California Chrome looks to break Belmont jinx

The guttural roar that cascaded down from the Belmont Park grandstand was deafening as Affirmed, on the inside, nosed out Alydar to win horse racing’s last Triple Crown.

Back in June of 1978, a young sportswriter and some friends ventured down to Belmont Park. Little did we know we were embarking on a journey to see horse racing history.

That afternoon Affirmed won the Triple Crown, edging Alydar by a nose in what is often referred to as one of the greatest horse races ever. We pooled our money ($72 as I recall) and bet it all on Affirmed. If he had lost, we wouldn’t have had enough for the Whitestone Bridge toll.

Amazingly, 36 years later, Affirmed still stands tall as the last Triple Crown winner.

Since 1978, 12 horses have gone to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. None of the denied dozen were able to seal the deal.

Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and Smarty Jones (2004) all finished second in the grueling mile and a half race. Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Charismatic (1999) and Funny Cide (2003) finished third. Alysheba (1987) was fourth, War Emblem(2002) was eighth and Big Brown (2009 wound up ninth.

The last Triple Crown candidate, I’ll Have Another, was scratched and did not start the 2012 Belmont.

Will lucky number 13 California Chrome break the Triple Crown jinx?

The greatest calls in sports history

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes” Al Michaels makes the greatest call in sports broadcasting history as the American hockey team beats the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Call it the hearing test. You know a great call when you hear one. Some are signature calls from legendary broadcasters; others were produced by relatively obscure announcers. All capture a magic moment. Here are my top 10 favorites:

10. Matteau Matteau, Matteau

Classic call by Howie Rose on Stephen Matteau’s goal in the second overtime to help the Rangers beat the Devils in Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup finals. Gotta love the reference to Mount Vancouver.

9. Kirk Gibson’s home run

“I don’t believe what I just saw,” said Jack Buck after Kirk Gibson took Dennis Eckersley deep with two outs in the ninth, Game 1, 1988 World Series. Dodgers beat A’s, 5-4

8. The Immaculate Reception
When Franco Harris, right, caught Terry Brashaw’s deflected pass at his shoetops and raced into the end zone to give the Steelers a wildly improbable playoff win over the Raiders, NBC broacaster Curt Gowdy called it “the miracle of all miracles.”

7. The Giants win the pennant

“The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant.”  New York announcer Russ Hodges goes crazy describing the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic, three-run ninth inning home run gave the Giants the National League pennant and broke the hearts of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

6. Cal vs. Stanford

Listen to the Cal announcers lose it during one of the most dramatic finishes in college in college football history when Cal beat archrival Stanford on the final play of the game. “The band is out on the field….the Bears have won.”

5. Havlicek stole the ball

Johnny Most, the gravelly-voiced play-by-play announcer for the Boston Celtics, makes his most memorable call in Game 7 of the 1965 NBA Eastern Conference finals. “Havlicek stole the ball. It’s all over. It’s all over.”

4. Secretariat wins the Belmont

Track announcer Chic Anderson has the call as Secretariat wins the Triple Crown in 1973 by an incredible 31 lengths. “Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine! ….An unbelievable, amazing performance.”

3. Foreman beats Frazier

Howard Cosell had some amazing calls, but was at his best in the 1973 heavyweight championship bout when George Foreman knocked out a heavily favored Joe Frazier. “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”

2.  Sandy Koufax perfect game

The great Los Angeles Dodger play-by-play man Vin Scully waxes poetic as Sandy Koufax completes his perfect game in 1965. In this recording of the ninth inning, Scully takes the listener on a word journey. “2 and 2 to Harvey Kuenn…swung on and missed, a perfect game.”

1. Miracle on Ice

Al Michaels is still broadcasting today, yet his most unforgettable call occurred 34 years ago in the tiny town of Lake Placid, New York. There a bunch of young American hockey players upset the Soviet Union in what ranks as one of the biggest upsets in sports history. “Do you believe in miracles?” says Michaels as the crowd counts down the final seconds. “Yes!!” The exuberance of the Team USA players and the stunned looks on the faces of the Soviets tells it all.

Winning and Losing in the Sports Book

Ever since I first stumbled into a sports book, at Caesar’s Palace in Last Vegas more than 20 years ago, I’ve wanted to have a “book” right in my playroom.

Imagine a room with dozens upon dozens of huge, high-definition screens, bringing you live action from ballparks, race tracks, arenas and stadiums around the country.

A place with cheap $1.50 drafts, bar food and gambling, where you can bet on everything from the fifth race at Churchill Downs to who will win Super Bowl XXIV.

Years ago, on a business trip to Vegas, a bunch of work colleagues were hanging around the sports book at Bally’s. Most of us were losing small sums of money on football games.

But one guy knew the ponies and wasn’t afraid to put down large wagers.

One time he came back from the betting cages waving $800 in the air, another time $1400. And the third time back, he returned with yet another large wad….and an IRS form.

That same guy now owns several thoroughbreds and is a fixture at race tracks around the country.

The NFL in Vegas

There’s nothing quite like a Sunday in Vegas during the NFL season. The sports books are packed, and crowds are watching each and every game with a strong rooting interest. A seemingly inconsequential play in a game between two losing teams may draw a huge ovation. A single play, a touchdown or a turnover, swings millions of dollars.

One betting scheme I’ve always liked in the sports books is the long-term football odds. For example, the Giants are currently the NFC favorites, and are listed as 11-1 to win the Super Bowl, behind the Patriots at 11-2 and the Steelers at 9-1.The G-Men are favored to beat the Redskins by five points in their NFL opener at home on September 13.

In college football, Florida is 9-5, Oklahoma 11-2 and USC 15-2 to win the national championship. On the other end, Kansas State, Louisville and Kentucky are all 200-1.

At the end of the day, betting sports is a lot like life. There are winners….and there are losers.

Big Brown Shoes

A friend of mine who loves to play the ponies sent me an e-mail recently, linking Big Brown’s stunning loss in the Belmont Stakes to an ancient proverb.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Perhaps it would be wise to add the following line: For the want of a Triple Crown, a race was lost.

The ancient proverb has been around since the 14th Century, and may have had its beginning with the French military. Benjamin Franklin included a version of the rhyme in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. And during World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London,

It all points to a simple fact — you really do have to sweat the small stuff. Just ask Big Brown’s co-owner Michael Iavarone or trainer Rick Dutrow.

Will Big Brown Break The Triple Crown Jinx?

Affirmed, on the inside, edges out Alydar in the 1978 Belmont to win the Triple Crown.

In the past 30 years, no less than 10 horses have come into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. All 10 have lost.

Will Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and Belmont favorite, break the jinx?

It’s a long litany of losers, from Spectacular Bid (1979) to Pleasant Colony (1981) to Alysheba (1987) to Sunday Silence (1989). From Silver Charm (1997) to Real Quiet in 1998 to Charismatic (1999) to War Emblem (2002). And then Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones in 2004. On Dasher, on Dancer……

On June 10, 1978, Affirmed nosed out Alydar to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown in what many racing pundits consider the greatest horse race ever. It was the third Triple Crown in five years, following the great Secretariat in 1973 and Seattle Slew in 1977. There hasn’t been one since.

“Been around racing 50 years,” Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens told William Leggett of Sports Illustrated after the 1978 Belmont, “and I’ve seen dawn come up over a lot of tracks. People will tell you about the great races between Citation and Noor out in California in the early 1950s, and the race between Ridan and Jaipur in the Travers at Saratoga in 1962. Great races. But Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont? Probably the best horse race that’s ever been run.

“I’ll look at it again and again anytime I’m fortunate enough to get the chance. I’ll raise a glass to ’em while I’m watchin’ the replays and, damn, I’ll root—come on Affirmed, come on Alydar. Come on (Steve) Cauthen, come on (Jorge) Velasquez. Whatever it is that these two horses have cannot be bought or manufactured. It’s the greatest act horse racing has ever had. I hope it never ends.”

Going into the Belmont, Affirmed had beaten Alydar by 1/12 lengths to win the Kentucky Derby, and by a nose to win the Preakness. Seemingly, the two were as evenly matched as two horses could be.

For the last half-mile in the 1 ½-mile Belmont, the two jockeys, 18-year-old Cathuen and Velasquez, went head to head. “We got in the front, by maybe a head, at the 3/16th pole,” said Alydar jockey Velasquez. “I thought, maybe today would be different . . . until very late.”

With Cauthen whipping Affirmed with his left hand, while Velasquez whipped Alydar with his right, the two were dead even with a 1/16th of a mile to go. Affirmed poked his nose ahead in front five strides from the finish, and kept inching ahead. He won by a neck. It was Affirmed’s seventh victory in nine meetings with his arch-rival, seven wins by a total of 10 lengths. Alydar remains the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. ‘It was a real horse race, all right,” Cathuen said later.

Affirmed was the 11th Triple Crown winner and, for the first time, there were successive winners (Seattle Slew won in 1977). As the 3-5 favorite, Affirmed paid $3.20 to win. With only five horses in the field, there was no show betting.

I was lucky enough to be at Belmont Park in 1978 with a bunch of friends to see horse racing history. We had a great view of the finish and I will never forget that guttural roar of a New York crowd, building to a crescendo, as Affirmed and Alydar came down the stretch.

We pooled what little money we had back then on Affirmed, but the real thrill was the race, not the payoff….atlhough the winnings helped us get over the Whitestone Bridge. None of us there that day ever thought that 30 years later we’d still be waiting for the next Triple Crown.