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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sheik Mohammed's Billion-Dollar Question

Also in Slate, Ted McClelland explains why nobody goes to the horse races anymore, and Magnum Photos presents a gallery of racing photos.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his wife Princess Haya. Click image to expand.

In late March, at Nad Al Sheba racetrack, several of the world's best Thoroughbreds battled for a share of more than $21 million in the desert heat of Dubai. The centerpiece of the weekend's racing was the Dubai World Cup—at $6 million, the world's richest horse race. The equine fete was hosted by the ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a man who annually splashes out tens of millions of dollars on yearling prospects, ferrying his new acquisitions around the globe on a custom-built Boeing 747. He is a man whose dreams of Dubai tilt toward artificial islands, indoor skiing, and the world's tallest building. For all his fantastic wealth and ambition, though, he has yet to saddle a winner on the first Saturday in May. With all that money, couldn't the sheik just buy the Kentucky Derby?

He's certainly been trying. Since 1999, Sheik Mohammed has started five horses in the Derby; none of them has finished better than sixth. Most have been expensive acquisitions. His most recent bid, in 2002, was with Essence of Dubai, a colt bought at a yearling sale for $2.3 million. That horse finished ninth. In 2006, the sheik shelled out $11.7 million at Keeneland for a slick-looking prospect—the second-highest price ever paid for a yearling—but to this day, the colt hasn't raced.

In 1999, at Churchill Downs, the sheik proclaimed that he would win the Kentucky Derby within four years. Those four years came and went, and what was the sheik to do? If the yearling sales weren't his ticket, perhaps the more prudent approach was to wait for a horse with demonstrated Derby promise. In 2005, he picked up Discreet Cat in a private deal for $6 million after the colt's maiden win at Saratoga, but the horse skipped the Derby over concerns about being able to go the distance. In 2006, he offered $17 million for Nobiz Like Shobiz following that colt's impressive maiden win. Nobiz Like Shobiz ran in the Derby last year, finishing 10th, but he wasn't sporting the sheik's racing silks—the offer had been rebuffed. Nine years after the sheik's first start, racing's holy grail remains out of reach. This while horses acquired at the equivalent of Crazy Eddie prices in the bloodstock market have worn the roses in May. Funny Cide, the 2003 Derby and Preakness winner, was purchased for $75,000. Monarchos, the 2001 winner, went for $170,000 at a 2-year-old training sale.

A Derby win is not only the most cherished title in horse racing. It may also be the most difficult to achieve. To be sure, it's an elusive prize: In the last 30 years, Bob and Beverly Lewis are the only owners to have won the Derby more than once.

Each year, more than 37,000 Thoroughbred foals are registered with the Jockey Club, but no more than 20 will run as 3-year-olds under Churchill Downs' twin spires. Most will have had their start in the breeding sheds of Lexington, Ky., or Ocala, Fla., and will be acquired at yearling auctions in the flash of a gavel. With no equivalent of a salary cap in horse racing, it would seem as if securing talent were simply a matter of unrivaled wealth. Yearling auctions regularly feature showdowns among the über-wealthy over horseflesh—in 2006, the sheik spent $60 million over several days at Keeneland's September yearling sale. But yearlings are immature, gangly, unproven items, and prospecting for a Derby winner among them is more than a little like trying to pick the next Asafa Powell from the members of a sixth-grade track team.

The road to the roses is fraught with more than simply long odds at predicting equine stardom. Power and strength notwithstanding, the Thoroughbred is an exquisitely fragile creature. In the run-up to May, any number of injuries may put a horse out of Derby contention. Big Brown, now the odds-on favorite after his commanding victory in the Florida Derby, was sidelined twice this year with hoof wall separations; the Derby will be only his fourth career start. The leading graded-stakes earnings winner, War Pass, will sit out the Derby—and perhaps the rest of the year—after radiographs recently turned up a fracture in his left front ankle. And with more tracks switching to synthetic surfaces, an increasing number of Derby entrants—this year, notably Californians Bob Black Jack and Colonel John—will be making their inaugural run on old-fashioned dirt in Louisville, adding more uncertainty to the equation.

The Derby's peculiarities must also be considered. While Derby prep races are traditionally run at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles, most of the 3-year-old crop will not yet have stretched out at the Derby's 1 1/4 miles. Then there is the field of 20 contenders, nearly twice as many as a typical graded stakes race, where fields aren't so swollen with glory-hungry arrivistes. In such heavy traffic, horses are easily hemmed in or boxed out of a clean run. Post-position draws may also play to disadvantage, as horses breaking from far outside posts have historically fared less well at Churchill Downs. Not least, there is the spectacle that is the Derby itself—the event Hunter S. Thompson called "decadent and depraved"—the grandstand roar of 100,000 julep-wielding fans nostalgia-woozy from having just sung "My Old Kentucky Home." Swinging around the quarter pole and into the bourbon-breathed maw of that frenzied crowd would have been enough to put the fear of creator in the likes of even Thompson, to say nothing of a horse whose total career starts might be counted on one hand.

Having thus far been shut out of the money in five Kentucky Derby starts, Sheik Mohammed has changed tack and taken a page from the playbook of Calumet Farm, the legendary racing dynasty that produced Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation. The breeding arm of the sheik's outfit, Darley Stud, has, like Calumet, gone to a strategy of putting battle-tested winners to use in the breeding shed. The sheik bought breeding rights to last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense, and runner-up, Hard Spun. The sheik will add those talents to his already-diverse holdings: graded stakes winners now enjoying stud careers across three continents. Thus, the empire is slowly built: Darley. Ballysheehan. Gainsborough. And most recently, Woodlands Stud, his $500 million acquisition in Australia.

While many see the sheik's investments as a shot in the arm for an ailing industry, others aren't so sure. The Washington Post's Andrew Beyer called (subscription required) the sheik's penchant for limitless spending "checkbook horsemanship." Sheik Mohammed's response: "We do not wait for things to happen, we make them happen."

This Saturday, though, there will be nothing happening for the sheik: His top 3-year-old prospects faded early and have been off the Derby trail for weeks. And so, the Kentucky Derby, in its 134th year, remains a race not easily swiped, money be damned. Those two minutes on the first Saturday in May will stay long adored because it transcends any notion of buying and selling—because it is fundamentally about the drama of achieving athletic greatness. And because, when the gates fling open at Churchill, anything can happen.

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Ducati: Leaner and Meaner

The famed manufacturer squeezes more horses into its slimmed-down motorcycle

Superbike 848: Photo by Ducati

Ducati upped the ante, unleashing a bike with an 849cc engine that weighs no more than competitors in the 600cc range. In fact, the Superbike 848 weighs 44 pounds less than its 749cc predecessor. To shed pounds, Ducati uses vacural molding, a fabrication process that inhales molten alloy directly into die casts to create a seamless piece of aluminum. This eliminates the need to fasten multiple pieces with welds and bolts that weaken a structure and add weight.

Vacural molding lightens the engine casing and produces a more rugged throttle body, the part that delivers air to the cylinder heads. As in last year’s 1098 model, Ducati uses a low, wide throttle body, which allows the cylinder heads to be more compact, and thus lighter.

The single-sided aluminum swing arm (Ducati’s signature rear-wheel suspension) is made of multiple components. But the company reinforced the joints to make it stiffer than previous swing arms, so it finally matches the feel of a traditional double-sided suspension.

Boasting 134 horsepower, this 370-pound Italian stallion achieves a power-to-weight ratio not seen since Rocky Balboa’s early years.

Less is More: Compact cylinder heads [left] and single-sided rear suspension [right] reduce weight. Photo by Ducati
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De La Hoya: Not looking past Forbes to Mayweather

Oscar De La Hoya, left, promoter Bernard Hopkins and Stevie Forbes pose during promotion for Saturday's fight.
By Ric Francis, AP
Oscar De La Hoya, left, promoter Bernard Hopkins and Stevie Forbes pose during promotion for Saturday's fight.

The last time Oscar De La Hoya was in a steppingstone fight, he almost tripped.

In a non-title welterweight matchup Saturday, only Stevie Forbes, a former junior lightweight titlist, stands between De La Hoya (38-5, 30 knockouts) and a Sept. 20 rematch with Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Before his middleweight title superfight with Bernard Hopkins in September 2004, De La Hoya took on lightly regarded Felix Sturm. Beating Sturm appeared to be a forgone conclusion, but someone forgot to tell the German, who outsmarted and outfought the Golden Boy only to lose a questionable decision, 115-113 on all three judges' scorecards.

"There's no looking past Stevie Forbes. I've been training so hard for this fight just like it was the most important fight of my life, and it is," said De La Hoya, 35, who has held world title belts in six divisions, at a news conference this week. "It is because I don't feel like a champion. I'm not a champion."

The Forbes fight will be the first of three farewell matches this year, at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., just outside De La Hoya's hometown of Los Angeles (HBO, 10 p.m. ET). It's his first, and likely last, non-pay-per-view fight since 2001.

Like Sturm, Forbes (38-5) presents similar stylistic challenges to De La Hoya, though on a smaller scale.

Like Sturm, Forbes is a crafty technician who knows how to ride with punches to diffuse their power and catch-and-counter in between assaults.

Like Sturm, Forbes has only nine knockouts going into his fight with De La Hoya.

Unlike Sturm, however, Forbes is a career lightweight, a division 12 to 17 pounds south of where he'll be fighting for just the fourth time.

De La Hoya, 5-10½, cemented his legend with highlight-reel knockouts of career lightweights such as Rafael Ruelas, James Leija and Arturo Gatti. While he has 30 stoppages, 20 came between 130-140 pounds, where he could exploit his natural size advantage.

Forbes, 31, doesn't see the size difference as significant. When he was on the reality series The Contender, he fought junior middleweights (154 pounds) such as Grady Brewer and Cornelius Bundrage.

"Those guys were a lot bigger than he is," says Forbes, a former junior lightweight titleholder who has never been stopped. "I don't think it'll be so telling like people think it will be.

?They're heavier than Oscar. I never looked at him like a big physical, imposing, strength guy."

Forbes expects his speed proves to be a difference-maker. In De La Hoya's most difficult fights, a hotly disputed win vs. Pernell Whitaker, a late knockout of Oba Carr, a pair of losses to Shane Mosley and last year's close decision loss to Mayweather, speed was his enemy. "He's always had problems with guys who are smart boxers, technicians with good hand speed," says Forbes. "Every day of the week they'll give him problems."

It's Showtime:

If Andre Dirrell is the future, the answer could come Friday.

Dirrell, a U.S. bronze medalist in the 2004 Olympics, will face Anthony Hanshaw (21-1-1, 14 KOs) in a 10-round super middleweight bout on ShoBox: The Next Generation series on Showtime (11 p.m. ET/PT). This is significantly stiffer competition for Dirrell (14-0, nine KOs). Six of the 25-year-old southpaw's wins have come against opponents with losing records, including the last two who are a combined 32-53-9.

"I know I'm a world class fighter," Dirrell says. "I just got to put my skills out there and assure everybody I am the man to get that (168) title."

While Hanshaw's record is thin, too, especially for an eight-year professional, he has faced better opposition. He owns a win vs. former contender Kingsley Ikeke in 2001, and this is his first bout since losing a unanimous decision to former four-division champion Roy Jones in July.

"The pressure he brings I've been dealing with that my whole career," Dirrell says. "It's a big step up, but it's nothing I can't handle."

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Songaila suspended for Wizards' Game 6 at Cavs

WASHINGTON -- Washington Wizards reserve forward Darius Songaila was suspended by the NBA for Game 6 of his team's first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for hitting LeBron James in the face.

"Did I think it was intentional? I'm not sure. But it happened," James said before the game.

"It's the postseason. It's physical. At the same time, you've got to draw a line," James added.

Songaila, averaging 5.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in 15.4 minutes during the series, and Wizards coach Eddie Jordan have said the contact was accidental as the player tried to pull his arm free after getting tangled with James in the first quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday.

"Songaila's contact was not made in the normal course of a basketball play, and he struck Lebron James in the face, and by rule receives an automatic suspension," NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson said in a conference call with reporters Friday.

"In viewing this many times," Jackson said, "we do feel that it was intentional contact."

Songaila was called for a technical foul, the latest example of what a rough-and-tumble series this has been. He wasn't at the arena for Friday's game; one of his No. 9 jerseys rested on a seat on the Wizards' sideline.

Even James acknowledged Songaila's foul didn't rank among the hardest of the first five games.

"No, no," James said. "Probably about 10th."

Said Washington's DeShawn Stevenson: "It just shows you he gets any call he wants."

In Game 1, James elbowed Washington forward Andray Blatche in the chin, a move later quietly upgraded to a flagrant foul -- but one Jackson said Friday did come in the "course of a basketball movement." Washington center Brendan Haywood was ejected from Game 2 for shoving James, and there also were flagrant fouls called on Stevenson and Anderson Varejao during the series.

But Jackson said that the Songaila-James play was viewed on its own -- and that the NBA has not warned the Wizards.

"There's no subliminal message here," Jackson said. "We evaluate each of these plays on its own merit."

Songaila participated in Washington's shootaround at its arena Friday morning, before the league announced the suspension. Jordan said he would have given more practice time to Andray Blatche had he known Songaila would be ruled out.

"We conducted an investigation that included interviewing both of the players involved and also taking input from the officials on the floor," Jackson said. "After that, we reviewed the video and then ultimately gathered all the information and made a decision."

Washington won 88-87 on Wednesday to cut Cleveland's lead to 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.

"It's Game 6, a must-win game, and you kick out one of our main bench players for an accident," Gilbert Arenas said. "I think that's wrong."

Stevenson, involved in an off-court feud with James and fined for a throat-slashing gesture during Game 4, was hit by a towel thrown from the stands while he stood near the sideline during Game 5. Jackson said the league is looking into that.

Stevenson had his doubts.

"If it ain't LeBron James," Stevenson said, "they ain't going to look at nothing."

On Thursday, neither Songaila nor Jordan had sounded worried there might be a suspension when they discussed the run-in with James.

"We got tangled up, my arm got caught inside of his, and when he tried to free himself, it was just an accident. He lifted my arm and it him right in the face. It was caused by him," Songaila said Thursday. "It wasn't my intention or anything like that. If anything, it was an accident."

Jordan watched video of the play and his opinion hadn't changed.

"I stand my ground. I thought he got tangled up with LeBron, and LeBron tried to get untangled. And in his method of trying to get untangled, Darius' arm just flew at his chin," Jordan said Thursday. "And LeBron's a terrific actor. We've seen some of his commercials."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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Baseball star Canseco loses home to foreclosure

The Encino, California home of former U.S. baseball star Jose Canseco is shown in this undated publicity photograph from the syndicated television program 'Inside Edition' May 1, 2008. (Courtesy Inside Edition/Handout/Reuters)
Reuters Photo: The Encino, California home of former U.S. baseball star Jose Canseco is shown in this...
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Former U.S. baseball star Jose Canseco said on Thursday he had lost his California mansion to foreclosure -- one of the first celebrities to publicly admit being a statistic in the U.S. housing crisis.

Canseco, 43, one of the most flamboyant U.S. baseball players until his retirement from the major leagues in 2001, told the celebrity TV show "Inside Edition" that it did not make financial sense to keep his 7,300 square-foot (678.2 sq-metro) home in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino.

"Inside Edition" said it had foreclosure documents showing Canseco owed a bank more than $2.5 million on the house.

"I've been out of the game for about eight or nine years and obviously this issue with the foreclosure on my home," he told "Inside Edition."

"I do have a judgment on my home and it to me is very strange because it didn't make financial sense for me to keep paying a mortgage on a home that was basically owned by someone else," he said.

Canseco said the foreclosure was not a difficult issue emotionally. But he sympathized with the millions of other Americans who have already lost, or face losing their homes, because of soaring interest rates on sub-prime loans.

"I decided to just let it go, but in most cases and most families, they have nowhere else to go," he said.

It was not clear from the "Inside Edition" report where Canseco was now living.

U.S. home foreclosure filings jumped 23 percent in the first quarter of 2008 from the prior quarter and more than doubled from a year earlier, real estate data firm RealtyTrac reported this week.

Canseco was one of the first Major League Baseball players to admit using steroids in his tell-all 2005 book "Juiced." His personal life has also been controversial with two divorces and several run-ins with the law for violence.

Canseco said a good portion of the money he earned in his heyday went to pay for his divorces. "I had a couple of divorces that cost me $7 or $8 million," he said.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Sandra Maler)

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