since has changed from racing to breeding. Racing may be in permanent decline on these shores, but it thrives in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and bidding for elite equine prospects has gone global. That’s meant that just about any horse that scores big on the track is whisked off to the breeding shed, post haste. Consequently, thoroughbreds these days are bred for speed, not stamina, meaning not only that they can’t stand up to frequent racing but also that they’re more prone to catastrophic breakdowns.

American racing’s biggest story of recent years was a sad one—of the colt Barbaro, who decisively won the 2006 Derby but broke a leg trying to win the Preakness and later died of the injury. One recent winner of the Derby and Preakness-- Smarty Jones in 2004—never raced again after failing in the Belmont. Big Brown accomplished the same double in 2008 but dragged in last at the Belmont and raced only twice more before being retired. “Too much too soon” applied to them all.

There’s a simple way to make the Triple Crown viable again. That would be to put more space between its parts, keeping the Derby in its traditional first-Saturday-in-May slot but running the Preakness the first Saturday in June—four week later—and the Belmont on July 4, about four weeks after that. That would give the contestants time to catch their breaths and, maybe, heal from the small hurts that can turn into larger ones.

I’m not nearly the first to propose this, but racing being racing, what makes sense counts for little in the decision-making process. Tradition is one obstacle to progress, as is the politics that always surrounds the awarding of racing dates in states with more than one track (including Kentucky, Maryland and New York). The fact that the sport lacks a national governing body with clout is a third.

But overriding is the plain ineptitude that kept from happening a match race in 2009 or 2010 between Zenyatta and Rachael Alexander, two sensational fillies who singly put a rare spotlight on the sport in those years. Like an updated Triple Crown series and the attention a winner would bring, that could have been a lifeboat for an activity that’s drowning, but in racing the only sounds you hear are “glub, glub, glub.”