Sport of Queens

Many elements are aligning themselves to suggest that this Kentucky Derby could be the most exciting event of the current sporting cycle. If a favorite materializes and wins by eight, this Derby will still be more exciting than the NCAA football or basketball title games. Here's what's exciting about college basketball: the whole tournament. Here's what's not exciting: the final game. Here's what's exciting about the BCS championship football game: the halftime betting number.

What could be more exciting than a 20-horse race that can't be picked?


There was a front sports-page article in the New York Times last Sunday, asking the question: What's wrong with NASCAR? Specifically: Why are attendance and television ratings down? Old school NASCAR fans in the southeast seem peeved to have to share their yahoos with Texas, Vegas and California. Horse racing is more exciting than NASCAR because there are no caution flags in horse racing. There are more Mulligans taken on the average NASCAR track than you see at the first hole at the Double Wide Municipal Golf Course and Skeet Shooting Range.

Ice hockey is pretty exciting; but where's the Stanley Cup, over on the Fern Channel?

I don't even understand some of the rules of baseball in the Family Pak Park Stadiums that look like they should be holding up Six Flags, not pennant flags. Imagine the ump telling a visiting manager: If the ball hits the smokestack on the train engine in left field, it's a ground-rule double. But if the ball hits the paddlewheel on the river boat in right field, it's a foul.

Everything about this Kentucky Derby figures to be exciting.

The Queen is exciting. Not the Queen of the Hop. Not the Queen of the May. The Queen of England. You can tell a lot about a sport, going by celebrity sightings. Politicians throw out first pitch. Actors are courtside at the NBA. News anchors are at Wimbledon. How about this for a pitch to a Derby party in Podunk: Come join the Queen for an afternoon of racing. The Queen is anointing the Derby with more than a touch of class. This will be a whole hatful of class that will draw new viewers to the game.

Where was I until all hours? Enjoying the Queen's sport, that's where. Thanks for asking.

What's the etiquette? "Hey, Your Majesty, who you like?"

Drop the "Hey", add "Excuse me." Drop "like", add, "prefer."

"Excuse me, Your Majesty, who you prefer, anyhow?"

The field is exciting. There are speedsters, stalkers, trouble-makers, drifters, lugs, and horses that swoop. They've run on dirt and the Play Dough-like substance that seems to fall back into place and shape, none the worse for wear. In future book wagering, horses have gone from fat double-figure odds to the favorite's tag overnight. Curlin led something like a Shriner's Parade around the Arkansas Derby track and was the Derby favorite the last time I looked. But you have to think Street Sense, even after three bare-knuckle brawls, will be the track handicapper's pick when the post positions are drawn. And drawn. And drawn and drawn. Any of nine could win. Any of 19 could run second; waiter, another mint julep please. There is even a tempting wagering box available for gamblers whose middle name is Trouble, Stormello and Great Hunter, contenders until they ran into something resembling the merge lane on the 405 in LA.

The predictions are exciting.

Some friends and I have formed a Joyful Luckless Expert Picker Club where we attempt to benefit from the errant selections of others. I'm no bargain when it comes to picking in public. The pressure to pick for a penniless multitude is extreme and pulls one inexorably toward the chalk board. But some of those who pick on the tube are handicaps, not handicappers. My group has been known to leap to its feet and make a joyful sound when certain pickers tab horses we don't like, shorter the price, the better. One national handicapper should be regarded like a trouble line in the Form. Eleven wide. Checked. Picked by So-and-So last out. What happens when a go-against picker likes a horse you favor as well? Trust the sharp angle.

Some fancy pickers get it right. A couple of years ago, Don Imus made 20-some thousand for a charity with a Triple Crown race win pick. Speaking briefly of Imus, if the women basketball players from Rutgers didn't want him fired, why was he fired?

This year's Derby build-up seems to speak well for the sport.

What's the future of excitement? The future of puzzle-solving? The future of socializing? The future of hats? Royalty? What's the future of trying to make a little with a lot? That's horse racing.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com