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Monday, May 19, 2008

Big Brown wins Preakness; poised for Triple Crown

BALTIMORE (AP) -- Not once but twice, jockey Kent Desormeaux sneaked a peek to see if anyone was gaining on Big Brown. "I looked between my legs, under my arms, and they were eight (lengths) behind me," Desormeaux said. "I stopped pushing. I said, `That's enough.'"

His big bay colt ran away with the Preakness on Saturday and now is pointed squarely down the path toward the Triple Crown.

The 3-year-old with the perfect record heads for the Belmont Stakes in three weeks as the fourth horse this decade to try for the triple, a sweep last accomplished by Affirmed in 1978. The last to try was Smarty Jones in 2004.

"Wow is all I can say," Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed, said by telephone from Kentucky. "He looks pretty special. It was like a cakewalk for him. The important thing to me is he keeps passing all the tests."

Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., who called his shot at both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, sounded nearly as confident after Big Brown came back full of run after putting away the field of 11 with ease.

"I know we have horse left. There is no question," Dutrow said.

"He's just shown up every step, every way," he added. "I just can't imagine him not showing up for the Belmont."

As he did two weeks ago in a Kentucky Derby marred by the breakdown of Eight Belles, the colt named for UPS delivered another stunning win, this time by 5 1/4 lengths. Macho Again was second and Icabad Crane was third.

"We just got beat by a monster," said Julien Leparoux, who was aboard Macho Again.

Big Brown slipped a bit while breaking from the middle of an undistinguished pack and Desormeaux took him off the pace in front of 112,222 fans.

"He's so strong, he powered out with his back legs and they just slipped and he was standing out in the same spot," Desormeaux said. "It actually was his second push that let him out of the gate."

Big Brown was fourth the first time past the grandstand behind pacesetter Gayego. He moved up to third on the first turn, where he stayed all the way down the backstretch.

"My whole job in that first half-mile was to keep his face clean," Desormeaux said. "There's not a grain of sand on most of his body."

The decisive moment came just before the final turn, when Desormeaux angled Big Brown out three-wide for clear running room. As he hit the top of the stretch, Desormeaux simply crossed the reins to let Big Brown know it was time to take off.

He didn't even need the whip, which he initially left behind in the jockeys' room. He could have saved himself the trip back to get it. His horse covered 1 3-16 miles in 1:54.80.

"This is the best horse I've ever ridden," Desormeaux said.

That's saying something.

In 1998, the jockey rode Real Quiet to wins in the Derby and Preakness only to be denied Triple Crown immortality when Victory Gallop stuck his nose in front at the wire in the Belmont. The final jewel is also the longest of the three races, a grueling 1 1/2 miles that proved the undoing of War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones the next year.

"We should have the horse to get the job done," Dutrow said.

Big Brown went off as a shorter priced favorite than Secretariat in 1973, who went on to win the Triple Crown, capped by a stunning 31-length victory in the Belmont.

"It looks like Big Brown might win the Belmont farther than Secretariat," said Paddy Gallagher, who trained 10th-place finisher Yankee Bravo.

Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, said she plans to be on hand for the history making try on June 7.

"I don't know whether Secretariat can stay with him or not," she said. "I won't speculate how that would come out, because we haven't seen him at that long a distance. But you have that big sweeping race track. I think he's going to do just fine."

Big Brown tied for the fourth-lowest payoff in Preakness history with Native Dancer in 1953. Sent off at 1-5 odds, he paid $2.40, $2.60 and $2.40. Macho Again returned $17.20 and $10.40, while Icabad Crane paid $5.60.

Racecar Rhapsody was fourth, followed by Stevil, Kentucky Bear, Hey Byrn, Giant Moon, Tres Borrachos, Yankee Bravo, Gayego and Riley Tucker.

In the Derby, Big Brown started on the far outside of 19 horses and used an explosive finishing kick to win by 4 3/4 lengths, the tightest margin in his 5-0 career. He's won those races by a combined 39 lengths.

The muscular colt joined Majestic Prince (1969), Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew (1977) and Smarty Jones (2004) as undefeated Derby and Preakness winners.

The victory put the sport's focus back on racing after two weeks of frenzied debate about safety and breeding following Eight Belles' catastrophic breakdown. His dominating performance came in front of a crowd that surely breathed easier after all 12 runners returned safely. On the same track just two years ago, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down early in the race.

The Preakness win also means Big Brown's connections - Dutrow, Desormeaux and principal owners Michael Iavarone and Richard Schiavo who once worked on Wall Street - are headed back to their New York base with a horse that could make history.

It was an especially meaningful trip to the winner's circle, since Dutrow had accompanied his late father, respected trainer Richard Sr., on past Preakness days before the two fell out over the younger Dutrow's drug use and blown chances. In the past, his training license was revoked for personal drug use and he was suspended for doping horses.

The Preakness was also a homecoming for Desormeaux, the Cajun jockey who launched his career in Maryland in 1987. Cheering him on were his wife, Sonia, and two sons, including 9-year-old Jacob. The boy was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that stole his hearing at birth and is slowly robbing him of his sight.

In the winner's circle, Jacob said to his mother, "I wish Daddy would buy Big Brown. Mom, can we buy Big Brown?"

Big Brown earned $600,000 for the win and boosted his earnings to $2,714,500 for Iavarone and Schiavo, co-owners of IEAH Stables, and Paul Pompa Jr. Pompa named Big Brown in honor of UPS, a major client of his Brooklyn trucking business.

The festive mood at Pimlico after the race was in sharp contrast to the scene at Churchill Downs two weeks ago. Eight Belles, the filly who took on 19 colts and finished second, broke both front ankles while galloping out and had to be euthanized on the track, the first time that has happened in the Derby.

It was the second time a horse had broken down in the past five Triple Crown races. Barbaro shattered his right rear leg shortly after the start of the 2006 Preakness. Many in the grandstand cried that day at the sight of the Derby winner taken away in an ambulance. Barbaro was euthanized eight months later because of laminitis, an often fatal hoof disease.

There was no sadness Saturday, only giddy anticipation that racing might see a Triple Crown winner at long last.

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Nadal foils Federer's Hamburg title bid

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) -- Rafael Nadal beat defending champion Roger Federer 7-5 6-7 (3-7) 6-3 on Sunday to win the Hamburg Masters and add the only major clay-court title still missing from his impressive collection.


Rafael Nadal ended Roger Federer's 41-match winning streak on German soil.

It was the reverse of last year's final, when world No. 1 Federer won his fourth successive title in Hamburg and snapped Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay.

Nadal rallied from big deficits in the first two sets, although he lost the tiebreaker in the second.

He led 4-1 in the third and held on to raise his record against the top-ranked player to 8-1 on clay and 10-6 overall.

"All the week has been very special for me," Nadal said.

The second-ranked Spaniard has 26 career titles -- 21 of them on clay, including the last three French Opens. Nadal also won in Monte Carlo -- beating Federer in the final -- and Barcelona this year.

"It was a strange match," Nadal said. "Roger made some mistakes in the first set that helped me. ... It was important to win because it was the last big clay-court tournament I never won."

Switzerland's Federer lost his seventh match of the year and has only one title so far, at a relatively minor clay-court tournament in Estoril, Portugal.

The Hamburg Masters is a major warm-up tournament for the French Open, the only Grand Slam that Federer has not won.

"I could have served a little better; it wasn't my best performance, maybe. I have to go for big serves -- he is a good return player," Federer said. "It was a fun match."

Federer went into Sunday's final with a 41-match winning streak in Germany and a 9-0 career record in finals on German soil. His last loss in Germany was in 2003.

Federer has been No. 1 since February 2004, but Nadal is the top player on the slower clay surface.

Since April 2005, he has lost only twice in 110 matches on clay -- to Federer last year in the Hamburg final and last week in Rome to Juan Carlos Ferrero, when Nadal was slowed by a painful blister on his foot.

Federer led 5-2 in the first set and wasted two set points before Nadal completed a comeback by winning six straight games to give him the first set and a 1-0 lead in the second.

Federer then won the next four games and went on to lead 5-2, but could not close out the set before the tiebreaker.

Nadal had a three-hour match on Saturday in beating Novak Djokovic in three sets to protect his No. 2 ranking, but he appeared fresher in the third set Sunday.

Serving for the match, Nadal won the first three points and then hit a backhand cross-court winner. He fell to his knees and looked to the sky.

"I am happy that I won and that I beat the No. 1 in the world and the best player of the year (Djokovic), and that should give me some more confidence for the French Open," Nadal said.

Nadal became only the third player to own all three clay-court Masters Series titles, in Rome, Monte Carlo and Hamburg.

"He has had a great week and a great clay-court season," said Federer, who made 41 unforced errors to Nadal's 28.

Meanwhile, Wayne Odesnik gave the United States a point at the World Team Cup in Germany on Sunday by beating Ivo Minar of the Czech Republic 6-2 6-1.

The Americans trailed 1-0 after Tomas Berdych beat James Blake 7-6 (7-5) 7-6 (7-5) but the 104th-ranked Odesnik brought the Americans even at 1-1 in the Red Group.

In the Dusseldorf event, eight teams are split into two groups. In a new format for 2008, each series consists of two singles matches and a doubles match played over two days, ensuring each team competes every day during the round-robin period.

The winner of each group will meet in Saturday's final.

Also in the Red Group, Sweden took a 1-0 lead over Argentina. In the Blue Group, Russia led Italy 2-0 and Germany led Spain 1-0.

Blake, who is ranked eighth in the world, struggled Sunday.

"It's disappointing for any number of reasons," Blake said. "I didn't take advantage of a chance I had here and there, and he played well when he needed to."

Blake has performed well on clay this year, reaching the final at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston and then advancing to the quarterfinals at the Rome Masters, his best result at the Foro Italico since 2002.

"I'm not going to let one match completely wreck the confidence I've built up over the entire year," Blake said.

"I definitely feel like I have the ability to beat a lot of players on clay now, whereas early in my career I felt a little lost. I feel much more comfortable and hopefully I can be a threat on it."
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Russia beats Canada in upset

I hate Ilya Kovalchuk even more now, but congrats to Russia.

Ilya Kovalchuk scored the game tying AND game winning goal today in a 5-4 win that gave Russia the gold for the first time in 16 years. The rocket of a goal came on the power play during a penalty on Rick Nash for delay of game just minutes into overtime.

Dany Heatley was named the MVP after tallying 20 points in the tournament.

Both goalies, Nabokov for Russia and Ward for Canada, made some great saves and let in some bad goals but in the end it was Nabokov who came out victorious for his team.

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With the Addition of Pacman Jones, Valley Ranch Has Become a Halfway House

You won't give a damn whether Pacman Jones is telling the truth the first time he high-steps it into the end zone.
You won't give a damn whether Pacman Jones is telling the truth the first time he high-steps it into the end zone.

Attention Jerry Jones:

Michael Vick gets out of prison in 15 months. Rae Carruth will be only 44 when he's eligible for parole in 2019. Dwayne Goodrich is almost halfway through his sentence. Art Schlichter is a free man. No one avoids his pursuers like O.J. Simpson. And, who knows, Charles Manson could've won California's Corcoran State Prison fantasy football league last season.

Just some names to keep handy. Since, obviously, your Dallas Cowboys no longer give a damn about class and character.

And you know what? They shouldn't.

Commence cringing.

There arose much hand-wringing and a nauseous spewing of righteous indignation about the Cowboys and their owner trading for Adam "Pacman" Jones last week. But c'mon, admit it. Deep down, wouldn't you rather win with the sinners than lose with the saints?

Thought so.

As has been the case throughout the decadent days of Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Michael Irvin, Mark Stepnoski, Charles Haley and Nate Newton, the Cowboys are responsible for assembling talented football players, not tithing church deacons. You win Super Bowls not with role models nominated for NFL Man of the Year, but with stars who play in Pro Bowls. If you can have both—like Jason Witten or Emmitt Smith—fantastic. But when in doubt, yep, sell your soul to Beelzebub.

Go ahead, get your bitchin' out of the way now. Because you'll look really silly doing it in your Pacman jersey.

"If character really doesn't matter, why don't they sign Osama bin Laden to play wide receiver?" WFAA-Channel 8 sports anchor Dale Hansen whined last week. "They need one, and he's 6-foot-4 and we know nobody can catch him."

Humor aside, the thing is—and no one knows this better than Hansen— the first time Pacman takes a punt to the house, all will be forgiven. If it hasn't been already.

I met Pacman at a Mavericks game last month, hours after he appeared on Michael Irvin's "ESPN Radio"-103.3 FM radio show. He was clean cut, humble, polite and was followed by neither police, raining dollar bills or 666.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Whitt," he said.

As we shook hands, I couldn't help but shake the Etch-O-Sketch. You'd be smart to give Pacman a clean slate as well. Because Jerry's latest acquisition of Pacman is definitely bold and probably brilliant.

Not that I'd exactly want him to move in next door. The dude's judgment makes Josh Howard look like Pat Boone.

Since entering the NFL in 2005, Pacman has been questioned by police in 10 separate criminal incidents. He pleaded "no contest" last year to conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct as part of a plea deal for his role in a February 2007 melee at a Las Vegas topless joint that ended with three people shot and one paralyzed. His off-field conduct—from "making it rain" by showering strippers with dollar bills to allegedly throwing a punch at an officer while being arrested for possession of marijuana—is silly, if not altogether stupid. The night before a face-to-face meeting about his wayward conduct with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the genius showed up at a New York City strip club.

But when he appeared on HBO's Real Sports and Irvin's radio show, Pacman responded with a quizzical shrug, as though trouble always riding shotgun is nothing more than a bunch of illogical, unlucky coincidences.

There are legit reasons why the Cowboys were his only suitor. Pacman isn't the most intelligent player to ever strap on cleats. He's stubborn, clearly in denial. And there's a chance, of course, that he'll never be reinstated or play a down in Dallas or anywhere else.

"If you ask me if I'm totally convinced," admits Jerry, "no, I don't know that for sure."

"I'm encouraged by some of the things I'm hearing," Goodell said at a recent SMU Athletic Forum. "But I will meet with him before training camp starts to gauge personally some of the things he's doing."

Granted, it was a better world when the Mavericks didn't open their arms to Dennis Rodman, when the Rangers didn't feel moved to gamble on John Rocker and when punks like Clint Longley sucker-punched Roger Staubach and were traded by sundown. But these days we're a forgiving society, especially when it's self-serving.

You want to watch a team saturated with milk-and-cookies character? The Rangers, led by Boy Scouts like Michael Young and Kevin Millwood, are again goody two-shoeing into last place. Enjoy.

Like it or not, this is how it works: The hot blonde with the curves and the cleavage doesn't get a ticket for driving 88 in a 55. And the 24-year-old cornerback/kick returner with the mad skillz gets a second and third chance. Remember, just last season, Cowboys fans cheered catches by star-stomping Terrell Owens and tackles by gun-toting Tank Johnson.

Pacman's redemption—further erosion of America's Team be damned—is just an interception away.

The only speed bump in our acceptance is trying to differentiate between who Pacman is and what Pacman is. In today's warped sports environment, great player trumps bad guy. Especially when your secondary is desperately depleted.

Since dropping that agonizing playoff game to the New York Giants, the Cowboys have lost cornerbacks Nate Jones and Jacques Reeves and safety Keith Davis in free agency. Both starting corners Terence Newman and Anthony Henry have contracts expiring after 2009. Pacman—baggage and all—is worth the risk. The minuscule risk.

Why? Because, first and foremost, he can play. He's an athletic shut-down corner who, with the Tennessee Titans in 2006, returned three punts for touchdowns. The Cowboys have only four this millennium.

Why? Because Pacman's reward dwarfs the gamble. The Cowboys are getting the sixth player taken in the 2005 draft in exchange for a fourth-round pick this year and, if he stays out of trouble, a sixth-rounder next year. If Pacman is never reinstated, Dallas gets the fourth-rounder back. Risk?

It's all relative, but Pacman seems to be showing remorse, accepting responsibility and absorbing his punishment. His four-year contract with the Cowboys includes no guaranteed money and no signing bonus. He agreed to forfeit his salary and not collect on $1.5 million in incentives owed him by Tennessee and donate $500,000 to a charity of the Titans' choosing.

In making the first trade in NFL history for a suspended player, Jerry Jones took another small step toward burying his biggest regret as Cowboys' general manager. In 1998 he drafted defensive end Greg Ellis, passing on a receiver with character issues. A receiver named Randy Moss.

Since that day—through the acquisitions of Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood and Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn and Owens and Tank Johnson and now Pacman—Jerry has prioritized talent over temperament, unafraid to turn Valley Ranch into a halfway house in pursuit of championships over class.

Like it or not, Pacman Jones will help the Dallas Cowboys win games this season.

And like it not, Jessica Simpson is off the hook if things totally implode.

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