Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stand by Your Horse (With Apologies to Tammy Wynette)

[SMA's horse specialist, Los Angeles-based Steve Brady, offers us his assessment of Saturday’s running of the 139th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. Post time is scheduled for approximately 6:30 p.m. ET, with television coverage set for 5 p.m. ET on ABC.]

Stand by your horse
Even as his odds keep risin'
The payout could be surprisin’
If tracks are fast or sloppy.

Stand by your horse
And show the clerk your ticket
Keep bettin’ all your dough, of course
Stand by your horse.

Okaaaay, I was a little off in the Preakness. I had the top three, but I had them in the wrong order. My 1, 2, 3…came in 2, 3, 1… If I had just boxed them in a trifecta, I would have done fine. But I thought Curlin was just too green to win the race, so I threw him out of the top spot in deference to Hard Spun. Waaaah!!

Looking back, it appears the best horse won—end of story. Despite his inexperience, Curlin (above) ran a monster race. He showed his mental toughness by battling back in the final furlong and grabbed the race by the tip of his nose, and he did it with Street Sense and jockey Calvin “Bo-rail” having all the momentum with their textbook come-from-behind stretch run. Plus, he did that with only three previous races on his resume, and having never raced as a two-year-old. And he did it just two weeks after a tough third in the Kentucky Derby. Furthermore, he did it with that big frame cornering those tight turns at Pimlico, so he should handle Belmont’s arching track even better.

So, right now it looks like the obvious thing is to just pick Curlin (#3) again in the Belmont, right? Well, hold on there, Little Filly. There are a few other things to consider. And one of them is a big filly: Rags to Riches (#7). With no assistance from Title IX, it’s been more than a hundred years since a filly has won the Belmont (Tanya in 1905). Still, as the third favorite, Rags to Riches is worth a look.

Rags to Riches (left) won the Kentucky Oaks the day before Street Sense won the Derby in May. She’s won her last four races and won her last three as a clear favorite. She won the Oaks by four-and-a-half lengths, and finished it in one-fifth of a second faster than Curlin finished the Arkansas Derby at the same distance. Plus, since she’s running in the equine equivalent of high heels, they give her a five-pound break on the jockey’s weight. Add to that the extra two weeks’ rest, and her off-the-pace running style (which tends to do well in the Belmont), and you know why she’s 3-1 on the morning line.

Her entry has also been part of an interesting game of musical saddles going into this race. John Velasquez will ride R2R in the Belmont, even though Garrett Gomez rode her in all four of her wins. Garrett jumped over to Hard Spun when Larry Jones called him after Mario Pino (presumably) blew HS’s ride in the Preakness. Gomez didn’t think Todd Pletcher—thoroughbred racing’s answer to the pre-Masters Phil Mickelson: “best trainer never to have won a major”—would enter R2R in the Belmont, and it was too late to get back on her when he did. Pletcher offered the ride to #2 man Velasquez. You’d think Garrett would be happy just to have a ride—especially on the lone speed in a race that tends to favor runners on (or just off) the pace.

Still, even with Curlin’s proven athleticism, I’m still standing by my colt: Hard Spun (#6). He’s the standout speed of the race, and with this short field and the long run up to the first turn, post position won’t be much of a factor. He’ll be able to sit on the shoulder of fellow speedster Slew’s Tizzy (#5) for a mile and a quarter before taking over the lead. I do think Pino blew the ride in Baltimore. (That's Pino aboard Hard Spun, above, in a pre-Derby workout.) He moved too early and spent a lot of Hard Spun’s energy on the turn. Gomez is more patient, and despite his second thoughts, I’m very happy that he’s on Spun. With the rider upgrade, the on-the-pace favoring track and distance, and the favorable odds, Hard Spun seems like a solid bet.

Tiago (#2) scares me. He finished a strong seventh and galloped out past Street Sense in the Derby. And he's bred to run all day. He's had plenty of rest, and he put in some nice maintenance work on the Hollywood Cushiontrack in the interim.

Imawildandcrazyguy (#1) was fourth in the Derby, and he’s also been munching on Pringles in the La-Z-Boy the past five weeks. He just may feel up to taking a run on Saturday.

C P West (#4) hasn’t won since his very first maiden race almost a year ago. He hung on for fourth in the Preakness, but to me that just means he’ll have all the “tired” without any of the talent of Curlin or Hard Spun.

The Picks:

1. Hard Spun
2. Curlin
3. Rags to Riches
4. Tiago

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Shut Up and Play: Sheffield’s Attempt to Clarify GQ Interview Falls Flat

A year or so ago, I heard some jabber on sports radio about current major league baseball players who will or won’t make the Hall of Fame. When the name of Gary Sheffield came up, the consensus seemed to be that he wouldn’t. In fact, as I recall, there was little debate on the matter.

But hold on a second. As I write this, Sheffield has 468 career home runs, 1,533 career RBIs, and a career batting average of .297. He’s 38 years old at the moment, and as the Detroit Tigers’ designated hitter, there’s no reason to think he might not have a few good years left at the plate. He’s on pace this year, for example, to hit 39 homers and drive in 96 runs. He’s already got more career RBIs, and hits, than Mickey Mantle, whose .298 career average and 536 lifetime home runs are also certainly within Sheffield’s reach if he stays healthy and continues to perform.

Sheffield has driven in more than 100 runs in eight different seasons (Mantle, 4). Four times he’s driven in 120 runs or more (Mantle, 2). He’s been selected to nine All-Star teams, and has been in the top 10 in MVP voting six times. And, he won a championship ring with the 1997 Florida Marlins. So, based on the numbers, Sheffield is going to make it awfully tough for HOF voters to ignore him when his time comes around.

Alas, Sheffield probably did himself a negative PR turn in a recent GQ interview, in which he claimed that the rise in Latin American ballplayers in the major leagues is because they can be controlled more easily than African Americans. Then Sheffield tried to clarify his remarks.

"When you see a black face on TV and they start talking, English comes out,” Sheffield said in defense of his GQ statements. “That's what I said. I ain't taking a shot at them or nothing. I'm just telling it like it is."

Sheffield had told GQ: "Where I'm from, you can't control us."

Tuesday, Sheffield also said, "They [Latins] have more to lose than we do. You can send them back across the island. You can't send us back. We're already here."

Studies show that only approximately 8 percent of major league baseball players are black, while nearly 30 percent are Latino. The decline in blacks has been precipitous since the late 1970s.

Sheffield might make the Hall of Fame, but he’ll probably never make membership in Mensa.

What, Gary, ya mean if there was a black kid hitting the crap out of a baseball in, say, inner-city Chicago, that he would be snubbed by MLB? Are ya saying that talented black players have been IGNORING baseball in recent years as a form of PROTEST?? Against control??

Right, Gary: Black guys are giving up $50 million in lifetime earnings 'cause they don't want to be "controlled."

Last I checked, baseball—like every other major sport—is interested in athletes who can play at the highest level. Believe me, if there are black players better than the Latins, I guarantee that the team will choose the black players. If 25 black guys showed up on the doorstep of the lowly Kansas City Royals, and they were all better than the team's current roster, it would be "So long current roster, hello black guys!"

Oh, I get it, Gary: Baseball used to be 25% black, and now it's only 8% black, but that's because black guys have found more money and personal fulfillment—and freedom of expression!—working as accountants and schoolteachers and insurance salesmen. Doh!

I don't know why there are more Latins than blacks in MLB. Is it just possible that they happen to be the best players around? Oh no... wait... it's because MLB teams want to have more control over the guys they turn into millionaires, rather than playing more talented guys that they can't control. So, apparently, there are several baseball teams’ worth of black guys sitting around somewhere, who COULD play MLB but aren't because either they don't wanna play for the "massa" owners, or because the owners are intentionally snubbing them, even if it would mean that their teams would improve.

You know, there are issues, and there are issues. This ain’t one of ‘em. But if it is, I wish someone would bother to tackle it with some honesty and intelligence.

Go stand in the corner, Gary. And after you’ve thought about this a little more, we’ll let you come back and continue your attempt to build that Hall of Fame resume.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Weenie Greenie: ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg Gives Us All a Lesson in Arrogance

If it was ever in doubt before—and it certainly wasn’t to me—ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg officially entered the category of “weenie” this past Thursday morning. He also entered a few other categories as well, like “arrogant SOB,” “cheapskate,” and let’s throw in “insensitive, presumptuous boob” while we’re at it. I suppose he also enters the category of “stupid guy,” for telling the story that exposed his own self for the supercilious phony that he is.

With great relish, Greenberg told his sub-normal-IQ sidekick Mike Golic the tale of arriving in his Washington, D.C., hotel room—both were in the Nation’s Capital to cover the national spelling bee—only to discover that he must have left his credit card in his taxicab. Greenberg fretted and then considered calling his credit card company to cancel the card—having assumed the worst, of course.

Later, he received a phone call from the hotel front desk, and then was connected to the taxi driver himself, calling to say that he was at the airport and had found Greenberg’s credit card, and that he would return it to him as soon as possible.

A half hour later, there’s a knock on Greenberg’s door and it’s the cabbie, with the credit card. At this point during the on-air radio exchange, Goonie Golic ventured that he assumed that Greenie threw the cabbie a tip for making the extra run, suggesting a $20 bill.

Here’s where it gets ugly: Greenie then launched into a completely bogus rationale, how it never occurred to him to give the cabbie a tip, and that, furthermore, this was an opportunity for the cabbie to share in the “good karma” that comes with being honest.

I don’t know which airport the cabbie was coming from, Reagan National or BWI or Dulles, but it hardly matters. Cab drivers are working men. I know. I drove a cab for four years in the Chicago area from 1995-99. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I ever had, but I can tell you this for sure: Most cab drivers are amazingly decent and very human people. The stories of how each of them—men and women alike—have come to drive their taxis are consistently interesting, and sometimes inspiring. Cab drivers are ex-Vietnam vets, and former convicts trying to get straight, and otherwise guys and gals trying to figure out their lives just like everybody else. The cabbie experience unites them with humanity. They see it all, they put up with a lot of crap, and 99% of the time they do their jobs diligently and with as much honor as they can, especially given that society—and arrogant SOBs like Greenberg—generally categorize them as semi-lovable losers. This despite the fact that cab drivers are killed on city streets with as much frequency as police officers.

But back to Greenberg’s non-tip. Cabbies are working men, and their time—and gas—is money. Any sensitive human being with half a brain would know this, and that cabbie deserved money for his time and effort. It’s a total no-brainer. Not to mention the hassle Greenberg was saved by not having to cancel his credit card and go through getting a new account number.

Here’s what we know about Greenberg, since he’s such a bigmouth on his radio show, constantly relating his precious personal life on a daily basis (as if everyone wanted to know): He seems to come from an upscale New York home. He attended Northwestern University outside of Chicago. It’s not a cheap school. In fact, it’s a very expensive school, and sons who come from rich families—guys like Greenberg—go there. After graduation, Greenberg hooked up with local Chicago sports radio, and then weenied his way into the ESPN fraternity. He apparently lives with his perfect young family in a large, spacious home—Golic refers to it on-air—and he likes to remind his listeners that he doesn’t do blue-collar stuff. Greenie wants us to know that he’s the “eggheaded” kinda sports guy—all knowledge and subtle insight, of the type that eludes Goonie Golic. (Well, of that there is no doubt, but that’s not saying anything. Golic can hardly stammer successfully.)

So I guess if you’re an arrogant, ambitious New York type like Greenberg, you probably look down on cab drivers. You probably think they are lowly scum, and hence it would never even occur to you to compensate someone like that for their extra effort on your behalf. Because people like that, well, they’re just not in Greenberg’s caste. And why, after all, would he even think to part with some of his money just because the cabbie was “doing his job”?

Duhhhh...because I suspect that Greenberg wouldn’t know a hardship if it bit him in the ass. He lives a cushy, moneyed life, gabbing on the radio about sports, but just as often engaging in his own self-promotion, mainly because his ego is out of control, and, as this real-life incident exemplifies, he hasn’t a clue about what most people in this country must go through in order to maintain even a lower-middle-class life-style.

More telling is the fact that Greenberg shared the anecdote on-air, knowing that the tale would culminate with his insensitivity and stinginess. But then why would that matter if you’re totally unaware of what a cretin you are?

Good move, Greenie. On all fronts. Score one for arrogance. Then subtract about a million from the human kindness scale.