Category Archives: Other

The Sure Thing: Saratoga Race Course

They met during a veterinary school exam at a horse stable in California many years ago — my aunt unsure of exactly what to do, the trainer working in the stable offering words of advice.

My aunt introduced this trainer to her brother (my uncle) and they’ve spotted her at various tracks for years. The most recent encounter was surely going to be the most profitable.

“I trust her,” my uncle said of this trainer after bumping into her at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. “She told me to stay away from a horse and it came in ninth.”

OK, so she can pick losers. Big deal. I can do that, and prove it every time I go to the track. In fact, I’d estimate I pick loser at a 95 percent clip.

After warning my uncle about one horse, she gave him a tip on another — a surefire winner for a race on Thursday. None of the horses in this race had ever raced before, so there were not prior results to study. But she had told my uncle that this horse was a “monster in the morning,” meaning he had impressed in his morning workouts.

My aunt was less enthusiastic when she heard about this tip, saying, “She’s never given me a winner.” When my uncle hears this he is not discouraged. “She’s due,” he says. As if to validate her status, he also tells me she can “sit in a box whenever she wants because she knows people.”

So she knows people. But does she know horses? We’re about to find out. Or are we? The rain has forced my younger brother, uncle, and I to abandon our trip to the track and instead go to OTB (off-track betting; a place I used to associate with degenerate gambling addicts, but now view in a much better light). Will the rain affect the race, too?

During the second race, I’m not thinking about the rain. Scrolling across the bottom of one of the televisions mounted on the wall are the scratches for the upcoming races. “Fourth race…Scratched: 1A China…6 Moon Ala Mode…Gelding: 7 Gentlemansapproval.” The phrasing makes me think our horse, Gentlemansapproval, is being scratched. It turns out it is much worse.

When I bring the sad news to my brother and uncle — the “retirement horse,” as my uncle calls him, won’t be racing — I am quickly informed that “gelding” means our horse will simply be without something in the upcoming race. Apparently he was a bit too amped for the race, so his trainers — perhaps my aunt’s friend — decided to castrate him. “This is a good thing,” my uncle assures me.

However, we are worried about the rain moving the race off the grass and onto the dirt. Races are often “taken off the turf” if it gets so wet as to be dangerous. We ask one of the OTB employees and he is confident the race will remain on grass. “It’s only light,” he says, referring to the rain. “It’s clearing up anyway.” My uncle thinks this guy knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t.

Not as bad as you might think.

Fifteen minutes to post, the race is moved to the mud. My brother has already bet (our horse is 16:1), but asks the employee if he can be refunded. His bet is relatively small, so a refund shouldn’t be a problem. “But you’d be pretty mad if you took back your bet and that horse won,” he reminds my brother. “That’s true,” my brother says, and decides to keep his bet.

My uncle and I haven’t bet yet. I decide I’m going to follow him. I don’t know the difference between grass and dirt as it pertains to horseracing, but I trust my uncle’s judgment. He seems skeptical — the trainer’s tip was given with the assumption that the race would take place on grass. This horse — and the rest of the field — has never raced competitively on dirt; they might hate it.

I could sense my uncle’s doubt, but perhaps using the same logic as my brother, he pulled the trigger. I followed suit. After all, this horse was a lock. He was a monster: grass, dirt, concrete — it didn’t matter.

Except that it did matter. The gentleman got out of the gate OK, but after the horses started kicking up mud, he fell back farther and farther. My uncle noticed it right away. “He doesn’t like the mud,” he said before any of the horses had even separated from the pack. “He doesn’t like it at all.”

As the first two horses finished, the TV switched to the finish line camera. After all the horses had crossed — coming into view for a second before disappearing off the screen to the right — the camera held steady. Why? Because all the horses had not finished. Our horse still hadn’t crossed. It seemed like a full minute before it finally did, though it was probably about 10 seconds after the winner. One horse even finished after it did. So it was 7/8.

The post-race write-up says our horse “broke a bit awkwardly, was urged along near the back, raced off the rail on the turn and faltered then was not urged in the final furlong.” That makes it sound better than it was. As I noted, his start wasn’t terrible. He wasn’t “urged” down the stretch because he was already out of contention.

When I told my dad about how the horse didn’t like the mud on his face, he made a good point. “If it were in first, it wouldn’t have gotten any mud on his face.”

Well at least Gentlemansapproval wasn’t alone. All the bettors who backed him had plenty of mud on their faces as well.

Mothers Day

It takes a special kind of mom to live in a house with four males and no females, as my mom does — especially when the men are obsessed with sports.

When the television is on, it’s usually showing a game. In the winter it’s college basketball. In the spring and summer it’s baseball. These sports are on virtually every night. Fall is the easiest for her, because college football is pretty much relegated to Saturdays.

I suppose a mom in this situation has two choices: rebel or accept. Now, don’t get me wrong — my mom is a big sports fan. But even for her I think it’s a bit much to have nearly every dinner conversation touch on a sports topic.

For the most part, though, she joins in. She really enjoys College GameDay, ESPN’s Saturday morning football pre-game show, and clearly she pays attention: This past bowl season, my family competed in a bowl pick ’em competition with 20 people. My mom won the whole thing.

Come March, my friend Lee and I always discuss the NCAA Tournament bracket. Lee loves college hoops as much as I do. He can tell you who’s the best foul shooter on Louisville and whether Arizona’s point guard prefers to drive to his left or his right. Yet when he calls me after Selection Sunday, the first thing he asks is, “Who does your mom like coming out of the West?”

My mom earned her reputation as a guru of the Dance by picking Cinderellas like Gonzaga, before people knew Gonzaga existed, and Kent State. She often beats the rest of our family in the bracket contest, though some have said she’s been slipping the past few years. Perhaps she is watching too much football in December.

My mom is the most knowledgeable sports fan of any mother I know. I’m pretty sure she could tell you what a 6-4-3 double play is. She knows how many fouls before a player fouls out. And although we laugh when she asks us to remind her, I’m confident she knows how overtime works in college football.

Sure, she sometimes gets frustrated when the Mets are on the television for the twelfth straight night, but watching the Mets and frustration go hand in hand. Putting up with four guys isn’t easy, and my mom does a great job.

So to my mom and mothers everywhere, whether they like sports or not, happy Mother’s Day!

LPGA Star Lorena Ochoa Retires at 28

Because of Lorena Ochoa, I broke a cardinal rule of sports journalism very early in my career: don’t ask an athlete for an autograph.

It was on May 21, 2006, the day Ochoa won the Sybase Classic at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y, and in my defense, it was for my mom; possibly a belated Mother’s Day present. She had already been keeping an eye on Ochoa and the fact that she had won in our hometown made my mom an even bigger fan.

I was only a teenager, and, at the time, it was the biggest event I had ever covered. I remember listening to Ochoa speak in the media room, though I was too nervous to ask a question in front of the professional writers. But Ochoa was nice enough to speak with me privately afterwards. When I was done with my questions, I asked her to sign a sheet of paper from my notepad.

On Friday, three years to the day after she replaced Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 golfer in the world rankings, Ochoa confirmed her retirement from golf. It marks the end of a relatively short, but remarkable career for the 28-year-old Mexican.

“This isn’t a surprise because I have planned this for many, many years,” Ochoa said during a media conference call after her session with the Mexican media. “I wanted to play for around 10 years. I wanted to be able to achieve my goals to stay at the top. Then after that I wanted to move on.”

And stay at the top she did. Ochoa retires as the No. 1 player, having spent 157 consecutive weeks there since she took over three years ago. She was named the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2003, won 27 Tour events, and collected four Player of the Year awards.

The 2006 Sybase victory was a critical one, as it was the first time Ochoa won an event in which Sorenstam participated. She took over the money lead that day, too — it was the sixth straight event she finished in the top two.

Her career took off from there. Her domination for certain stretches was just as impressive as what Tiger Woods was doing on the men’s Tour.

Ochoa excelled off the course as well. For a star athlete not to have any haters is almost unheard of, but good luck finding a golfer, media member, or golf fan who doesn’t adore Ochoa.

The big story after that win at Wykagyl — and something that was noted throughout her career — was how Ochoa represented her country with such pride and grace. She was known for interacting with fellow Mexicans, even in the middle of a round. “That’s very special for both of us,” she said on that rainy day in New Rochelle. “I represent them.”

Ochoa was a great ambassador for women’s golf, and it will be interesting to see how the LPGA copes with losing its biggest star for the second time in less than two years (Sorenstam retired in 2008). While Ochoa may have had this in mind since she turned pro, 28 is a young age for retirement from the sport. But last December, Ochoa married 40-year-old Andres Conesa, the CEO of Aeromexico who has three children from a previous marriage.

“I’m ready to start a new life,” she said. “I just want to be a normal person.” Ochoa was certainly confident in announcing her decision, adding, “There are so many other things that I’d like to do. I’m really happy today, and I’m pleased. I’m 100 percent complete.”

Only time will tell whether she’ll be at peace with her decision in a few months, or a year, or further down the road. For someone as competitive as Ochoa to step away from the game before the age of 30 is atypical, but she knows what she wants better than anyone else.

So next week’s Tres Marias Championship, in Mexico, will be Ochoa’s last Tournament, though she plans to compete annually in the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, held in Guadalajara each November. The game will certainly miss her, and I’m glad I got to cover her, even if I was a bit unprofessional.

I’m happy to report that I haven’t broken that journalism rule again. Then again, I haven’t met an athlete as captivating as Lorena Ochoa.

Winter Olympics vs Summer Olympics

I recently posted a simple question on my Facebook profile: Which is better — Winter or Summer Olympics? Those who voted were very confident in their choice, making claims like “summer by a lot” and “winter for sure,” while others added colorful comments such as “figure skating is horrible” and “without the winter olympics we would never have been blessed with Cool Runnings.”

I figured summer would win in a landslide, but when the votes were tallied it was much closer than I thought. Summer had the edge, but barely. I didn’t scoff at those who voted for winter. I’m just jealous of them. I want to like the Winter Games more, I just find the Summer Olympics to be so much better. Here are four reasons why.

1. He won…I guess
For the most part, people like competitions in which there are clear-cut winners. Team A scored more points than Team B. Athlete X reached the finish line before Athlete Y. We don’t like our sports to include judges. Let them decide American Idol.

Unfortunately, a large number of Winter Olympic sports have judges, such as figure skating, snowboarding, and freestyle skiing. Subjectivity takes away from the viewing experience, because fans have to delay their excitement until the judges’ scores are posted. Unless a competitor does something that is obviously bad — i.e. fall — it’s hard for the average viewer to distinguish between two good performances.

2. You’ve never luged
Most everyone has ran, swam, played basketball, ridden a bike, and lifted weights. Perhaps not competitively, but you’ve done these activities. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a bobsled. Or if you’ve soared through the air, on skies, the length of a football field. Or if you’ve even thought about taking a broom with you to the ice rink to push around a chunk of granite. Yeah, didn’t think so.

Now, I’m not suggesting bobsledding, ski jumping, and curling aren’t worthy of being Olympic events, nor am I saying the athletes who compete aren’t incredibly skilled. But an overwhelming majority of people have no frame of reference for these events. What is a good score? A good time? A good distance? Even in the objective events, it’s hard to make much sense of what you’re watching.

3. Everyone can play
You don’t need wealth, or a particular climate, to compete in many of the summer events. All you need are shoes to train for track and field, water for swimming, fists for boxing. There’s a reason that 10 countries have more than 100 summer medals but fewer than 10 winter medals. If your country doesn’t get any snow, it’s sort of hard to train for most of the winter events.

The winter sports are also, generally speaking, more expensive. Renting ice time is very costly, and this likely prevents some of the poorer countries from participating in many events. The Olympic Games are supposed to be for all, right? The Summer Games promote this ideal; the Winter Games do not.

4. Big names left out in the cold
Make a list of your top five greatest Olympic champions of all time, using whatever criteria you choose. I’m only 23, but here are mine: Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Jesse Owens, and Usain Bolt. Of course I’m biased towards more recent competitors as well as American athletes, but I can’t imagine any list that includes a majority of winter athletes.

I’d be shocked if Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, or Apolo Ohno generate the buzz that Phelps, Bolt, and Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh provided in the 2008 Summer Games. Simply put, the Winter Games lack the star power that the summer Games have.

I didn’t go with the more conventional five reasons because I’m leaving it up to you to either provide an additional reason why the Summer Games are better or to give a reason why I’ve got it all wrong, and that the Winter games are superior. Let me know in the comments.