George Steinbrenner has the horse to beat in the big race today ... and where have we heard that one before?
Is it a good thing that the racehorse owned by Steinbrenner, Bellamy Road, starts today’s Kentucky Derby as a 5-2 favorite, touted as a potential wonder horse, the latest best hope to end horse racing’s 27-year-long Triple Crown drought?
If so, for whom?
Or the field?
As Bellamy Road enters the gate at Churchill Downs today, Steinbrenner’s other over-hyped property, the New York Yankees, find themselves eyeballing the bottom of the American League East standings, hanging out down there in Tampa Bay Devil Ray territory, despite Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and the rest of a $203-million payroll.
Unlike the Yankees, Bellamy Road has been blowing away the competition lately, winning at Gulfstream Park by 15 3/4 lengths and taking the Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths.
“Maybe the horse is running so well because he’s scared of Steinbrenner,” NBC horse racing analyst Mike Battaglia quipped during a conference call to promote the network’s Kentucky Derby coverage, which begins today at 2 p.m. “Did you ever think of that?”
Added Tom Hammond, host of NBC’s Derby coverage, “The horse is running better than the Yankees are playing, that’s for sure.”
On the same conference call, analyst Bob Neumeier said Bellamy Road would live up to the hype.
“I fully believe, though we’ve been blessed with three Triple Crown tries with War Emblem and Funny Cide and of course last year with Smarty Jones, that Bellamy Road is a superior horse than any other of those three going into this race here on Saturday,” Neumeier said. “So he’s the horse to beat in my opinion.
“With the added story line of ‘the Boss,’ George Steinbrenner, with his Yankees certainly floundering in the American League East, he’s going to be a fascinating lightning rod in this whole Triple Crown trail.”
The Steinbrenner factor in the race is impossible to ignore, despite the Yankee owner’s attempts to, of all things, go low-profile heading into the Derby. According to NBC producer David Michaels, Steinbrenner refused several attempts by the network to set up pre-race interviews with him or members of his family.
“Part of this thing is, thoroughbred racing is a bizarre kind of thing,” Michaels said. “A lot of people have superstitions. And I’m not so sure that when he decided not to talk about it, that part of it was on a superstition level.
“We have plenty of times where people say, ‘Well, I never talk the week of the race.’ So you try to set it up earlier. I think in George’s case ... I don’t know.”
Battaglia joked that NBC had “enough people where maybe if we wanted to, we could tackle him, hold him down, let [Neumeier] interview him, if you guys want us to do that.”
The Steinbrenner factor may also influence how casual racing fans view the race, Hammond said.
“People don’t often root against a horse, but it will be interesting to see if some root against Bellamy Road because of George Steinbrenner,” he said. “There are a lot of Yankee haters out there, a lot of George Steinbrenner haters out there. It will be interesting to see if they take it out on his horse. I just hope he doesn’t fire somebody right in the middle of the race.”
Neumeier: “It’s funny you should mention that. I did about 15 or 20 radio interviews this week, and I would say that each and every time the particular talk show host that I was chatting with said, ‘I’m not rooting for Bellamy Road, I hate that Steinbrenner.’
“So that is going to be an undeniable story line. Boy, imagine this -- imagine if the horse wins the Derby, wins the Preakness and goes into New York, home of Mr. Steinbrenner, with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Wouldn’t that be something?”
And if Bellamy Road comes up short today, maybe the horse just heads for the Preakness and stays there.
Also available for viewing this weekend:
* Detroit Tigers at Angels
(Channel 9, 7 p.m.)
This newspaper ran an amazing photograph on Page 7 of its Friday sports section. It’s a photo of Troy Percival celebrating the final out of the 2002 World Series, which clinched the championship for the Angels.
With apologies to Red Sox fans too self-absorbed to notice anything that happens out here on the leftover coast, there has never been a more improbable phrase in the history of major league baseball than “Anaheim Angels, World Series Champions.”
At least they were the Anaheim Angels when Percival left them for Detroit. Now he’s back pitching for the Tigers as they visit the home stadium of the, ahem, “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.” It’s a wonder Percival found the place.
* NBA Playoffs
(Channel 7, noon)
The winner of this season’s NBA most-valuable-player voting will be announced at halftime of this game. According to the ABC promotional release, “The race for the NBA MVP is wide open. Who will it be? Shaq? Steve Nash? Tracy McGrady? Tim Duncan? Dirk Nowitzki? Allen Iverson? Find out only on ABC Sports.”
Or maybe not. Friday, ESPN.com, Associated Press and the Arizona Republic were reporting that Nash had won the award -- ESPN.com and AP citing “sources,” the Republic using its own survey of 106 of 127 MVP voters. Imagine that, Shaq doesn’t win MVP. Wonder what he’s going to say about Jerry Buss now?
* Dodgers at Cincinnati Reds
(ESPN, 5 p.m.)
It took Ken Griffey Jr. 21 games and 79 at-bats to hit his first home run of the 2005 season. He started this weekend series against the Dodgers batting only .250 with two home runs and his 3-year-old son offering advice on how to improve his power stroke. Could be worse for Griffey, though. Even with only two home runs, that’s two more than Barry Bonds has hit this season.