Commentary

Real deals

Updated: March 7, 2012, 12:54 AM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Here's one about what might be real.

The trick to picking sports winners is determining what matters, and what's just show.

The smokescreen of improvement is prevalent in all sports, LSU seeming indestructible at college football, the Patriots appearing aloof on the pro gridiron, all the Derby prep winners sailing home and looking like big horses.

In a team sport like college basketball, what passes for improvement is the reality of playing sorry competition. It's why you see college hoop squads run off a dozen wins in a row and enter a conference tournament with 27 victories and then lose in the semis to a Hardly Anybody.

The ability to separate what's real from what's secondary is where the creativity comes into horse race handicapping.

Here's what matters when it comes to looking for a Derby winner.

Real tracks: Big numbers against minor players aren't worth as much as lesser numbers against great competition.

Real problems: A horse like Creative Cause is worth one more look because in its last race it somehow found trouble versus only a few and their shadows.

Real fatigue: El Padrino winning in New Orleans was exhausting to watch.

Real style: So far this spring, all the prep winners have displayed the classic stalking style that usually wins the Derby. Running up front is taxing. Running late, it's too difficult to pass so many horses of high quality. The stalker coming better off good races can be just the ticket, as Derby winners are usually on an up-tick.

Among Union Rags' biggest obstacles are real bad pickers that have upset the other sports.

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Here's an update of the HBO series about horse racing and its accompanying art house subjects, "Luck."

It's getting better. Last week it was good.

My original pick made five minutes into the series that has been renewed for a second season stands: Nick Nolte's horse beats Dustin Hoffman's horse by one nose.

The show is almost too predictably full of degenerate gamblers, crooks, ex-cons, future cons, financial rats, and kindly veterinarians. But that's the perception of the sport. The actors mumble too much. You can imagine the people in charge having said before the first day of shooting, "Let's go make us some gritty and grizzled art."

Dustin Hoffman has gotten really good in his role of a former convict with soft-spoken mayhem organized just below the surface in the form of revenge against those who had messed with him. Hoffman appears to be constantly entering or leaving a nap from which he could suddenly wake up and rip somebody apart.

Performance art is best when under-played like that.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.