A baseball player's guide to horse racing

May, 19, 2011
BALTIMORE, Md. -- At 6:21 p.m. Saturday, the Baltimore Orioles will be on the field at Camden Yards, facing the Washington Nationals after consecutive May 18 and May 19 losses to the Yankees.

Around that same time, just eight miles away at Pimlico Race Course, one horse from a field of 14 will gallop to victory in the Preakness Stakes.

Aside from the Baltimore connection, the fact that Orioles owner Peter Angelos owns racehorses (for that matter, so did late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner), and the presence of Kentucky Derby winning trainer Graham Motion, who threw out the first pitch at Thursday night's game, the average fan probably doesn't link the two sports. But the Preakness defines Maryland racing, just as the Orioles define baseball for the state, and the two meet more frequently than you'd imagine -- especially in the Orioles' clubhouse every spring.

"There are guys in this room that really follow it," said Luke Scott, the team's left fielder. "I just go on the names and the colors."

Before each Triple Crown race, the Orioles put names of the contenders into a hat. They draw numbers to determine the order of selection, then each guy takes his turn to select a random name.

"We always have fun with it," utility man Jake Fox said. "Any time we have a chance to get something to be excited about, we do. You randomly pick your horse and then you end up rooting for it, yelling at the screen and telling it to get up there. We get into it pretty good."

Fox said he'd never been to a horse race, and with the Triple Crown events hitting in the middle of the season, that's understandable. But one of his buddies attends the Kentucky Derby every year, and "has a blast," Fox said.

"That's my goal," he remarked. "One day I want to go and buy my wife a funny hat and get my daughter a funny hat and go to the Derby."

In this year's edition of the Preakness, Scott likes Mucho Macho Man to win, Animal Kingdom to place and King Congie to show. Fox wants Shackleford to win, Animal Kingdom to place and Concealed Identity to show.

"Animal Kingdom, it's hard to win twice in a row, but he did win the Derby, so you've got to like him," Fox said. "I like Astrology, but I don't like the [first post position], I don't like the rail like that. Shackleford's going to win."

Pitcher Jim Johnson has a newspaper clipping from the Baltimore Sun taped to his locker door, and a list of the Triple Crown race dates.

"Any type of good competition, I'll follow," he said. "When the big races are going on, I pay attention. I only know what I read."

What does Johnson know this season? "If Borel's your jockey in the Derby, then you're in good shape, and there's some kind of local ties with Animal Kingdom -- his trainer is based in Maryland. Dialed In didn't show up the last race at all, but it's a different kind of track altogether. I think Dialed In will be right up there. I don't know if Animal Kingdom can get it done again."

He picked Mucho Macho Man to win, Animal Kingdom to place and Dialed In to show.

Fellow pitcher Jake Arrieta said he's actually been to the races at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, where a friend is the grandson of Mayor Charles England.

"We go to Lone Star, get 20 or 30 people in there, have dinner, enjoy the races, stuff like that," he said. "I bet on the horses a little bit, but I don't know too much about it. I pick names."

Those that suited him were Dialed In, Dance City and Astrology.

Relief pitcher Jason Berken showed off his racing knowledge when he chose Flashpoint as his "sleeper" to finish third. He thinks Animal Kingdom will win and picks Mucho Macho Man as the runner-up.

"This is one of the few times I do follow racing, honestly, when it comes to this big season stuff," he said. "I've never been to a horse race but I'd like to go to one of the big ones at some point. I think it would be pretty cool, all the hoopla and pageantry surrounding it. The big three are what I follow, so every year I'm aware of the horses and I look at some of the odds and stuff."

Another relief pitcher, Koji Uehara, had an opinion as well.

"He picks nine, eight, and three [Mucho Macho Man, Dance City, and King Congie]," he said through his translator. "Just a hunch."

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About one hour after the Preakness, the Yankees will already be back in New York to take on the Mets. The Yankees don't follow the race as closely as the Baltimore team, but several players recalled watching the Kentucky Derby on the JumboTron while they were at batting practice in Texas on May 7 against the Texas Rangers. Outfielder Nick Swisher, pitcher Joba Chamberlain and native Maryland slugger Mark Teixeira had some thoughts to contribute leading into Saturday.

"The Preakness is part of life in Baltimore," Teixeria said. "I've been to Pimlico just on a random day to watch the racing, which was fun because horse racing has always been interesting to me. Then two years, my junior and senior years of high school, actually, I just went to the infield with some friends and spent the day. I think it's more about the event for us than the actual horses, nothing against the horses, but they change every year. It's not like watching the Orioles or the Yankees, where you can get used to seeing the same people again and again, rooting for the same players. But to me it's just about the competition and the event and a great sport. When my kids are older, I'd like to take them to the Preakness. That would be a lot of fun."

This year, Teixeria picked Mucho Macho Man to win, Animal Kingdom to finish second and Dialed In to show.

"I know those will be the favorites, but everyone else is kind of grouped into the same category," he said. "Mucho Macho Man I know is going to be up there; I've just been hearing a lot about him. But you have to root for Animal Kingdom. I think it's so cool, I really do; any horse that wins the Derby, I root for to win the Preakness just because you want to see a Triple Crown winner sometime again."

Joba Chamberlain hasn't been to a thoroughbred racing track, but a friend of his is a harness racing driver, and he's watched standardbreds race before.

"It's fun to see the horses and what goes into it, and I like to watch," he said. "I'd love to go to the Derby."

Swisher was by far the most confident of the players.

"If you let me see the name, I'll pick you your winner," he said.

Back when the slugger was growing up in West Virginia, his family used to have horses. He said his wife, Joanna Garcia, owns horses in Los Angeles, and the couple likes to do a little trail riding to relax.

"I've been to little tracks but never a major race," Swisher said. "Maybe when I'm done I'll get a chance to go out there. But a lot of our coaches love horses racing; a lot of the guys do. Our strength coach, Dana Cavalea, loves horse racing. What's so bananas is the amount of people that go to those things. And these big races take you back to when horse racing was more popular."

He picked Animal Kingdom to win, Mucho Macho Man to run second and Midnight Interlude to finish third, because "Anybody that wears that outfit on the horse definitely deserves to finish in the money."

"The crazy thing about it is -- athletes, actors, musicians -- people never really get to see the other side of them besides just what they do," Swisher said. "To me, horse racing is a sport; it's something you ought to pay attention to."



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