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For nearly four decades Ernie Munick has been giving his heart and mind to thoroughbred racing. He is a writer, a vlogger , a musician, but most devotedly a handicapper and horseplayer. He can be seen twice a week on the NYRA Network's RACEDAY, and his videos for the Breeders' Cup can be found by clicking here.

I Guarantee...

Friday, May 14, 2010

"I cry because I am not less than a man but because I am a man."  NFL legend Bruce Smith, from his Hall of Fame speech.

Last night, in the span of a single sentence on Facebook, within a single status update, I was wrong three times. I predicted LeBron James would man up (nine turnovers), beat the Celtics (clang) and remain a Cavalier (luggage in lobby, nice tip for cleaning lady). The third issue is unresolved, but how many times can you slip a quarter into the slot of a broken pay phone?

I need to keep guaranteeing.

Guaranteeing brings a boyish machismo to the story. Guaranteeing promulgates, instigates, aggravates, fascinates. If you want from your heroes a monocled, top-hatted sophistication and etiquette, head for Chantilly. Chantilly even sounds soft. Please don't squeeze the Chantilly. I want a Cajun who speaks from the gut.

Calvin Borel says Super Saver will win the Triple Crown. I've seen his three-fingered vow. What is he supposed to tell the media?

"Well, sir, perhaps the mud moved'em up some in the Doiby, and that other horse he had a nightmare of a trip, and I was the only jockey smart enough to save some ground and stay clear on a hoss who's really good but not a superstar, so maybe we'll get lucky again in the Preakness and Belmont."

Uhhhhhh no.

Here's my rule on guaranteeing: As long as you don't speak ill of the competition, as long as you keep the blustery assurances to the press about yourself, then you're cool. Sometimes your teammates or bosses won't dig the public certitude, but conferring with them first is just, I don't know, silly.

Can you imagine Moses Malone asking permission from the Sixers' brass before he uttered the legendary "Fo, fo, fo (four, four, four)," predicting sweeps of his three rival playoff teams in 1982. Ultimately, Moses was off by one - fo, fi, fo (four, five, four) - but that headline declaration is a smash to this day.

I loved every single syllable from Rick Dutrow's mouth regarding Big Brown - until he questioned the technique of another man's training. Of course I would forgive The Babe;  that was a foregone conclusion. I love his passion, his talent, and his spiritual lineage (4 X 4 to Buddy Delp, a hint of Johnny Campo).

I also have enormous respect and admiration for the quiet and even-keeled brilliance of, say, Barry Sanders and Ramon Dominguez, but sometimes I just prefer my heroes to spike the ball, rather than hand it to the ref.

Larry Bird strutted into the locker room before the inaugural three-point shooting contest, sized up the field and said to them, "Man, who's comin' in second?"

Manly Mark Messier followed up his 1994 guarantee of victory in Game 6 with a hat trick and a Rangers Stanley Cup, their first in half a century. That was Joe Namath territory right there.

Patrick Ewing couldn't make the guarantees work. Millions, billions, read George Bush's lips. Einstein guaranteed nuclear energy wouldn't happen - and then botched his own guarantee with an equation. Big Al was an interesting guy.

Muhammad Ali started this fire, but he was right, he was the greatest. Once again the bravado turned ugly only when he made the comments personal (name-calling) with Joe Frazier. Other than that, Muhammad sold newspapers, he filled seats, and made headlines like no other athlete before or since.

I love Calvin's face. It is now the face of horse racing and we couldn't be luckier. Forget when he wins - did you see the tortured Borel after he got beat aboard Street Sense by Curlin in the Preakness? He returned to the unsaddling area crying - crying - as he spilled his heart to Carl Nafzger. I will never forget that moment. Calvin Borel has replaced Sara Lee. There's nobody who doesn't  like him.

Super Saver will not win the Triple Crown, I guarantee it, but I'm all in rooting for Calvin. There have been very few jockeys as worthy of the George Woolf Award. Maybe his guarantees should be spaced a little better, every few years - he's just coming off the Mine that Bird Belmont Prediction. But his popularity among his peers and followers comes for a reason: He is part Cordero, part Dettori,  straight up Louisiana, the tastiest of gumbos. You can monitor his heart in his face. Charisma and audacity are also the characteristics of great handicappers.

A Heads Up to the Fellas

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Here's a heads up to all you fellas out there who sometimes forget the lady who conceived you, weaned you, raised you, glad to, mind you, achoo, bless you, Zyrtec, thank you - where was I - Sunday is Mother's Day.

An enduring and endearing way to honor the woman Norman Bates called "a boy's best friend" might end with chocolate, flowers or even a Continental brunch, but always, always, fellas, start with a card, either tactile and lovely or sent at no charge via website (with low graphic Beyers) as a .tiff, .png, or .gif, and maybe even animated with words you type in and are repeated by the computer in a voice evocative of the "mobile customer you are trying to reach is currently unavailable" lady. There is no mother unworthy of this tribute on such a hallowed occasion. None.

Christina Crawford, sprinter: But I'm tired, Mommie.
Joan Crawford, trainer: Quitter?

Not even her.

For all you Victory Gallops out there who prefer to deliver your cards at the last second, beware in your haste to commit the same mistake I made a few Mother's Days ago, when in sheer panic I darted in and out of a CVS with a no-look sympathy card that read, "Words seem inadequate to express the sadness I feel about the loss and suffering of (in my script) "Dear Ma."

This coming Sunday ABC and TNT will telecast playoffs of the Cavs/Celtics and Spurs/Suns, and every year the NBA makes Mother's Day the dominant motif, with whimsical footage of the superstars at home with their moms. This made me wonder who our greatest Super Sports Moms are, overall, the best hits of the Mrs. After at least three minutes, I concluded the following are the five most impressive athlete producers of my generation.

5. Pam Hale - She dropped four sons by Rick Barry and every one played in the NBA. They were all, in their primes, bionic jumpers. Wilt Chamberlain once called Rick the greatest athlete he ever saw (basketball, tennis, any sport he tried), but we all know the dam is more important. Scooter, Jon, Brent, Drew. Hall of Famer Barry said, "Their grandfather was Bruce Hale, at one time one of the top five basketball players in the world. And at one time I was one of the top players in the world. On breeding alone, you'd have to figure these guys would be pretty decent." Sports Illustrated

4. Olivia Manning - The mother of two active Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who have given copiously to charity. St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis renamed its children’s hospital for Peyton. In Mississippi sits The Eli Manning Children’s Clinics at the Blair E. Batson Hospital. A middle brother, Cooper, a star athlete who had his college career cut short by injury, is the funniest of the three and known by most as "the glue who keeps the brothers together." He's always cracking jokes to the media, which earns him major points in this corner. All that Manning testosterone is still tamed by what the neighborhood boys used to call Miss Olivia. "The Mannings stop in sometimes to the same joint where the boys sat in high chairs, and they'll playfully tease one another, mid-meal. But all it takes is one sideways look from mom to make them stop. They put their eyes down." ESPN

3. Nadezhda Ulyanovna - I-Can't-Pronounce-Her-First-or-Last-Name calls two current heavyweight champions her sons. Vitali is married with three kids. Brother Wladimir is dating a television actress about 20 inches shorter and approximately a fourth his weight, which got me thinking about Chamberlain again.

2. Oracene "Brandy" Price - She's not only the unflappable, disciplined mother of Venus and Serena, but also of a highly successful lawyer, beauty salon owner and web designer. Oracene divorced (tossed, back-handed, zero love) Richard in 2002.

1. Better Than Honour - The broodmare of the young millennium has in the last four years produced two Belmont Stakes winners (Jazil, Rags to Riches), a Breeders' Cup victor (Man of Iron) and a three-quarter brother of Rags to Riches (Casino Drive), who in his second career start turned the Grade II Peter Pan into a non-winners-of-one. Jazil is widely known as being as sweet as a puppy. Rags, according to a handler who visited the champion mare at Hill 'n' Dale, can "still be a bitch."

In 2008, Better Than Honour was sold at auction for a record $14 million. What makes her achievements even more sensational is that her famous offspring are by different sires. She is, Better Than Honour, the mother lode of classic stamina winners, her mates just along for the credit. Mama and the Papas.

There'll be no mollifying any of these Queen Mothers, or yours, for that matter, if you forget at the bare minimum a card this Sunday. Otherwise, you'll have my condolences.

I've picked a lot of Belmont Stakes winners. A lot. I linger around 35%. I'm known to linger, like my mother. I'm also known to find value; 150 miniature white carnations go for $64.38 at Sam's Club, not a bad deal. Carnations need plenty of sun but they also beseech moisture. They're very needy. Schpritzing is key. Schpritz every three races and your carnations will linger.

My prowess at selecting the Belmont Stakes is the only thing that sustained my spirit during those years in the carnival. Up until 2008, when Big Brown, my selection, launched and dropped his rocket boosters to come save me, I had my own tent in the sideshow as The Worst Kentucky Derby Handicapper in History. Half man, half Cheerio…Ernio. They called me Ernio.

0 for 35.

"Step right up!"  barked the red-striped, straw-hatted mustachioed fellow through the megaphone. "Stranger than the spotted zebra, freakier than the three-headed gargler… Ernio! He's half man, half Cheerio - he hasn't picked a Derby winner in three and a half decades!"

After Big Brown won the Derby, I bid goodbye (cheerio) to the carnival, happy to have my legs back, and began to follow Brownie from state to state. Not long after his career-ending injury, I traveled far and wide to thank my only Kentucky Derby champion in the flesh. I was a star-struck 1 for 36, bursting with gratitude, if a bit of a Brown noser. [Video]

But I was wrong again last year, 1 for 37. I could be relapsing. I skulk among the shadows, petrified, wondering how many more times I can whiff before the one-armed (five-yard arm) plate-spinner drops his dinnerware and reels me in for another stint.

Do you realize, if you've picked the Derby favorite every time since 1972, you're 10 for 37?

I picked Sham to beat Secretariat, Alydar to catch Affirmed. Sanhedrin had the classic, old-money Rondinello pedigree to wear down Seattle Slew. Ronnie Franklin was a kid, I thought he'd blow it on The Bid. Mogambo was to Ferdinand what Leo Castelli was to Alysheba. Easy Goer, Holy Bull, Point Given, Curlin. The one-armed plate-spinner found me hiding under the stage in the Belmont Park Festival Tent, sipping a NYRA lemonade (122 Beyer).

Liza Minnelli, which rhymes with Leo Castelli - Liza Minnelli is a way better Derby handicapper than I am. So is Mr. Powerball. The following celebrities tower over me as a Derby picker: Celine Dion, Marvin Hamlisch, Brit Hume and especially the 1-800 Lawyer Guy. Underrated Kentucky Derby handicapper: Lee Greenwood. I have graphs and pie illustrations to prove all of this.

Sidney's Candy has much to overcome, most of all the backing of Mr. Oneforthirtyseven. Eskendereya was my top choice, Endorsement my second. My third pick allegedly  - though I have several high-ranking sources to confirm this- my third pick is rumored to have blown up. My third choice just blew up. Sidney's Candy, originally ranked fourth, is a free runnin' fool who pulls up strong every time. The outside post means he'll monitor the no-chance speed to his left. My lucky Brownie proved that post 20 is not mission impazible. John Sadler (great last name for a trainer) is having a scary-good year, though scary might not be the right word. Scary is the 1-800 Lawyer looking a lot like the carnival barker, a lot, and the circus that is the infield at Churchill on Derby day ain't nothin' like the one in my future, if Sidney doesn't boogie home first.

Eskendereya Faces the Immortal Court

Wednesday, April 21, 2010
They are summoned from their vast adjoining paddocks, and it doesn't take long for a Triple Crown winner to get to where he needs to go. This is inconsequential and even a wee bit childish but Seattle Slew gets there first. They are barebacked and unbridled, with a tiny patch of gray beneath each of their forelocks in a nod to The Bid. They know who belongs; it's never quite right without him.

This is an emergency session. Despite the many dual jewel winners of the modern era - Afleet Alex, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Charismatic, War Emblem, Thunder Gulch - there is a horse this year who has especially excited the electorate. But you could never tell. Gallant Fox grazes near his son, Omaha. Affirmed and Assault compare necks that won Preaknesses 32 years apart. There are no egos in the courtyard; communication, though imperceptible to humans, flows freely on admiration and the highest repute. The Big Reds approve each other's nicknames.

It is time. As the only one of them to have entered their alliance undefeated, Slew leads the way and they begin to take a circular shape. A heavy wooden door swings open and through the cobblestoned archway (Johnny Velazquez lowering his head) clops an iron-shouldered, heavy-hipped chestnut colt whose feet are soon quieted by the finest of soil and grass. Sir Barton and Citation step out and to the side of the circle, leaving room for the subject, his rider and his trainer, and in synchronized strides - step, step, pause…step, step, pause…they settle at the center of the Immortal Wheel.

V is wearing house silks: all white, gold thunderbolt back, gold winged cap. Todd Pletcher is wrinkle-free and reading a condition book. The colt has a humble gate, head relatively low, yet an imposing Roman nose. He is light of foot for his size, creating consecutive perfect trips, although there is some lumber in him. He is built for heavy terrain and exacting schedules but so was Point Given. Someone's lying on his stomach peeking at the proceedings through the paddock fence, hard to make out, possibly Angel Cordero, Jr.

First, is the name worthy? Eleven Triple Crown winners in 135 years and none can agree on the name. Seattle Slew, who always votes last, decides the proper pronunciation for humans should be ess KEN deh raya.

Slew abstains from the pedigree vote - he is the subject's damsire.

They are uniform in their approval of V as a good worthy man, and that Pletcher with shelves of awards has suffered enough in Louisville. The ownership issue is untidy but the fault of neither athletes nor conditioner.

Slew motions Eskendereya, V and Pletcher to turn once around; now the other way. Now stop, Slews says, and don't move. The Immortal Wheel begins to circle around the nervous hub. This lasts precisely five minutes. There's just enough breeze in the sun to hear the outlying maples. V's eyes shift down to Pletcher's, whose eyes shift to Eskendereya's, whose eyes shift up to V's. Pletcher very slowly begins to turn his watch.

And just like that it is over. The Immortals are exchanging knowing nods. There is only harmony in the courtyard, never any flies. Sir Barton and Citation make way for the subjects and step, step, pause…step, step, pause they go as Cordero in a low crouch is running off into the endless acreage. The votes don't begin dribbling in until next Saturday.

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