Weird weekend at Belmont, Minute Maid Park
Last weekend found a couple of strange scenarios at the Belmont Race Track in New York and at Minute Maid Park in Houston as far as strange endings of sporting events are concerned.
At the Belmont Stakes, which is the third and final leg of horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown, the trainer of heavy favored Big Brown guaranteed his horse would handily win that 1 1/2-mile race and become the first horse in 30 years to accomplish that sports most cherished award.
And in Houston , our struggling Astros played well enough to sweep the three-game weekend series from their nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals, yet have only a series-opening victory Friday night to show for their efforts.
Ever since Big Brown outclassed both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness entries, the media pounded the idea home that there was no three-year old horse in the world that could beat the big brown bay colt. Even Big Brown would stop what he was doing to poise for a camera aimed in his direction.
It was a no-brainer as to who would win the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown’s trainer Rick Dutrow, Jr. went as far as to guarantee his horse’s triumph in the grueling final leg of the Triple Crown while Big Brown’s veterinarian staff assured the media that the crack in the horse’s left front foot was equivalent to a hangnail on a human.
But there were a couple of intangibles that were overlooked by both the trainer and the medical staff about Big Brown’s “minor injury”—the training time lost because of it and the heat wave that hit the Big Apple last weekend.
This Korner believes that the three or four days that Big Brown missed working out for the Belmont Stakes, coupled with the stifling heat the horse was unaccustomed to train in drained the stamina from the huge colt.
When jockey Kent Desormeaux moved Big Brown to the outside in third position and turned him loose for the sprint to the finish line, the horse didn’t respond. “I had no horse,” Desormeaux said. “He was empty. He didn’t have anything left. There were no popped tires. He was just out of gas.”
So Desormeaux slowed Big Brown down to a gallop and he became the first horse in racing history going for a Triple Crown to finish dead last.
And while all this was going on, 38-1 long shot Da’ Tara, who grabbed the early lead, kept up the pace to win the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths over Denis of Cork, giving trainer Nick Zito still another upset victory in this final leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
Zito spoiled a Triple Crown bid four years ago when Birdstone upset previously undefeated Smarty Jones. “If Big Brown was himself, he would’ve been tough to beat,” Zito told an Associated Press reporter after the race, “but he wasn’t himself.”
After the Astros spanked the visiting Cardinals 6-1 Friday night to open their nine-game home stand, one bad inning Saturday and Sunday equaled two straight setbacks and a series win for St. Louis.
The second inning Saturday proved to be starter Shawn Chacon’s Waterloo as he gave up seven earned runs to the Cardinals who went on to win 8-4. However, the Astros whacked 15 hits to 11 for St. Louis , but stranded 11 runners on the base paths.
It was the second straight outing for Chacon to allow several runs before the third inning since setting a major league record by opening a season with nine straight starts and having no decisions.
But a poor pitching performance was not the reason the Astros lost 5-4 to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon. Wandy Rodriguez, who boasts the National League’s second best earned run average at 1.99, was breezing along with a 3-0 lead and a two-hit shutout going into the seventh inning when the albatross showed up for Houston.
Wandy tried to move leadoff hitter Ryan Ludwig off the plate, but his inside fastball grazed Ludwig’s uniform, putting him on first base. Rodriguez enticed Troy Glaus to hit a grounder to third that was fielded cleanly by Ty Wigginton, but he dropped the ball clearing his glove for the double play try, putting runners on first and second.
A single loaded the bases and Ludwig scored on a sacrifice fly. Pinch-hitter Cesar Izturis was grazed by another inside pitch to load the bases. After Aaron Miles struck out, Wandy tried to strike out Brendan Ryan with a low pitch that hit home plate and flew 20 feet over catcher Brad Ausmus’ head allowing Glaus to score.
Ryan stroked a single scoring both runners who had moved up on the wild pitch and all of a sudden Rodriguez’ lead was gone and so was Wandy, as Manager Cecil Cooper brought in Doug Brocail from the bullpen.
Brocail induced Joe Mather to hit a routine short pop fly to right center that Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn pulled an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine of “I’ve got it, you take it” and the ball dropped between them allowing the fifth and very decisive run of the inning to score.
The Astros got a run back in the bottom of the seventh when Bourn beat out a bunt and scored on Ausmus’ double. But Ausmus was stranded at second, leaving the Astros behind 5-4.
Houston had another chance to tie the game in the eighth inning when Carlos Lee singled and speedy rookie Reggie Abercrombie, who had replaced Jose Cruz, Jr. on the roster earlier in the day, went to first as a pinch-runner.
Pinch-hitter Darin Erstad batted for Brocail and lashed a drive into the right field corner, but for some unknown reason Abercrombie was held up at third despite the throw coming into second base. He could have almost walked home from third. As fate would have it, Abercrombie was stranded at third and the Astros lost 5-4 and their fourth straight series to the Cardinals.
Lance Berkman hit a mammoth 460-foot home run into the Nine Amigos Restaurant in center field, giving the Astros their 3-0 lead. Rodriguez protected that lead beautifully until the fatal seventh inning. “He was in command all day—until that weird seventh inning,” Cooper said after the game.
The Astros enjoyed a well-deserved day-off Monday and continue the home stand Tuesday with a three-game series against Milwaukee and a huge weekend series against the New York Yankees starting on Friday.
KWICKIES…Long-time Houston Astros radio announcer Milo Hamilton, in his 63rd year of broadcasting, missed the St. Louis series to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa .
The television ratings for the Belmont Stakes were up 169 per cent from last year. ABC-TV had a 10.9 overnight rating compared to 3.9 in 2007.
Atlanta slugger Chipper Jones, whose batting average is still over .400, hit his 400th career home run last week to become only the third switch hitter in major league history to reach 400. The two others Eddie Murray (536) and Mickey Mantle (504) are in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
And while on the subject of slugging switch-hitters, Lance Berkman has hit the four longest home runs by an Astro in the history of Minute Maid Park , including a 464-foot shot on June 7, 2003 and Sunday’s 460-foot blast.
Orange ’s Scott Sterling had rounds of 70-70-73-72—285 last weekend in the PGA-Stanford St. Jude Championship at Memphis , finishing nine shots behind playoff winner Justin Leonard. Sterling will play in this week’s U.S. Open against a huge field that includes Tiger Woods and his home course of Torrey Pines in San Diego.
And speaking of golf on a more personal note, yours truly had another eagle-2 on the 254-yard Par 4 No. 17 hole at Sunset Grove last Thursday, using a driver and a pitching wedge from about 40 yards. It was our second eagle in five weeks, after having a three-year drought, witnessed by Frank Finchum, Bernie Birk and Richard Duffee.
JUST BETWEEN US…Trouble with the law continues for former University of Texas running back Cedric Benson, who was arrested for drunken driving in Austin Saturday for the second time in a little more than a month. Chicago Bears officials say they will treat the matter “very seriously.” His attorney Sam Bassett commented, “He’s probably in trouble with his team for breaking curfew and having anything to drink under the circumstances.” Benson was charged last month for boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest.