The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Random thoughts while wondering if no-jockey racing could ever be a thing …
Like the headline says, we’re going to talk about why I believe the early years of the Zion Williamson era will be vastly more productive for the Pelicans than the early years of the Anthony Davis era. But first, let’s give horse racing its final run down the stretch.
Most racing fans watched the Preakness on Saturday for two reasons. One, to put the Kentucky Derby controversy behind them, or Two, to watch a wide-open race where, despite the betting odds, there was no sure-fire favorite. But to anybody who has lived in Baltimore, as I did in the 1970’s, you also watched because it might be the last time you’ll see a Triple Crown race in Charm City. The reason is that the city of Baltimore and the owners of venerable Pimlico race course can’t agree on who should fix up what has become a crumbling, deteriorating structure. For example, before Saturday’s race, authorities shut down a 7,000-seating area because it was declared unsafe for patrons. Two days before the race, a ruptured water main near the track left much of the facility without water on race day.
The great history of “Old Hilltop” not only includes the Preakness, which is actually two years older than the Kentucky Derby, but a legendary match race in 1877 between Ten Broeck, Tom Ochiltree and Parole that shut down Congress. But tradition and reputation don’t pay the bills. In 2017, the Maryland Stadium Authority released the first phase of a study that said Pimlico needed at least $250 million in renovations. The next phase of the report a year later updated the first one and declared that Pimlico’s existing buildings should be demolished and rebuilt at a price that would well exceed the first estimate.
The Stronach group, which inherited the facility in 2011, says the structure isn’t worth fixing without help from the city or state, and they intend to move the Preakness 25 miles down I-95 to Laurel Park Racecourse, which they also own. I spent a lot of time at Pimlico during my decade in “Balmer,” much of it in the Preakness infield sipping multiple National Bohemian beers while watching a morning match of lacrosse between traditional powers Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.
I have nothing against Laurel, where I won my biggest race track payday with a $10 exacta on two Kentucky-breds that paid $225. I don’t think I’ve come out on the plus side at the track since, but the Preakness doesn’t belong at Laurel. Sadly, sentiment won’t surpass the need for hard cash to keep the race at Pimlico.
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Switching to basketball, when the NBA lottery balls inexplicably fell the Pelicans’ way last week, I had a fleeting thought that somehow Tom Benson was influencing the upset. It’s hard to argue with the Benson karma, which began in his first year as owner of the local NBA franchise when the bouncing balls sent Anthony Davis to New Orleans.
However, the euphoria didn’t last as Davis’ first six years resulted in more All-Star selections for him than winning records for the team. The culprit, as I have written here before, was GM Dell Demps who never seemed to have a consistent philosophy that would produce long-term success.
One year he signed all his own free agents, which hinted at continuity, and then he fired the coach – Monte Williams - who made their retention reasonable. Demps refused to draft players who fit into Alvin Gentry’s scheme, instead trading them for veterans whose compensation made the salary structure too top-heavy and restricted the ability to add quality depth. Sure, young players don’t come with NBA experience, but they do come with salaries that allow you the room to bring in veteran role-players. When Demps tried to do that with guys like Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore he overpaid for overrated ability that produced the same result.
Now, with New Orleans’ unremitting optimism level rising again with the impending addition of Zion Williamson, I don’t think David Griffin will repeated those same mistakes. The team’s new head of basketball operations is an experienced NBA executive who has a plan for long-term success, including the addition of new GM Trajan Langdon over the weekend.
At some point, Griffin’s plan also will include a coaching change. Alvin Gentry did a commendable job keeping the team together amid the AD hubbub last year, but his sub-.500 career record does not hint of championships. Griffin knows when to change coaches, like he did when he swapped out David Blatt for Tyrone Lue in Cleveland during the 2015-16 season and won a championship.
That’s why I believe Zion’s early years with the Pelicans will be more productive than AD’s early years. David Griffin is not Dell Demps. And with Griffin, don’t count out the possibility that Zion’s early years and AD’s middle years just might become a joint venture toward NBA success.
I consider myself an above-average sports fan, but for the life of me I can’t get excited about the NBA playoffs. When my friends ask me if I saw “the game” last night or the night before, I have to admit ignorance, and I don’t like to admit that I’m ignorant. Uneducated in a lot of things maybe, like the national debt, or just plain stupid in others, like reading six-foot downhill putts, but seldom ignorant.
I know there are brilliant performances going on out there from guys like Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors, James Harden of the Rockets or, ho-hum, Steph Curry of the Warriors. But, frankly my dear, I am far more content watching NCIS re-runs where the good guys always win than I am the NBA’s original programming. And I don’t know why that is.
Maybe it's because I don’t have a long-time NBA rooting interest, like I do with the Red Sox or Kentucky basketball. I liked the Celtics with Larry Bird, and Magic was fun to watch, but I didn’t go into the bathroom, put a towel over my head and cry if they lost. The Pelicans could have won me over, and they did in the early years when they were pretty good, but I soured on them and the NBA during the Anthony Davis shenanigans. Now I read that new GM David Griffin has not ruled out AD returning to the team, while stories from elsewhere tell us how well he would fit into the Celtics, the Knicks or even the Lakers. Scratch the last two teams, because any Davis package would have to include good young players, of which neither have an abundance.
Considering my former occupation as defender of the realm, maybe I shy away from a sport where agents have so much influence. AD signs with a new agent last September, and all hell breaks loose in New Orleans. The Saints get cheated out of a Super Bowl trip, the Sewer and Water Board implodes and the flood pumps stop working. When my darling daughter, the nurse, calls me heading for work at 6:30 Sunday morning because she is stuck in traffic caused by flooded streets, somebody is to blame. Sorry, NBA, you’re up!
Speaking of Anthony Davis, maybe I’m not watching the playoffs because no Kentucky players are prominent. Oh, Jamal Murray did his best to keep the Nuggets in contention (until he laid a 4-for-18 egg on Sunday), and Enes Kanter has given the Trailblazers a spark inside since he was inexplicably released at the trade deadline by the slapstick Knicks. But did you also notice the DNP line on the playoff teams?
Other than the Raptors’ Jodie Meeks, who is near the end of a good career, the Did Not Play team included the Nuggets’ Jarred Vanderbilt and Trey Lyles, as well as the Blazers’ Skal Labissiere. Do you know what those three have in common? They were all Kentucky one-and-dones who were not ready for the NBA. Another season of competitive college basketball would have helped them mature into, well maybe a Kawhi Leonard (two years of college) or Steph Curry (three years).
Every major school loses players who should stay an extra year or two but don’t. I know it is hard to convince a young man sitting on the bench, making seven figures, that he should have returned to college. Sadly, money is the root of all DNP lines. Still, I believe another year or two of playing enhances the player’s on-court skill while helping him improving physically and emotionally, and don’t tell me about injury risks. That’s why Lloyds of London is in business.
So will I watch any of the upcoming playoffs? Only if the game is up against an NCIS repeat that I have seen more than three times. And even then, there is always American Pickers.
As a wordsmith of sorts, I have always felt gratified when sporting events improve our vocabulary while inflaming our passions. As proof, I offer a word that most of us never used and some of us never had heard of until recently. The term? EGREGIOUS! It is a phrase that New Orleans sports fans learned a few months ago after the now-infamous no-call cheated the Saints out of their second Super Bowl appearance. Since that time, the term has become such a staple down here that it has entered our daily lexicon.
A bad meal at a local restaurant is no longer “not fit for pigs” but is now an EGREGIOUS representation of the culinary arts. When my son reported a “D” on a test he had taken at UNO, it was no longer enough for me to rant and rave but to calmly inform him that his effort was an EGREGIOUS example of wasted study time. And when poor Mick Jagger opted out of this year’s Jazzfest in order to save his own life, I am certain that some patrons who stood in long lines to pay high prices to see the Stones cared less about Mick’s health issues than his EGREGIOUS abuse of the New Orleans music scene.
The word rose again on Saturday when Maximum Security’s apparent victory in the Kentucky Derby was taken down. A rival jockey’s objection turned into a 22-minute inquiry and ultimate disqualification. “I think this is the most EGREGIOUS disqualification in the history of horse racing,” said Maximum Security’s co-owner Gary West, “and not just because it’s our horse.”
Let me insert here that I believe the ruling itself was a fair one. Bill Mott, the trainer of eventual winner Country House, said if the same incident had occurred in “the third race on Wednesday,” the stewards would have DQ’d the offender in about one minute. But this was a Kentucky Derby that occurred at a time when horse racing is under increased scrutiny. Safety issues for both horses and jockeys have come to the forefront in recent months, including a series of unexplained horse deaths at Santa Anita park in Southern California.
The industry has re-examined practices such as the use of whips and the administration of Lasix, a diuretic that causes excessive loss of fluid. The owners of the three Triple Crown tracks have announced an initiative to phase out race-day medications. On the track, if one horse veers in front of another and causes a calamitous chain reaction behind him, which very well could have happened Saturday, it could have been more than egregious. It could have been a disaster.
Still, West’s reprise of the word characterized the current state of controversial finishes to high-profile athletic events. West’s meaning was not lost on New Orleans fans and also those from all parts of the sporting provinces. Auburn basketball fans watched in disbelief as a missed double dribble set up a game-winning shot that missed but drew a controversial foul call. Virginia hitthe shots and the Tigers lose the NCAA men’s championship. Other words like “infamous” and “travesty” were thrown about afterwards but the controversy itself was an EGREGIOUS ending to a beautiful game.
In Las Vegas, a blown call in a Game 7 National Hockey League playoff game gave San Jose an unlikely victory over the Golden Knights. With the Knights leading 3-0, referees handed out a 5-minute major penalty on a hard check, giving the Sharks the chance to score four goals on the ensuing power play and eventually win 5-4 in overtime. The NHL office later apologized to Las Vegas for that EGREGIOUS call.
So is this what sports has become? Can we now expect every championship to come down to blown calls, missed fouls or replays that take away apparent championships? Will the upcoming NBA championship game be marred by controversial calls or mistakes by officials? Will the next three golf majors this summer be determined by fouls or pace of play penalties? Will Game 7 of the 2019 World Series turn on a controversial out call or disputed catch?
God, I hope not. Any or all of those would lift EGREGIOUS to a whole ‘nother level.
I was thinking about writing about the Saints’ draft today, but what’s so sexy about a center in the second round and a safety in the fourth? The Saints sound very happy with their picks, and they seemed to fill needs, so who am I to add anything to that? The real reason I didn't write football is that its Kentucky Derby Week! YEAAHHH !
This is always a tough time of year for a sports-loving Kentucky native to be away from the Heartland, but this year I will be ready. I will mix a sufficient quantity of mint juleps which the Lovely Miss Jean and I will sip from our silver julep cups. Brother Jerry and sister-in-law Laura are coming down with bourbon balls and a few gallons of burgoo (Think gumbo with rabbit instead of shrimp!). We will wear our finest Derby Day headwear, and I will shed a tear when the strains of My Old Kentucky Home signals the parade of starters.
Best of all, this is the one day of the year I get to show what a handicapping wizard I am! Racing fans have been fortunate in the past few years to have watched two Triple Crown winners sweep the three major races after having none for 36 years. Justify last year followed American Pharoah in 2015 to rekindle the interest, and both were trained by Bob Baffert. Not surprisingly, Baffert has three horses entered in the 2019 race, and two are among the three favorites. None are expected to duplicate Justify’s 2018 feat simply because no thoroughbred yet has shown the same skill, stamina and warrior mentality.
So my answer to the question - Will we see another Triple Crown winner in 2019 – is Improbable! If you don’t follow racing, you have interpreted my answer as a resounding NO! However, it you do know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock, you know which horse I think has the best chance. Improbable is his name, and, at 5-1 he is currently the third pick among bettors behind Omaha Beach and Roadster, both at 7-2.
Baffert trains both Improbable and Roadster, but the latter is losing his regular jockey for the big race. Mike Smith, who guided Roadster through the preliminary portion of his 3-year-old season, has switched to Omaha Beach for the Derby. This is the same Mike Smith who won his third Derby last year on Justify and doesn’t have the nickname “Big Money Mike” for nothing. He made the switch for a reason, and that reason is that he believes Omaha Beach has the best chance to win. Hard to argue with that!
Look at the Arkansas Derby when Omaha Beach took an early lead on a muddy track and then held off a late threat by … Improbable. I believe this time Baffert’s horse, ridden by rising star jock Irad Ortiz, will turn the tables, and the numbers back me up. Professional sports are putting an increased emphasis on analytics to give them a competitive advantage, and the horse racing industry is no different.
One of the earlier measures of a thoroughbred’s ability was the system developed by Andrew Beyer when he was racing editor of the Washington Post. Beyer’s speed rating has been the definite measure of a racer’s ability to turn on the juice and outrun its competition. This year’s top Beyer rating was a 101 by Maximum Security, currently the fourth betting pick at 6-1 despite never having run a two-turn race or the Derby distance. Only two other horses reached 100 in the Beyer – Omaha Beach and Improbable.
More recent measures, such as the Thoro-Rankings, also calculate a performance rating for each horse. Thoro-Graph generates each rating based upon a number of variables such as time of race, beaten lengths, ground loss, weight carried, wind and any variables peculiar to a particular track. The lower the Thoro-Graph number, the better the race performance. The best Thoro-Graph number this year was Omaha Beach’s negative 2.25 in the Arkansas Derby. But the runner-up at Oaklawn, Improbable, was pretty impressive himself as the only other Derby hopeful to earn a negative Thoro-Graph number.
The closing factor for me is that Improbable has improved in every career start. That trend will continue on Saturday as Improbable will edge Omaha Beach by a head and Win-Win-Win will close hard to finish third. As for the Triple Crown, let’s take 2019 one race at a time!