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The best thing about the Kentucky Derby -- besides the Cooler yielding mint juleps, that is -- is the American Sports Fan's Paradox that it represents.
Which is: We don't know what we're talking about ... and yet, we talk about it anyway!
Isn't freedom of speech a beautiful thing?
Let's face it: About .005 percent of American Sports Fans follow the ponies intensely enough to have a half-legitimate opinion about which nag is likely to be blanketed in roses on a May weekend in Kentucky.
The other 99.995 percent of us?
We don't know horse s---.
And yet, when Derby weekend rolls around, we begin talking about los caballos -- or, as they say in Rome, I cavalli -- like we're Eddie Arcaro in elevator shoes.
(That's the cool thing about horses -- their poetry in other languages.)
Hey, Lion Heart is a good pick. But what about Imperialism? I don't like Smarty Jones' pedigree.
In a restaurant the night before the big race, we're one mint julep shy of saying: "Hey, tell the chef I've had better food at the ballpark. My meat still has marks where the jockey hit it!"
This was all driven home to me on Friday, the day before the Derby. My high school girlfriend's little brother now works at a stud farm in Kentucky, and he gave me an unexpected call to offer two VIP tickets to Churchill Downs. Too bad I was three time zones and roughly a quarter-million bucks away from buying one of his horses, which was sort of the prerequisite to taking the ducats.
Otherwise, I would have been so there.
Anyway, we got to talking about his craft. He mentioned something about yearlings. I summoned up all my "Seabiscuit"-reading knowledge and said: "Uh, dude. A yearling. What's that?"
He was patient.
"It's a one-year-old," he said.
He cut me off before I could go any farther.
"And a boy horse is a colt, and a girl horse is a filly," he said, before he moved on to try to get me to buy a yearling.
I needed this lesson! And I'm a halfway-reasonably intelligent member of the homo sapiens race! How sad is that? I've been a sportswriter for 15 years now. I've read great writers and great thinkers, watched great movies, pondered deep thoughts -- and I don't know horse-pucky about the Kentucky Derby!
And yet, there I was, TiVo'ing the Derby, getting all into it, firing up on the Cinderella story of the Pony from Philly, Smarty Jones, and thinking: Yeah, I dug that Derby. Yeah, I know that Derby.
When we all know: I don't know horse manure.
And, with all due respect, my friend -- neither do you.
It is a microcosm of the current state of Sports Fandom. We all have intense opinions, strident voices, passionate screeds; and we vent about our local ball team's starting staff, or Kobe Bryant's sexual assault trial, or the New England Patriots' draft.
And we don't know horse s--- about any of these topics!
But, damn, can't we chew the ear off our nearest stool-mate in the corner tavern?
Like I said: Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing!
On, then, to the Weekend List of Five:
1. Yo, Philly!
There is no secret how we pheel about Philly at The Cooler. It has been documented here in The Cooler's cyberspace that Great-Grandpa Murphy headed straight from County Cork to Philly, non-stop, in the 1890s.
He sailed across the Atlantic, mullet flowing in the breeze.
So how about the news that Smarty Jones won the Derby, and was raised at a place called Philadelphia Park? Beautiful.
I'd love to know how he got his name. Probably went like this.
Breeder to Owner: Your horse was born yesterday. He's beautiful.
Owner to Breeder: Sorry I couldn't be here for the birth. I had some business to take care of.
Breeder to Owner: Business?
Owner to Breeder: Nevermind. Had to do with a guy borrowing money. Frankie Jones, he goes by. Thinks he's a genius. I had a guy show him how smart he is. Now he's taking IQ tests at the bottom of the Delaware River. Smarty Jones, I like to call him.
Breeder to Owner: Well, there's your baby horse. Who knows? Maybe one day he'll win you a Derby.
I'd like to believe Smarty Jones was raised on hay and cheesesteaks.
I'd like to believe he was sired by a colt named Vito and a filly named Angie.
I'd like to believe that, given the chance, Smarty Jones would phone a Philly radio station and call for Larry Bowa's head.
Did I mention I love Philly?
2. American Poetry
It dawned on me Saturday -- Churchill Downs may be the prettiest name we have for a sporting venue in the continental United States. It's as good as it gets in an increasingly-crass American sports landscape. How is it not known as Elmer's Glue Churchill Downs, presented by Viagra? It's beyond my comprehension.
It got me to thinking about how Europe has us trumped in this particular area. Yeah, you all want to make fun of Europe for its black mock-turtlenecks, or its soccer riots, or its socialized medicine. But face it: The names of their sports venues kick fanny.
This really hit me when I briefly lived in Dublin, Ireland, in 1992, near the rugby venue known only as "Lansdowne Road."
Say it out loud: Lansdowne Road.
It's like a phrase from a Robert Frost poem: "Whose woods these are/I think I know/But the guy lives out/On Lansdowne Road."
It goes on. Manchester United, I don't have to tell you, plays in Old Trafford. Arsenal plays at Highbury. The stadium names flow off the tongue.
How do we counter?
With Coors Field. With Petco Park. With SBC Park. With Network Associates Coliseum.
Capitalism, while a dynamite system for all of us who want to drive killer cars and wear cashmere sweaters, sucks for our sports parks.
3. Petey's Rant
There used to be a woman named Nancy B. Hefley who played organ at Dodger Stadium. She played all kinds of pleasant tunes, like "The Mexican Hat Dance."
I wonder: Can Nancy B. be transported to Fenway Park (one of the few still-cool American sports venue names!) to play a few soap-opera style organ riffs?
I have never seen a franchise that can't stand prosperity like the Boston Red Sox.
They win six of seven from the Evil Empire, they're loving life, April smells good ... and then the Pedro Martinez Thing blows up.
All of a sudden, the Dominican Bob Feller is standing in an Arlington, Texas clubhouse, saying he's free to peddle his wares in the open market.
"I have to make a living!" Petey said.
Just when the Red Sox have a chance to shovel dirt on Steinbrenner's Darth Vaders, they lose three straight in Texas and wake up on May 3 with the foul-scented breath of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez on their necks.
And it smells like money.
Couldn't Petey have kept a lid on it till Nov. 1?
Somebody, cue Nancy B. Hefley!
4. American Poetry, Part II
This next item has nothing to do with sports. Deal with it.
In the course of one Saturday evening perusing channels in the comfort of my own home, I stumbled upon a bit of comedy that will sustain me when my days are dark and my skies are gray.
It came from "Chapelle's Show" on Comedy Central. If you haven't discovered this gold, please do.
Anyway, he had a bit going where he decided to test the mental and physical abilities of two men who have ingested oceans of marijuana smoke in their day, to see if faculties are, indeed, diminished; and if so, how far said faculties have deteriorated.
Thankfully, one of the men was Snoop Dogg. Just as thankfully, one of Chapelle's assignments was an essay contest: Describe in 100 words or less, "What America Means to Me."
The essay, read from a sketch pad carrying the scribblings of a baked-out rap star and from behind a gigantic pair of eyball-hiding sunglasses, began with Snoop reading, in that familiar cadence: "Bitches. Money. Respect. Power. Honor. My impeccable literature, articulately put ... "
He went on: "Furthermore, Martin Luther King was a great spiritual Negro leader pushing for a dream that is now reality, bringing me to Wilt Chamberlain. He dreamed of 'hos. He ended up having 25,000. What a man. What a mad, mad majama. What a playa. What a sticky situation."
He went on: "Snoop-a-fly, a.k.a. the American Dream. Church. Tabernacle ... Prophet Eli. My mental gymnastics will flip you like an Aunt Jemima flapjack. Now, how about that?"
I can live for 100 more years. I can devote my entire life to scribbling comedy. I can listen to Jack Benny, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison.
And I cannot -- nor will anyone else -- produce the sort of comedic magic that Snoop produced in his essay, "What America Means to Me."
5. Game 7. In the First Round?
All those outside the townships of New Orleans and Miami who still have even an outside interest in the Heat-Hornets first-round series, please rise.
That's what I thought.
What are these teams doing?
Just because the NBA says you have seven games to decide the first round doesn't mean you USE seven games!
That's like getting an invite to a bad housewarming party. The invite says 5 to 8 p.m. The hosts are pretentious. The food is mediocre. The guests are strictly B-list. So who stays beyond even 7 p.m.?
Hey -- the Heat and the Hornets do!
Every other first-round series saw fit to settle themselves quickly, dispensing with the absurdity of best-of-seven first-round clashes.
Except these guys.
I saw the two teams were scuffling at the end of Game 6. My take: Let 'em fight! Who cares, anyway? Like either Miami or New Orleans stands a sub-humanoid chance against Indy, anyway.
Sigh, for the third time.
Then again, what do I know? I had to have a yearling explained to me.
Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes every Monday for Page 2.