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Of diamonds and ovals

3/1/2014

It's snowing in the east again.

It's ice cold in the midwest and they're even doing the Luge in a small Russian town hosting the current cold weather Olympics.

Add all that together and it can only mean one thing: Spring is in the air.

Yes, Spring! Want proof?

Legions of major league baseball players are reporting for spring training in Florida and Arizona. Dozens of the best 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorses are revving up for the Kentucky Derby in prep races every weekend.

The Kentucky Derby began during the same few years when professional baseball was taking root in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis and the Derby's home town of Louisville, KY.


This link between horse racing and baseball is not something conjured up just to bring two familiar spring sports together. The two sports have been linked together for nearly 140 years.

The Kentucky Derby -- and the rest of the American Triple Crown series -- began during the same few years when professional baseball was taking root in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis and the Derby's home town of Louisville, Kentucky. In 1876, the National League of professional baseball made its debut, barely a year after the first Kentucky Derby was won by Aristides.

As many baseball players, club owners, managers and coaches will attest, the relationship between the game of bats and balls and horse racing goes even deeper than the 19th Century when they became national sports. So says Paul LoDuca Jr., a former All-Star catcher, now an expert commentator on TVG, one of two prominent satellite television networks broadcasting thousands of horse races every year.

"Horse racing is not just a bunch of jockeys riding fast, four legged athletes," LoDuca said. "For fans of the sport, it's an intellectually challenging game, just like baseball challenges fans who know how much thinking goes into what we do on the field."

LoDuca was specifically referring to the mental battles between pitchers and batters at every level of baseball. He also says that some of his own baseball insights were developed while learning about horse racing at a very early age.

"I got involved in handicapping horse races through my dad when I was a kid living in Arizona," LoDuca said. "He was a big baseball fan but loved going to the track. He taught me that it was the best way to understand the way a race might be run -- and which horse might have an edge today -- was to carefully watch the way they ran last time out.

"That's exactly the same thing pitchers and catchers do every day trying keep baseballs from winding up in the bleacher seats," LoDuca continued. "We watch batters like hawks," he added. "At the track, I studied which horses liked to run inside or outside, how far they wanted to run and if they couldn't handle competition for the lead."

On a personal level, I can second LoDuca's key observation: While I never got the chance to play professional baseball, I was an undefeated high school pitcher heavily scouted in college by major league teams until I hurt my pitching arm in a boating accident. I was 18 years old.

Less than a year later, I found horseracing and realized that the key to a successful career as a professional handicapper/horseplayer, was to use the same focus, the same powers of observation that helped me win baseball games.

"Not many people realize how many baseball people have found racing and experienced this relationship," LoDuca said. "We love the spectacular racetracks and great baseball parks; but, it's really the mental challenge we find in both games so stimulating."

Not many people realize how many baseball people have found racing and experienced this relationship.

-- Paul LoDuca, TVG commentator & former MLB player


More proof of what LoDuca says can be found in the deep roster of baseball people who have been and continue to be actively involved in the racetrack game.

Jacob Rupert, owner of the New York Yankees during Babe Ruth's era, helped start The Jockey Club, which established many of racing's basic rules.

Newly elected Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, presently vice president of Major League Baseball Operations has been a part-owner of good racehorses for several years. Among the best on his equine roster is Game on Dude, the winner of nearly $6 million trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

Torre says his late brother Frank -- also a former major league player -- was an avid racing fan. But Joe only got interested when his long time bench coach Don Zimmer turned him on to racing in the mid 1990's with a few winning bets at Baltimore's Pimlico Racecourse.

When he began to own horses several years later, Torre explained his rekindled fascination: "The horses are beautiful to watch," he said. "But I was surprised when I realized how much thinking goes into a trainer's plan for their next race. It reminded me of what I was doing as a manager."

Zimmer, for his part, has had a love affair with horse racing for more than a half century. He owns a library of handicapping books, regularly reads the Daily Racing Form and hardly misses the chance to think through a Daily Double or Pick Three in his spare time. "The game keeps me young," he says.

Luis Gonzalez certainly was glad Turf Paradise Racetrack was only a few miles from where the Arizona Diamondbacks played and popular Lou Piniella can list more than a dozen favorite tracks near to where he played and managed during his long major league career.

Jim Kaat, a winner of 283 games during a vastly underrated 25 year pitching career, shows up at beautiful Saratoga Racetrack in upstate New York and/or picturesque Del Mar Racecourse near San Diego when his baseball broadcasting duties pitch him close enough to make the trip.

Kaat is a very thoughtful handicapper who confessed to me a few years ago that trying to predict winners of horse races is -- exactly as LoDuca stated -- "just as challenging as trying to out-think good major league hitters."

Even the recently retired Detroit Tiger manager Jim Leyland has gotten the racing bug, while former Dodger pitcher Brad Penny has raced dozens of Thoroughbreds for more than a decade.

It also is well known that Pete Rose would have been much better off if he kept his handicapping skills aimed at horseracing and not lost his way betting on baseball. "It's the thing I most regret in my life," Rose told me once at Turfway Park, in northern Kentucky, where he still plays horses several times a season.

"I should have stuck to the horses," he said. "It's a great game all by itself and a tough enough challenge."

Moises Alou, one of three Alou brothers who played Major League baseball, currently breeds Thoroughbreds in the Dominican Republic. Likewise, the late Joe Adcock, a former All-Star first baseman for the Milwaukee Braves, preceded Alou as a horse breeder of considerable note.

Adcock was most proud of two remarkable baseball achievements: He hit four home runs in a single game in 1954 and broke up the historic 12 inning no-hitter being pitched in 1959 by Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But in an interview in the mid-1980's, Adcock confessed to be most proud to have been named Louisiana's top breeder 10 times by his peers.

The late George Steinbrenner, who owned Tampa Bay Downs and the Florida based Kinsman Stable, bred and raced several nationally important stakes winners. He even had six horses run in the Kentucky Derby. One of them was Steve's Friend who was out on the Churchill Downs racetrack for a morning workout a few days before the 1977 Derby.

I was there clocking the Derby field for a newspaper assignment and my first meeting with George went like this:

George: "What did you think of my horse this morning?"

"I liked him, Mr. Steinbrenner. He worked very well."

George: "Do you think he can win the Derby? "

"To be perfectly honest, I really don't think so."

George: "Why?"

"Because Seattle Slew is in the race," I said. "If you saw him and understood how strong that horse is, you would know what I'm talking about."

"Explain it to me," George asked, squeezing my arm as I attempted to leave the clocker's stand.

"I'll try," I said half afraid that George would squeeze me into submission.

"Seattle Slew is like Reggie Jackson, or Mickey Mantle when he was in his prime, "I said. "Or, maybe this will be clearer: If this Derby was a boxing match and all the horses in the race were in the ring, Seattle Slew would be the only one left standing. The rest would be flat on their backs."

An hour after eventual Triple Crown Champion Seattle Slew had won the '77 Derby in which he knocked a pair of rivals sideways while overcoming a poor start, the owner of the Yankees left me a note in the Churchill Downs' press box:

"I see what you mean now," the note said. "My horse ran well [to be sixth] against that monster. I guess if I'm ever going to win this race, I'll have to breed a horse as good as Reggie to a good Thoroughbred mare!"

Good idea, George; who tried hard, but never did win the Derby while settling for seven World Series Championships during his passionate life.