Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A MOTO's Guide to the Preakness

By Steve Brady

A couple of months ago, there was a very large Pick 6 carryover at Santa Anita that I thought I’d try to take down. (Winning the Pick 6 is slightly better odds than winning the Super Lotto. It requires picking the winners of the last six races of the day. If no one succeeds on that given day, the money in the pool carries over to the next day.) It was a Thursday and I slipped out of work and took a long lunch and went down to the nearest betting venue, Hollywood Park (HP's oval, pictured above). I had never been there on a non-racing day. It was an eye-opening experience. Even in the festive atmosphere of a racing Saturday in June, Hollywood Park’s a pretty seedy place. But on a Thursday afternoon with no races running, and only the betting windows open, it’s downright dreary, and the pari-mutuel clerks are even snippier than usual. The place is populated by a lot of wretched retirees wearing nylon windbreakers and sporting desperate, toothless grins, all the while filling out boxes in bet slip cards and screaming up at TV monitors carrying live feeds from other tracks around the country. I turned in my card marked up with my exotic picks, and, as I was leaving, I passed an old codger, who casually asked me who I liked in the fourth race. Since I was betting on the Pick 6, I was being pretty conservative, and I said, “I guess I like the 2.” The old guy screwed up his face, and said, “The 2??!! That’s the favorite!!” He walked away from me with utter contempt. I was a MOTO and not to be associated with.

A MOTO is a Master Of The Obvious, one of the worst things you can be called at the track. Anyone can pick the horse that’s supposed to win. It doesn’t take any smarts or guts to pick a favorite, and in the long run it’s a losing proposition. Favorites win less than a third of the time—at odds of 5-2 or worse. Your bankroll can quickly disappear. The skill in handicapping is in reading between the lines, and remembering a horse that had a bad trip last time out, or that seemed just on the verge of getting over the hump. That’s where value is; that’s where the satisfaction in the game lies. Still, sometimes the favorites are unavoidable. And winning only a tiny bit of money is better than giving it away to that guy in the loud sportsjacket in the clubhouse.

“That's life (that's life), that's what all the people say...
You're ridin' high in April, shot down in May…”

I had a revelation as I watched the big screen at Hollywood Park on Derby Day. When Kelly L. Gordon and Dean K. Thompson wrote the song “That’s Life,” recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1966, they must have been thinking about the Kentucky Derby. (I guess “shot down on the first Saturday in May” had too many syllables to fit the music.) My prediction that Brother Derek would overcome his outside post and win the Derby certainly was shot down. The colt I said would settle for a minor slice (Barbaro) ended up completely dominating the field. (See the video replay at kentuckyderby.com.)

The fact that I stuck to my pre-race prediction was my own mule-headedness. I heard the clockers’ reports from Churchill Downs on racing shows all week on sports radio. They all said the same thing—Barbaro was training like a monster. They also said that Sweetnorthernsaint was training well, and that Brother Derek was only doing okay. I guess I refused to listen. I had spent hours poring over the Daily Racing Form’s past performances, and already made my picks, and thought I’d feel like an even bigger dope if I bailed on my horse and he won after all.

“…But I know I'm gonna change that tune...
When I'm back on top, back on top in June...”

Barbaro (left, decisively winning the Derby) certainly was the better horse, and I’m sure he will be “back on top in (the 2d Saturday in) June” when they run the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. The concern for the moment, however, is whether or not he’ll win the 131st Preakness Stakes this Saturday at Pimlico in Baltimore. [Broadcast coverage on NBC television commences 5 p.m. EST, with post time approx. 6:05 p.m. EST.] In all likelihood he will, so the more pressing question is: Who will come in second, Brother Derek or Sweetnorthernsaint?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any juicy overlays for this second leg of the Triple Crown. Yet Barbaro might be vulnerable. If he’s going to lose a race, it’ll be this one. At 1-3/16 miles, it’s the shortest of the Triple Crown races, and as a son of Dynaformer, his pedigree is for distance. Also, he earned his highest-ever Beyer Speed Figure (111) in the Derby, and it’s not at all uncommon to "bounce" off of a peak, especially since he’s used to trainer Michael Matz spoiling him with those five-week vacations, and now he’s only getting two weeks off between races.

Here are some other factors:

Sweetnorthernsaint (above) was sent out as the betting favorite in the Derby, but he had a very tough trip. A.P. Warrior and Private Vow decided to make a sandwich out of him coming out of the gate, and he had a tough time getting a decent position. While Barbaro was on cruise control in the carpool lane, the Saint had to bob and weave his way through the pack. All that stop-and-go driving took its toll, and he had nothing left at the end. He had to settle for a moral victory and seventh place.

Brother Derek (pictured left, in happier, pre-Derby times) also had a terrible trip at Churchill Downs, despite being the early morning-line favorite. You may second-guess trainer Dan Hendricks and jockey Alex Solis for their end-around game plan, but you can’t blame the horse for not trying. He ran so wide in the Derby that he can now claim he’s nearly tried the Belmont’s extra two furlongs. Consider the fact that he threw a right front shoe, and add in the way he closed to grab a dead heat for fourth (with Jazil), and his race was actually pretty commendable. With a more competent blacksmith and access to Mapquest, he just might have snagged second. It’s unlikely Derek will do better than second place at Pimlico. Still, with this shorter trip (he has a sprinter’s pedigree) and a better-fitting set of Nikes, and his consistent plus-100 Beyers, it’s quite possible he could spoil Barbaro’s celebratory crab-cake dinner at Fell’s Point.

I guess I’m obligated to mention a couple of these other horses (at this point, the list of entries is not even final), but the fact is Barbaro’s Derby performance scared off any meaningful competition. Derek and the Saint are the only two willing to come back and take him on after the Derby. Steppenwolfer and some of the other “slow and steady” types will probably wait in the wings for a shot at the Belmont, and it’s tough to believe any of the newcomers will be a threat in the Preakness.

Bernardini seems to have the best credentials of the wannabes. He earned a Beyer figure of 104 while winning the G3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on April 29. He finished that race in a very impressive 1:35 flat, shaving 2/5 of a second off his time at Gulfstream Park in early March. (In that race, he easily defeated High Finance, another speedster who just recently pulled his name from consideration in the Preakness.) Of course, Bernie was only carrying 116 lbs. in the Withers. I hope he doesn’t resent having to haul around an extra tenth of a jockey in Baltimore. (His dad is A.P. Indy, the former Belmont winner and 1992 Horse of the Year.)

Ah Day is a Maryland-bred gelding out of Leatherbury Stables. (A.P. Indy is his grandfather—so A.P. is certainly leaving his mark on the 2006 Triple Crown.) Ah Day won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel, but that’s hardly the kind of resume where The Donald gives you a job on “The Apprentice.” Steve Klesaris owns and trains Diabolical. Great name for a horse, and he’s showed some speed. He won a one-mile allowance race at Delaware Park on April 25 by more than 8 lengths. Good work, but it’s probably "too much too little too late" to try again with Barbaro, who beat him badly in the Laurel Futurity last November. Diabolical and Ah Day both seem like promising colts, but can they undergo an overnight maturation and stretch out to compete with these proven talents? Anything’s possible, but it’s hard to believe, and even harder to put money on. My advice: Don’t forget them in your superfecta wagering.

Hemingway’s Key is a closer out of Nick Zito’s barn. (If you call inching up from 8th place to 6th in the Grade 2 Land’s End closing; but, hey, it’s an improvement from the 6th to 8th slip he displayed in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream three weeks earlier.) Hemingway’s a question mark for the Preakness, and he might be better advised to hold out for the Belmont. I guess if you give him enough track, he might eventually close all the way to first.

Greeley’s Legacy is another possible entry in Baltimore. His past performance lines read about the same as Hemingway’s, but he’s got about twice as many races under his girth, so a radical leap forward at this point seems unlikely.

I still think Barbaro wins the Preakness, but even if he doesn't end up the “cream of the crop” in Baltimore, he should be back on top in June, singing "New York, New York." Still, at even odds or lower, he may not be worth a straight bet.

After my Derby selections, I’ve got to pick myself up and get back in the race.

1. Barbaro
2. Brother Derek
3. Sweetnorthernsaint

An exacta with Barbaro on top, and Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek in second.
A second bet (with less money) on a three-way boxed exacta: BARB w/SNS w/BroDer.
A boxed trifecta with all three.

Steve Brady is a new voice in the horse-racing industry. He lives, works and does his handicapping in Los Angeles. This is his second contribution to Sports Media America. He can be reached at stevebrady@hotmail.com.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Finding an Oasis in Nashville's Jock Radio Landscape

Jock radio in Nashville isn't so good. That is to say, it could be greatly improved upon. There's 104.5-FM The Zone, primarily a conduit for FOX Sports. There's 106.7-FM The Fan, which means primarily ESPN Radio. And then there's SportsRadio WNSR 560-AM, which mixes original local programming with feeds from Sporting News Radio.

There are swampy sinkholes throughout this landscape. Sports freaks being what they are, they'll probably listen to just about anything, which maybe explains something about the level of brainfood we get listening to the sports radio scene. Sports airtime sells. If only we were getting more bang for the buck.

In fact, there are huge opportunities for local sports radio to surpass the syndicated feeds. For example, I've completely cut 106.7 out of my morning diet. Listening early in the morning to Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on ESPN Radio gives me a headache. Between Greenberg's fast-talking ego run amok and Golic's loud, oafish unpleasant dopiness, I simply can no longer tune in. Then at 9 a.m. (CST), Colin Cowherd enters the ESPN fray, with just possibly the worst sports radio show in the history of humankind. The guy is completely unlistenable, as he desperately tries to force-feed his essentially weak (yet obnoxiously loud) personality across the airwaves. There's nothing more depressing than a Cowherd rant, a device he uses often to fill air-space, presumably because he has nothing else interesting planned for his three-hour stint.

Maybe WNSR's most important contribution locally is broadcasting Nashville Sounds games. They also do local college game broadcasts. They do a lot of original programming during the weekdays, mostly employing a motley crew of broadcasters and "personalities," a situation which yields little that's innovative but generally feeds the average-minded sports radio appetite well enough. Boilerplate announcer types like Bill King and Don West helm call-in shows and SEC oldtimer Max Howell does a folksy set, with "The Morning Sports Page" anchoring the weekday lineup. This latter program, which has enjoyed a pretty good broadcasting shelf life, is co-hosted by Greg Pogue, a veteran Middle Tennessee newspaper editor. Pogue knows his stuff, but it isn't easy to listen to him. He's got a cackling Kentucky drawl that makes Granny Clampett look like a society matron. Then there's his sidekick (with the accent on the "kick"), David Coleman. I Googled Coleman once a few years ago. I think he's from Arkansas. I think maybe he was a jock of some sort. I think he's also an advocate for father's rights. Which is kind of interesting, given that Coleman has been known to shill for online gambling sites. Otherwise, it's a complete mystery what he's doing on the air. His interplay with Pogue is flat-out embarrassing sometimes. He never adds anything original to the content, and he spends a lot of the time as the butt of Pogue's jokes about his ineptness.

To top it all off, WNSR's weak radio signal is sometimes annoying to home in on. It's too often easier to just give up listening.

The Zone is a sports and talk-radio station, which means the fare is mixed. But on the sports side, it means one is subjected to the wholly unpleasant Jim Rome, FOX Sports' big "national" personality. Rome's from the "Who is that sonofabitch?" school of broadcasting. He's another one whose ego is grossly out of control. Like Cowherd and Greenberg, he's loud and insistent, and in lieu of saying anything insightful he'd rather bore us with his personal life, or, worse, outlandishly over-the-top and inane sports opinions. His gig is also unlistenable. The Zone's longest-lived local sports program is "The Sports Zone," an afternoon broadcast that touts itself as "Nashville's top rated sports talk show." It's hard to fathom how teeth-gratingly-bad small-market-nerd George Plaster could ever be "top rated" in anything. Listening to Plaster gets me depressed fast. His associates Willy Daunic and Darren McFarland seem okay. Maybe just get George out of the mix and the show would be worthy of someone's time.

The Fan used to have a typical afternoon interview and call-in show featuring somewhat overbearing, "hardcore" sports announcer Blake Fulton and longtime Tennessean writer Joe Biddle (who actually says "cain't"). It's gone presently—I confess ignorance on this situation, and the station's Web site isn't of any help—and we're currently just receiving more syndicated ESPN feeds, such as Erik Kuselias' "The SportsBash," which is, quite frankly, both tedious and overwrought. The king of the sports radio airwaves remains Dan Patrick. His noon-3 p.m. (CST) ESPN show is consistently entertaining, and as long as Patrick can avoid becoming a legend in his own mind, his basic wit, sophisticated sense of humor and warm radio voice should keep him at the top. The relatively recent addition of Keith Olbermann to one hour of Patrick's show meets with mixed reviews. It's okay. More need not be said.

At any rate, this state of affairs has still left me bereft in the mornings. But I might've found an oasis in the radio desert with 104.5's "Wake Up Zone." There's nothing particularly innovative about the show, but the team of Mark Howard, former Titans tight end Frank Wycheck and Kevin Ingram (pictured, left to right) at least are unafraid to get sardonic on us. Wycheck surprises with his willingness to get edgy, and his insider perspective adds some authenticity to the gab. His voice is pretty much a monotone, but it seems to work okay. Howard, of course, is the former local TV sports anchor who is also an occasional print writer. He reads better on the radio than he did on TV, with a relative dryness still the name of his game. (Alas, I recently heard Howard declare that Tom Cruise was a "brilliant" actor. This statement bears examination by a mental-health professional.) Anyway, Howard is efficiently in the mix here, as is Ingram, nondescriptly but authoritatively along the path of a career broadcasting guy.

"Wake Up Zone" isn't a world-beater but it seems to be a step in the right direction. It's also solid proof that it doesn't take much on the local level to surpass the kind of mediocre stuff that the sports-radio syndicates are currently foisting on listeners.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Pacman's Latest Escapades Create More PR Nightmares for Titans

Public altercations involving unsavory characters. Suspicious automobiles. Guns. Cocaine. Huge amounts of cash.

What sounds like the teaser for a forthcoming episode of “Law & Order” is actually a slice from the life of Tennessee Titans defensive back Adam (“Pacman”) Jones.

Last year’s #1 Titans draft choice (pictured, left) was a PR nightmare from the beginning. In summer 2005 he held out from signing his contract, lost valuable time learning the team’s defensive scheme, then entered the season cautiously, exhibiting remarkable physical talent and a grapefruit for a brain. Jones had some good moments returning kicks, but he also was eaten up alive by opposing wide receivers.

Jones has the speed to be a shut-down cornerback, which is why he was drafted so high. He sometimes showed improvement as a defender, then he’d slip back and get burned badly, which is the price paid by teams willing to give their thoroughbreds on-the-job training.

As stated often in these pages in the recent era, the Titans still need help in their defensive backfield. They didn’t necessarily address the problem either in the recent 2006 draft, opting for high-profile offensive talent in Vince Young and LenDale White. Given Jones’ recent extra-curricular exploits, the problem has probably just gotten worse.

Last season, Jones was involved in a fracas at a strip club. The thing went to court and then was dropped, but the judgment issues surrounding his behavior still loomed large. Now we get this recent story, reported efficiently by Nashville’s NBC affiliate, WSMV-Channel 4 news.

Pacman Jones needs a nanny. Or maybe the Titans could hook him up with the Big Brothers of America. The thuggish behavior and thuggish associations are one thing, I guess, but the idea that a highly paid NFL player would be exercising judgment of this kind is disturbing.

Why would a young man with his own multi-million-dollar pro football contract be consorting publicly with drug dealers? I dunno. If he wanted to, Pacman could buy his stash on the QT, then take an interest in Nashville’s civic, social and artistic life, and none of us would be the wiser that he likes to get high.

Instead, he decides to hang out in public places with miscreants, and somehow his car is being driven by a gun-toting drug dealer. This is not good.

Pacman Jones is young, yes. He is also shockingly inarticulate. Hearing him speak, it is hard to believe he attended West Virginia University. He appears to be confused about who he is and misdirected in his private life. It is logical to presume that he is on a life course that will lead to no good. It’s a very sad situation.

Pacman Jones needs good mentors. He needs counseling. He needs someone to show him that he can be a millionaire athlete and still have rewarding activities that are as much fun as hanging out with thugs.

Could be it’s too late, though. He could be involved in this latest episode more deeply than we know. He seems to have a johnny-on-the-spot attorney working for him. At least he's figured out that much.

I guess the Pacman story might be a tad more regrettable if he actually had performed on the field last year displaying the kind of good judgment so apparently lacking in his personal life. But for all his racehorse speed, he still looked pretty confused about playing cornerback in the NFL.

He can learn, though. He can improve. But he won't get the chance if he's keeping court dates.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Immigration's Great if You're Pedro Martinez, but the Rest Is a Mess

Where would American sports of the past 50 years be without immigrants?

The face of American baseball has been radically altered in the past decades by the influx of gifted Hispanics. European basketball players are definitely the hottest trend in the NBA. NFL football sees less of this but there are a few exceptions, with African nationals seeming to be the most prevalent new group of players. Canadians rule the roost in pro hockey, even though most of the teams are located in the U.S.

The point being that, since the color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947, American sports have steadily been enhanced by the participation of talented athletes from all over the world. We don't seem to have any problem with immigrants to the sporting world, so long as they can rush the passer efficiently, drill a three-point-shot with the game on the line, or hit 40 homers and drive in 130 runs.

So immigration is a good thing. Right?

Alas, uncontrolled, unbridled and willy-nilly immigration is NOT a good thing. There are very good reasons why the U.S. has the Immigration and Naturalization Service. INS oversees and enforces immigration policy. Policy. P-O-L-I-C-Y. As in, the law of the land, the way our lawmakers have seen fit to deal with a public issue, the current expressed governmental position on a national concern. The United States does not, by statute, allow uncontrolled immigration into the country. There are rules about such things. There are quotas for other countries whose residents want to come to America.

Whether INS and its policing arms are successful in keeping every illegal out of the country is not germane to this discussion. The fact is, that when you enter the United States illegally, you are in violation of existing law. Just because you may have made a long, arduous journey to America, and just because you managed to avoid contact with the U. S. Border Patrol, and just because you managed to arrive in Los Angeles and get a job doing lawnwork, this does not make the fact of your illegality disappear.

Furthermore, just because some American employers have decided to take advantage of this situation, and proceed to pay meager, un-American wages to illegals, this does not confer on illegals some kind of golden status. They remain illegal. In this case, they're just the exploited illegals. And one has to laugh at the reaction of these employers, some of whom have been caught in the news saying, "Without these people, I can't run my business. I'll go under." So...what does that say about your business, guy? It can only be run using illegals who will work for subsistence wages? So, you WANT them to remain illegal? No doubt. Because, after all, if they get legal, you'll have to pay them minimum wage, and take out taxes for them, and maybe offer a health package. Or maybe you'll have to pay $15/hour, in which case you might get applications from all sorts of legal American citizens who will do the work if you're paying a good wage.

I still think it's a myth that "no one will do this work except the illegals..." Offer an acceptable compensation package, and people will come.

Welcome to the messed-up nature of the current immigration imbroglio. At last, a political issue where limousine liberals and President Bush can meet in the middle. I can just see Ted Kennedy clinking glasses with the Prez. Kennedy's for anything that supports people of any color other than white, or who appear to be downtrodden (even, apparently, if they're criminals); Bush, on the other hand—his rhetoric about a guest-worker program aside—likes the fact that illegals are providing cheap labor for his businessman friends. Remember him speaking Spanish during the 2000 presidential election? Remember how grudgingly impressed the lefty media were?

Stuck in the middle—and, as always, without advocacy—is the steadily dwindling American middle class. Everyone knows most tax monies are taken from the middle class. The wealthy legally hide their money, and the poor have none. So the silent majority bears the bulk of the tax burden. It is those very tax monies that support public services and handout programs that are availed by illegal immigrants. The immigrants, mind you, by virtue of their being illegal, contribute nothing (or nada, if you will) to the tax coffers. Yet their very existence ties up millions of tax dollars in INS administration, law enforcement, border patrols, education, emergency medical services, and general welfare expenditures.

How ironic is it that a middle- or lower-middle-class American might pay his taxes, which support emergency health care for illegals, yet he himself does not have access to an affordable health-care plan to take care of his own health needs?

What's very sad is that the recent May 1 national gatherings in support of the illegals sounded not a single note of common sense and understanding about how the current situation affects the average legal tax-paying American.

This is not a story about bigotry, despite the best efforts of some Hispanic leaders to paint that picture. This is not an issue that revolves around skin color. This is about justice, the laws of the land, the methodical, well-thought-out immigration process as administered by the INS, and, lastly, but not leastly, economics.

You can't have open immigration on your country's borders. It's chaotic, it's unplanned, it drains local resources, it's a disruption to an orderly way of life. It's the very reason the INS has its rules, which have been developed over many years and in consideration of the immigration desires of people from all continents.

In researching this column, it took me well into four Google pages on the search words, "immigration issues," to find any story of substance about those who want a halt to the uncontrolled immigration of Mexicans into America. That's because the first few pages were filled with stories about the recent rallies and a ton of liberal claptrap about bigotry against Mexicans.

White Americans don't hate Mexicans. Let's get this one straight. And then let's hear nothing more about it. It's a liberally placed red-herring to distract from the harder, deeper issues.

What would probably be great is an immediate halt to illegals trying to get through the border. If we could get to that point, then maybe we could stop and take stock of the current estimated 10-12 million illegals already here. Maybe then we could get a plan together that would be fair and considerate of their employment and residential and family status. Maybe then, local tax burdens could get a breather. Maybe then, local schools and social-service agencies and the police could start to get a handle on the human issues that massive, unchecked illegal immigration has wrought.

One recent TV report on the topic asked a Hispanic gentleman about the fact of illegality. He blew off the question's main point and said only, with typical umbrage,"We just want to work..." [Subtext: "We just want to work and earn more money here than we would ever earn in Mexico. We don't care about the illegal stuff. We are oblivious to the economic and tax realities that have made this such an important issue in the United States. In fact, we are so desperate to stay, we don't care if we are illegal or not, and we don't care that those Americans who would be our neighbors are assuming an unfair tax burden to put up with us while we are here skulking around illegally, trying to earn our living and trying to avoid contact with the police or any other enforcement arm of the government."]

The Joe Average in a state like California must be beside himself. He works hard, pays his taxes, barely can afford health care (if at all), watches the gap between very rich and very poor become wider and wider, knows that millions of illegals don't contribute to the California tax base, and then turns on his television to see thousands marching all over the country to support illegals' "rights." Meawhile, even the right-wing president can't be counted on to protect this losing proposition of a situation.

Here's a hard fact that few probably think about: Mexico is a Third World country. There it is, right on the border of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. God only knows what Mexican President Vicente Fox has to say about all of this. He's probably very happy that millions of his countrymen have left, because God knows, he's not doing anything to make his country a place where citizens would like to stay. Where is the dialogue between Fox and Bush? It's unbelievable what little leadership there is between these two despots.

People like to think that the idea of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is a ludicrous piece of science fiction dreamed up only by right-wing nuts and shotgun-toting bigots. But guess what? In the absence of any effective bi-partisan plan to halt illegal immigration, and in light of the absolute and desperate determination of Mexicans to breach the borders—they will stop at nothing—the wall idea is not looking bad at all. It's straightforward, technically feasible, infinitely effective, and it resolves a problem that will go unresolved otherwise.

Clearly, the Mexicans who would be Americans couldn't care less about the impact their actions are having. They say: "We just want to work, we just want to make a new life for ourselves, and to give our children a future." All great things. Congrats. But there's no such thing as a free lunch, and everything has its price. And there's also that little thing called the INS rules of the game.

Illegals have become the cockroaches of the contiguous U.S. homestead. Now they want amnesty and encouragement (and driver's licenses, too, of course), while millions of other cockroaches are trying to sneak in under the baseboard.

Sorry, folks, but the existing infestation problem needs to be addressed. And in order to deal with it effectively, the baseboard needs to be sealed up in the interim, so the problem won't get worse.

Anyone got a can of Raid? Or maybe an impenetrable 1,500-mile-long border barrier?