Wednesday, May 15, 2013


                As an old dog, the old line about tricks has special meaning for me. That’s why I’m glad to report I’ve learned a new one.
             It’s a fondness for a team I’d guess few of you will recognize offhand—Tottenham Hotspur. It plays soccer (football to the rest of the world) in the English Premier League. Although I know none of its songs, don’t have a white-and-blue scarf and never have been to its White Hart Lane home in North London, I’m a fan.

 I prove that by knowing that the team’s name is not plural but singular, as in “Miami Heat.”  Collectively, however, they’re the Spurs. Curious, what?

Although I didn’t grow up with the sport, I’ve enjoyed soccer for some years now. My mild affection turned stronger when I covered the 1994 World Cup on these shores, and stronger yet during my attendance at the 1998 edition in France. The color, excellence of the games and passion of the crowds made that event the best I ever covered. The fact that wife Susie and I got to spend five weeks in Paris on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, with side trips to Lyon, Marseilles and Nantes, didn’t hurt, either.

Americans tend to scoff at soccer, finding it low-scoring and dull and and objecting to its numerous tied outcomes. Europeans and others tend to scoff at Americans, believing that our desires for action and finality are evidence of our national immaturity. “Life is a tie,” they’re fond of saying, and I can’t disagree.

But I think we Yanks would like soccer more if we’d glue ourselves down long enough to watch a top-level game from beginning to end. It’s played by average-sized men and thus emphasizes speed and agility, and the players’ skills are nothing short of marvelous. Soccerists can do with their feet almost what basketball players can do with their hands, even though it’s a lot harder. If you don’t believe me, try kicking a ball of any size with your “off” foot. 

Soccer goals may be rare but good passes and goal-threatening situations such as corner kicks are frequent. Action is continuous, with little of the stop-and-go (mostly stop) that bogs down our Big Three team sports.  Once you’re into the flow of a game it’ll start making sense. If you’re a typical, know-it-all American sports fan you’ll be hollering “Work the flanks!” in no time.

 Liking a sport is one thing, though, and rooting for a team is another. I got to the Spurs through my son Michael, an ex-pat who now lives in Copenhagen and works in Amsterdam but lived in England long enough to become a subject of the Queen, and my Scottsdale pal Mike Levy, who has familial ties to fair Albion.  

 Assists go to ESPN and the Fox Soccer Channel, which broadcast most Premier League games into the U.S. “live.”  The eight-hour time difference between London and Phoenix makes for 6 a.m. starts, but through the miracle of TIVO I can tape the games for anytime viewing. I’ve been reserving Sunday mornings for watching Spurs’ replays.

 Son Michael generally phones later on Sunday, and we rehash the action. As he puts it, it’s a “quality bonding experience.” Friend Mike and I also compare Spurs notes. He’s more critic than lover—often down on the team even when it wins—but I enjoy his contrarian viewpoints on many subjects. I mean, how many left-wing gun nuts do you know?

 I have a further bond with the Spurs through religion. That’s because much of the London neighborhood in which they’re based is (or was) Jewish, as am I, and Jews make up such a large part of the team’s fan base that it calls itself the “Yid Army.” Europe isn’t PC the way we are, so that sort of thing goes over there.  Still, like Levy’s rye bread (no relation to Mike), you don’t have to be Jewish to love the Spurs and many goyim do, including actor Kenneth Branagh, rocker Phil Collins, basketballer Steve Nash and WWE wrestler John Cena. My heroes all.

 What really defines Spurs fans, though, is their tolerance for failure. In that way they’re like fans of my Chicago Cubs, so I suppose it was fated that I’d join them eventually. Like the Cubs, the team has been in existence for a long time (since 1882) but has little to show for it. Its last Premier League championship came in 1961, when the circuit was called the First Division. The title before that came in 1951, and its previous history wasn’t more illustrious.

English soccer is like American baseball in that both have a monarchy. In baseball it’s the New York Yankees and in soccer it’s Manchester United. Actually, the Yankees wish they were Man U because that outfit rules as well as reigns, having won 13 crowns in the 21 seasons since the 20-team Premier League was rebranded in 1992-93.  Chelsea and Arsenal each have won thrice in that span, leaving little hardware for the rest.

The Brits keep interest up in the face of such hegemony partly by awarding consolation prizes. The top four Premier League finishers get to play in the Champions League, a lengthy tournament matching the best European clubs, and the top five qualify for the Europa League, a less prestigious go-round. With fourth-place finishes in 2012 and 2010 and a fifth in 2011, Tottenham has been in the mix for such places in recent years, pleasing its fancy.

This season promised to be a good one for the Spurs, but results have been mixed. The year’s highlight has been the blossoming into stardom of Gareth Bale, a tall, 23-year-old Welshman whose specialty is curling long kicks into small corners of the net. His goals have made up a one-man highlight reel and propelled him into election as the Premier League’s Player of the Year, a signal honor. With help from American National Team forward Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Defoe, a flashy but self-regarding scorer (I admire him more than Mike Levy does), the Spurs staged a mid-winter run that gained them a heady third place, behind only Man U and Manchester City, last year’s 2-1 finishers. A third would have been the Spurs’ best standing since the BPL was formed.

Sadly, they’ve staggered since, rallying to beat Man City with an awesome three-goals-in-seven-minutes flourish in April but coming up short against lesser foes.  With one game left to play (Sunday against Sunderland) they’re in fifth place, needing a win and a loss or tie by fourth-place Arsenal to land a Champions League spot. It’s a dim possibility.

Bale’s emergence presages better things ahead for the Spurs, but only if he sticks around. Middle-and lower-level Premier League teams long have made a living by developing young stars and selling their contracts for big bucks to the likes of Man U and rich continental powers such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the Spurs say they’ll pay up to keep the young man.  Stay tuned.

 Meantime, I’m adopting a favorite saying of Spurs’ supporters: Wait ‘til next year.

Sounds familiar, huh?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

20--COUNT 'EM-- 20

                Playing the horses is out of fashion these days, and for good reason. Doing it seriously requires a degree of study that few wish to expend on a pastime, and the sort of obsessive mind that brings one back to a subject again and again despite good evidence that one should leave it alone.
             We horseplayers do it, I guess, because the problems involved—picking winners at the racetrack and coming out ahead financially (they’re not the same)—are just so darned interesting.  Every race presents a puzzle with more layers than an onion, requiring calculations of the speeds and running styles of the contestants, their pole positions, the distance of the race, the characteristics and condition of the racing surface and the abilities of the human actors, to name a few.

 Then one must figure out how to bet, a matter which, like all financial choices, concerns the balancing of risks and rewards. Throw in the fact that track-and-tax “takeouts” remove between 15% and 25% of every betting pool before winnings are distributed and you have an equation that has stumped many rocket scientists and other brainy types.

The plus side is the pleasure one gets when one cashes a nice-sized ticket, a glow that exceeds anything that can be felt when one’s card or number comes up in a game of chance. Racing’s challenge is intellectual, not statistical, and in the moment of victory you’re the smartest guy in the room, with the applause no less real for being internal.  

  The cause of the above is that on Saturday the 139th Kentucky Derby will be run at old Churchill Downs in Louisville. It’s the one race to have when you’re having only one meaning that many civilians will have money on the outcome, if only because of a post-position number drawn in a pool.  A few even will try their hand at handicapping, an exercise that, usually, will satisfy the urge for at least another year.

We regulars look forward to the Derby, too. That’s partly because public attention to the race expands bragging rights (people listen up when they heard you’ve picked a Derby winner), but mostly because the race presents unique handicapping questions that, when answered, increase the joy of winning.

Many non-fans are aware of the main analytical test that the Derby presents-- that the contestants will be running 1 1/4 miles, 1/8-mile longer than they’ve run before.  A good deal of research has gone into determining which have the capacity to go that extra distance, the main one being Dosage Theory, which attempts to quantify how a horse’s ancestry affects his ability to win at various distances. Such info is part of the Daily Racing Form’s Derby-day coverage and, as such, can be perused by the plungers. Trouble is, most horses in every Derby field broadly qualify to win at 1 ¼ miles, so we’re back to relying on the stats and evidence of our senses.

Equally important, I think, is the impact of the size of the Derby field, which this year as in the past several will number 20 horses, barring late scratches. That’s a real herd, one so big that when it leaves the starting gate (two gates, actually) one expects to see John Wayne leading the charge, with bugles blowing. 

One upshot is that post position in the Derby is more important than it is in just about any other race. The horses in positions 1 and 2 are at particular risk; if they can’t beat the field over the first 200 or so yards they’ll become penned between the rail and the horses outside them, and might not escape. No horse starting from PP1 has won the race since Ferdinand in 1986. No PP2 has scored since Affirmed in 1978.

The plight of the far-outside horses isn’t as bad, but anyone who bets on them does so knowing they’ll have farther to run than the others.  Big Brown prevailed from PP20 in 2008 but he was souped up on steroids that were banned for the race the next year. I’ll Have Another won from 19 last year but also won the Preakness, showing he was a lot better than he looked in the Derby form.

The Derby’s length tempts many bettors into favoring late-running horses that have made up ground toward the ends of their previous races, whether or not they prevailed. This reasoning neglects the factor of “trip.” The banging around that’s part of just about every horse race is accentuated in the big Derby field, and any horse that runs from the middle or rear of the pack figures to encounter more of it than those up front.  To win from off the pace an animal must be lucky as well as good, a tough combination.

The good news about a big field is that it usually spreads the wagering around to create a good betting race, meaning that good odds can be had on very good horses. Most Derby favorites in recent years have gone off in the 3-to-1 to 4-to-1 range, and in 2010 Lookin At Lucky was the betting choice at a whopping 6-to-1. Much the same thing promises to be the case in a Saturday field that includes four horses that appear to be outstanding: Orb (7-to-2 in the morning line), Verrazano (4-to-1), Goldencents (5-to-1) and Revolutionary (10-to-1). Each has a top-heavy win record and excellent recent form that includes a major Derby prep-race victory.

 I don’t think there’s 10 cents worth of difference among the four of them, putting other factors into play.  One is value, meaning trying to get more bang for the buck, so I’ll be taking the two longest shots of the top four, Goldencents and Revolutionary.  Goldencents likes to run up front so he’ll have a good trip if he can do that. Revolutionary is a mid-packer, which could be a problem, but he’ll be in good hands because his jockey is Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner who is something of a Churchill Downs specialist. Additionally, rain is in the forecast for Saturday and Revolutionary has an off-track win on his record. Post position shouldn’t be a problem for either animal.

The Derby is a good place for longshots and I have two: Overanalyze and It’s My Lucky Day, both at 15-to-1. They look to be about a step slower than the top four on form but that’s more than balanced out by their odds and solid records. It’s My Lucky Day is especially attractive because of an off-track win and the experience he’s gained in 10 previous starts, more than any other entrant.  While I reserve the right to have late inspirations I’ll be taking a $2 exacta box of 3-8-9-12, a $24 bet. It’ll pay off nicely if my horses finish 1-2 in any order.

NOTE: For my take on racing’s Triple Crown series generally check out my Thursday piece on the website The link is above. There’s other good stuff there, too.