This is a very strange Kentucky Derby field. Most years there are several top level contenders, and the challenge is to figure out which one is going to rise to the occasion. This year there are just three horses that seem to be elite – Eskendereya being the best by far, with Lookin at Lucky and Sidney’s Candy, a couple of California invaders, close behind. The rest of the field is full of horses that have shown promise at times but have done more things to raise doubts than to create confidence. More than most years, then, looking for a longshot takes a massive leap of faith. Here’s a look at five of those longshots that you could make a case for – though it’s hard to believe that any of them are better than the best here:

Awesome Act
– This is by far my favorite of the horses beyond the top three. He’ll likely go off at 15/1 or so, so the price is attractive. He’s coming off a dismal third place showing behind Eskendereya in the Wood Memorial, but he’s still moving in the right direction. He wasn’t allowed to run at all in that last race, and still had the heart to close reasonably strong. It looks like he has lots of room to improve off of that race, and he’s bred to run forever. He also has Julien Leparoux, one of the better jockeys out there and an experienced Kentucky rider, on board. He’s a live one.

Ice Box
– I expect him to be in about the 15/1 range as well. He won the Florida Derby last time out – the same race that Barbaro won before his Derby win. I’m not saying that this horse is Barbaro, though. The Florida Derby was by far his best race ever, though, so it is hard to believe that he can replicate it. The best thing going for him, though, is his running style. He’s a closer, and that sets up well if the pace is as fast as it could be given the amount of early speed in the field. He could be ready to pick up the pieces.

Continue reading “Kentucky Derby Preview – Live Longshots”

The jockeys are a huge factor in the Derby – more than almost any other race. With the field so large, the crowd massive and loud, and the horses young an relatively inexperienced, a jockey can make the difference between a winning effort and a disappointing one. That means that jockeys, and their match to their horses, is a crucial and often underutilized handicapping angle. Here’s a look at four jockeys that need to be considered because they could be difference makers here:

Garrett Gomez, Lookin at Lucky
– Gomez is the best jockey in North America, yet he has never won the Derby. That’s a clear sign of just how tough this race is. He’s on a live one here in Lookin at Lucky, the likely second choice in the field. Gomez will have an added motivation to put forth a big effort here because his last ride on this horse, in the Santa Anita Derby, was one of the worst of his entire career and a big reason that the horse was only third. Gomez is too good to be that bad twice in a row, so this horse will be even better than it is because of his presence.

Calvin Borel, Super Saver
– Borel has ridden this horse twice and they were two of his best performances. The jockey from Louisiana is the king of Churchill right now. He won the Derby in 2007 aboard Street Sense, and then did it again last year on Mine That Bird with perhaps the most incredible ride in the history of the sport. This horse will be near the front and that might not be Borel’s best spot, but there’s no arguing with his success.

Joe Talamo, Sidney’s Candy
– Talamo, a 20 year old who races in Southern California is making his Derby debut, though that shouldn’t be the case. Last year he was aboard I Want Revenge, the likely favorite who was scratched on the morning of the race. Talamo is obviously an enormously talented rider, and he has won many big races including his first Breeders’ Cup event last year. He has a horse with heart to burn as well. I’m just a little concerned about him in this spot, though. He’s so young and new to this stage that the spectacle of the Derby could be too much for him and force him into a bad decision. That’s especially important with the horse he has – Sidney’s Candy wants to be on or near the lead, so it would be very easy to burn him out if Talamo isn’t sharp.

John Velazquez, Eskendereya
– Velazquez is, like Gomez, a top jockey who has never won the Derby. He won the Belmont in 2007 aboard Rags to Riches, and his trophy case is packed with an impressive assortment of other hardware – seven Breeders’ Cup wins, a Dubai World Cup and two Eclipse Awards. Johnny V is, at his best, an immensely talented rider who is more than capable of piloting this favorite home. He has an incredibly annoying habit, though – he can turn his brain off and ride a race like he has never been on a horse before. He’s getting older and hasn’t been as sharp over the last couple of years, so his presence is definitely a strike against the favorite in my eyes.

Over the next few days I’ll be traveling to watch the Derby, so I won’t be around to update each day. Up until the big race goes on Saturday, then, I have prepared a few previews to get you ready for the greatest two minutes in sports. I’m doing this a few days in advance, so I have had to make some guesses about the field, and there is a chance that I will be writing about horses that won’t make the field for some reason, but I’ve made my best guesses so forgive me.

Continue reading “Kentucky Derby Preview – The Pletcher Factor”

For this last of three days of World Cup previews we’re going to look at high profile teams that I’m just not buying into. Some people might argue that these teams could surprise us all and win the tournament, but I think they just have too many flaws – some of them fatal – to pull of the win.

France (16/1)
– They are at this price because of past success, but they absolutely don’t deserve it. They only barely qualified for the tournament at all, and looked absolutely awful throughout the whole qualification process. They can’t score, their best player, Thierry Henry, isn’t as young as he used to be, and the team seems to be in disarray. They will probably get through to the second round, but I’ll be quite surprised if they win a game beyond that. This team needs an overhaul in a big way, and a poor performance here could hasten that inevitability.

USA (50/1)
– I don’t trust a single thing about this team, and I apologize to all you Americans out there. The Confederations Cup is a perfect example of the issues with this team. They looked good beating the Spaniards to get int the finals, then looked like a bunch of toddlers playing against men in the finals against Brazil. This team isn’t talented enough to compete with the best teams, and not tough enough to overcome that lack of talent. They have been a recent disappointment internationally, and I expect them to disappoint again here.

Chile (50/1)
– I’ve seen Chile mentioned as a live longshot in a few places, but I’m just not buying it. This is a team that is on the rise as a soccer country, and their younger players are putting up good results in age-limited tournaments, but this is just too early for them to play with the big boys. They are too young and too inexperienced to make any noise here. They have a very good shot of making the elimination round if they can beat Switzerland in the round robin (and they will likely be favored to do so), but they would need to get extremely lucky with the draw to move beyond that.

Serbia (50/1)
– In their first tournament appearance as an independent country Serbia is getting some real attention as another live longshot. I’m not a believer. Their biggest claim to fame is that they beat France in their qualifying group, but you could argue that France really beat themselves. They have a couple of very good players – Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic is one of the top defenders in Europe – but they just don’t have the depth or the experience to be a serious contender here.

South Africa (100/1)
– I love a great underdog story in sports as much as anyone, but we just aren’t going to see one here. The hosts are getting some respect because they will be playing in front of home crowds. Don’t get sucked in, though – if this team was playing anywhere else than at home then they would be at least 300/1. They are outclassed in this field and absolutely would not be in it if they had had to qualify. They lack the star power to compete, and just plain aren’t good enough. Winning a single game will be a bit of a miracle. This is not a Disney movie in the making.

Today we’re going to look at five teams that have the potential to win it all at the World Cup, but only if they are absolutely flawless and the top teams ahead of them have a bad month:

Italy (12/1)
– You have to give Italy serious respect because they are the defending champions. They also totally dominated their qualifying process. They are going to focus on the defense that has made them as strong as they have been recently, and they still have the talent that makes them world class led by Gianluigi Buffon, the best goalkeeper in the world. There are a couple of reasons for concern, though. Most significantly, their qualifying run was so easy that a team could become lethargic as a result – unable to turn it back on when the games matter. That was a real problem during the Confederations Cup when the team was awful and looked out of place.

Germany (12/1)
– I’m not sure that this is the most talented team out there, but I’m also not sure it matters. The Germans don’t play with a lot of creativity or explosiveness, but they are the best in the world at getting up for big games and getting the most out of their talent. They were second at the World Cup in 2002,third in 2006, and second at Euro 2008. They exceeded their talent in each case, so there is no reason it couldn’t happen again here. The x-factor here is Michael Ballack. The midfielder and captain is the best player of his generation in Germany, and the emotional and physical leader of this team. This will be his last World Cup – he’s 33 – and that could be motivation to take this team to great heights.

Netherlands (12/1)
– The Dutch are another team that excels at crushing the expectations of their fan. They rolled through their qualification unscathed, outscoring opponents 17-2 in the process. They have talent and discipline galore in excess, but they have been knocked out of the last couple of major international tournaments in the quarterfinals and have looked as bad as a team possibly can in those losses. The problems with this team seem more mental than physical. That’s much harder to overcome.

Portugal (28/1)
– Cristiano Ronaldo could be the best player in the world right now, so this team is obviously a factor with him in the lineup. The defense is fantastic as well. They didn’t lose a single game in 2009, and appear to be ready. We’ll get a good sense of how good this team is when they play Brazil in the round-robin, but at this point they seem to be solid value at this price.

Ivory Coast (25/1)
– There has to be an African team in consideration in an African World Cup, and the Ivory Coast is the best there is. They are led by Didier Drogba, one of the best strikers in the world. Their biggest issue is the group they are in – they will have to play both Portugal and Brazil in the first round of the Group of Death. There is going to be a very good team that doesn’t even get a chance to try their luck in the elimination rounds. If Ivory Coast gets through the first round then they can be dangerous. They are a feisty, tough team that could cause any team troubles. We’ll be able to easily re-assess the caliber of this team after they have played their group round, but they are the pride of their continent.

We’re going to be talking about the World Cup a lot in a couple of months because it’s the most exciting betting opportunity of this summer. We’ll leave the detail until closer to the event, but over the next three days we’re going to take an initial look at how the tournament plays out. Today we’re going to look at the four top teams in the tournament. One of these four is very likely to win it all. Tomorrow we’ll look at five second tier teams – teams that could win it all if everything went absolutely perfectly for them. On Tuesday we’ll look at five no hope squads – teams that are getting a fair bit of attention,but which just aren’t going to win in my eyes. Without further ado:

Brazil (5/1)
– Brazil is the second favorite to win it all this year, and they are always one of the top one or two teams in the tournament. There’s no doubt that they are worthy of this price and attention. They won the Confederations Cup last year in impressive fashion, so they are clearly in top international form. Kaka is one of the world’s best and best named players, and Adriano and Luis Fabiano are the best striker combination in the world. Julio Cesar is one of the world’s top goalies as well. This is a stocked team. The only thing really holding them back from being favorites in my eyes is their draw. They are in the so-called Group of Death, so they are going to have to work harder in the round robin portion of the tournament than other teams, and that could lead to a tougher second round opponent than other teams face.

Spain (15/4)
– The Spaniards had an ugly upset loss to the U.S at the Confederations Cup last year, but they still won 15 other games last year and were named the top team in the world. This team has long been the San Jose Sharks of the soccer world – a wildly talented team that just can’t get their act together when it really matters. Heart-breakers. They have started to change that perception with a big win at Euro 2008, the world’s second toughest tournament, and they look to complete their re-birth here. There’s not one player on this team that stands out as the best in the world, but you could also argue that every one of their starters is in the top ten or so at their position in the world. Ridiculously deep and now battle tested, this team is going to be tough to beat.

England (6/1)
– England is becoming the new Spain after several disappointing performances – or failures to qualify – at major tournaments. This tournament is England’s chance to again prove that they deserve to be considered among the top soccer countries in the world. They made a major coaching change in 2007, and it has made all of the difference in terms of attitude and caliber of play. They crushed their opposition in World Cup qualifying, and they have the talent to go deep here. I’d put them on a lower level than the two teams ahead of them, but I like their depth, and if they can come in in the right mindset then they could certainly come out on top.

Argentina (15/2)
– Lionel Messi is probably the best player playing in Europe right now, so his presence certainly makes this team a contender. He doesn’t have to carry the load alone, either. Carlos Tevez is a spectacular striker, and Sergio Aguero is one of the best young players in the world. They also have Maradona, the best player of all time in many eyes, behind the bench. The biggest concern for this team, and the only thing that stops their odds from falling lower, is their play during qualifications. They looked disinterested and sluggish, and barely limped through a South American field that they should have dominated (along with Brazil, of course).

Here are five guys that will likely go today who should make their teams and nfl gamblers very happy:

1. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
– There has been little talk of him in the first round, but there really should have been. He’s a better player than Clausen in my eyes – more athletic, a better arm, more successful, and a much better leader. The arm injury in the championship game is irrelevant, and McCoy is ready to be a starting QB in this league.

2. Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama
– Though he has the skills to get picked in the first round, size issues could make him a second day bargain. Cody is massive and may not be able to control that weight, and his body may not stand up to the strain of the league. He’s a run stopping machine, though, and he shows surprising bursts of athleticism for his size. He’s not a pass rushing demon, but he’s very useful as the relatively unique type of player that he is.

3. Brandon Spikes, LB, Florida
– He has good linebacking bloodlines – his cousin is Takeo Spikes. Spikes is the leader of his defense at Florida, and could take that same kind of role in the pros. He has brilliant instincts, and knows where he needs to be almost before a play happens. He doesn’t have the flashy numbers to be a first-rounder, but he looks like he could be a long term solution in a crucial position.

4. Dexter McCluster, RB, Mississippi
– This isn’t a great running back class, but McCluster could be the best of the whole group. What I love about watching him is his ability to read the line in the backfield, adjust instantly, and find the hole. He has downfield vision that is very rare. He’s also very patient, and is capable of throwing in a stutter step to wait for a hole to develop.

5. Navorro Bowman, LB, Penn State
– He comes from a linebacker factory, so his credentials are sound. Bowman is an above average linebacker in all aspects of his game except for one – against the run he is absolutely incredible. It’s like he has running back sensors in his brain – he gets to them and almost never lets them past. That, along with solid skills in other areas, will make him a nice addition to any team. There are some concerns about his behavior, but the bulk of his issues were back n 2007 when he has going through hard times, and I think they are in the past. He’s worth a GM’s nfl bet.

All NFL Draft, all the time the next three days. The title make’s today’s offering self-evident:

Guys I Love

1. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
– What’s not to like about this guy. He was brilliant from the very start at Oklahoma, and he has the look of a guy who can take that to the next level. He crushed the college football point spread at Oklahoma.  He has a good arm, he’s mobile enough without using that as a crutch, he’s incredibly smart, and he just wins. Top rated quarterbacks aren’t always successful, but Clausen will be.

Continue reading “Five First Rounders I Really Love, And Three I Don’t”

Baseball is such a great sport. People who don’t get it and don’t love it will complain that the season goes on two long, that the players aren’t really athletes, or that it’s boring and uncompetitive. Those people just aren’t willing to embrace baseball for what it is – a factory for strange and amazing sights. There are three things that happened yesterday in the games that are a perfect example of why this game is so great:

Jason Heyward
– This guy is one of those rare guys who comes along who is ridiculously hyped and still lives up to it. The guy is being held up as the next great hitter in baseball, and the savior of the Braves. After a couple weeks of watching him play I am not doubting it. Last night, after a slow start, Heyward hit an absolute moonshot of a homerun in the ninth to allow the game to go into extra innings where the tam won it. The guy is 20 years old, but he plays like he has been in the league for a decade. If this guy is as good as he is now then watching him for the next decade is going to be a very sweet treat. 16 RBIs in his first 14 games. Not bad, I guess.

Nate McClouth
– More with the Braves. The former Pittsburgh star who moved to the Atlanta last year started this season with an ugly slump. He picked a great time to break out of it, though – his home run in the 10th inning won the game. He was obviously thrilled about it – he was pumping his fist until second base and took off his helmet rounding third. He was obviously expecting home plate to be crowded – it always is with a walk-off. When he rounded third and looked up, though, he saw that not only was anyone waiting for him, but the entire dugout was empty. To give him a hard time, the whole team left and was hiding in the tunnel waiting for him. Hilarious. The look on his face – pure confusion – was absolutely priceless.

Padres
– There are so many games every day, and so many intricacies to the game, that anything can happen any time, and at least a few odd things happen every day. The Padres were playing the Giants, and they couldn’t get anything going at all. Jonathan Sanchez allowed just one hit in seven innings while striking out 10, and Sergio Romo shut the door with one perfect inning of relief. On virtually any day the Padres would have lost that game by daylight. This time, though, they won it. The lone hit was a single in the fourth by Headley. He stole second, advanced to third, and scored on a sacrifice fly. The Giants had six hits and two walks, but they couldn’t match the production and they lost. Bizarre game. Great game.

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