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This Day in Buffalo Sports History: A second act

     January 9, 1993 -- No Jim Kelly? No problem for the Buffalo Bills ... again.

     A week after Frank Reich led the Bills past the Houston Oilers in the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history, he took Buffalo past Pittsburgh, 24-3, to push the Bills to the AFC championship game.

     This wasn't a game for the memory books, as the Bills played efficient football in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. It moved Buffalo to the AFC Championship Game for the third straight year, and gave them a chance to become the second team in NFL history to play in three straight Super Bowls.

     "It feels great," nose tackle Jeff Wright said. "It doesn't matter who we play next week. We're there, and we've got another shot."

     The game marked Buffalo's first postseason win away from home since their triumph over the Jets in 1981. It also was the first time since 11989 that an AFC team won a playoff game on the road.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Not quite

     January 8, 1989 -- The Bills had been waiting since 1970 for this day. For the first time ever, Buffalo had the chance to win an AFC championship. Sadly for the Bills, they came up short.

     The host Cincinnati Bengals took a 21-10 decision over Buffalo. The game left everyone wondering if the Bills would ever make it to a Super Bowl. That particularly applies to the players who were upset with a less-than-impressive performance with so much on the line.

     "It's really disheartening," center Kent Hull said to The News' Vic Carucci. "We have played a long season, been together since July, and now it's all over."

     "I'm very disappointed," defensive end Bruce Smith said. "The road to the Super Bowl went through The Jungle, and we didn't quite take the direct route."

     The offense and special teams of the Bills broke down, leaving the defense to keep the game at least relatively close. Cincinnati advanced to play San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII.

--- Budd Bailey 

Post Time: Ringing in the New Year with Hal's Hope

Our first Post Time handicap of the New Year will have us taking our talents to South Beach, oops, let's make that Hallandale Beach, the home of Gulfstream Park. The track opened its 2011 meet Wednesday afternoon and the feature race of the weekend is the Hal's Hope Stakes, to be run as Race 9 on Saturday's card.


The Gulfstream meet has been significant over the past few years, where the path to the Kentucky Derby was paved in the Florida Derby. In two of the last five years the winner (Barbaro and Big Brown) emerged from that Derby prep and last year's runner-up, Ice Box, also exited this key race on the Derby trail. We'll be reviewing some of the key prep races at Gulfstream, including the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth leading up to the Grade I Florida Derby, to be held on the first Sunday of April.


The $100,000 Grade III Hal's Hope is named after the Florida-bred horse that won the 2002 edition of this race and also won both the 2000 Holy Bull and Florida Derby as a 3-year old. He also won the 2002 Grade I Gulfstream Park Handicap for older horses. The race is run at the eight furlongs (one mile) distance for 4-year olds and older. The race was inaugurated in 1990 as the Creme Fraiche Handicap in honor of the 1985 Belmont Stakes winner. The race was renamed in 2003. Last year's winner was a monster during most of 2010, Quality Road and the race has featured such winners as New York Swell (a Canadian 2-year old champion) and Louis Quatorze, the winner of the 1996 Preakness Stakes.
This year's field has seven horses entered with some familiar names to those who followed last year's Derby trail and Breeders' Cup World Championships. Let's take a look at each of the entrants with our Post Time analysis:


1 -- Tackleberry (Santiago, Olivares). This Montbrook gelding was unraced as a 2-year old, but won five of his eight races during his 3-year-old season. His first foray outside of Calder Race Course, he has a Grade III under his belt, sports a superior workout on New Year's Eve and looks to be out on the lead early. He could be the one to catch. He edged out the No. 4 horse, Dream Maestro, in the Fred Hooper Handicap at Calder in December. Dangerous.


2 -- Rule (Castellano, Pletcher). Unraced since last March's Florida Derby where he was the 2-1 favorite and gave way to a late closing Ice Box. His workout tab looks to have him fit to run and Pletcher is 20 percent off the long layoff. This Roman Ruler colt has the class to compete and should be challenging the rail horse early in what could develop as a suicide duel.


3 -- Morning Line (Velazquez, Zito). This horse exits the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile where he lost a photo to Dakota Phone and should be the post time favorite. Nick Zito is also 20 percent off the layoff and, based on this horse's workouts, this is the horse to beat. He should stalk the hot pace set by the inside horses and take over in the stretch. The pick.


4 -- Dream Maestro (Leyva, Kaplan). He's 3 for 39 lifetime. Enough said. This crew looks to be way over his head. He looks to have given his all in the last race where he was nosed out by Tackleberry. We'll be looking elsewhere.


5 -- Soaring Empire (Lezcano, Gambolati). Comes out of the Grade I Cigar Mile where he had trouble loading into the gate and finished sixth behind some very solid horses. He sports a nice workout and has the pedigree to stay with this group. He could be worked into the exotics underneath and might catch a piece.


6 -- Hear Ye Hear Ye (Sanchez, Gold). His last race was an optional claiming mile where he won going away at Calder. This is a big step up, I just don't hear ye.


7 -- Caixa Eletronica (Saez, Chapparo). The old man in the field has not raced since the Grade II Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park in October. The 6-year old will need his career best to score against these foes.


Post Time Selections:


1 -- No. 3 Morning Line
2 -- No. 1 Tackleberry
3 -- No. 5 Soaring Empire
Exotic Wager: Trifecta -- 3 over 1, 2, 5


Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer, handicapper and member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.

Bandits notebook: Around the league

It's never easy to keep up with the offseason changes in the National Lacrosse League. It was certainly the case as the 2011 season begins, which had plenty of movement and developments. The recap:

Eleven into ten

The Orlando Titans' stay in the NLL lasted only one year, with the players from the Eastern Division champion going to the rest of the league in a dispersal draft. Casey Powell, the league's most valuable player in 2010, went to Boston. Matt Vinc and Jarret Park were picked by Colorado (more on Vinc in a moment), while Brendan Mundorf went to Philadelphia.

League matters

The playoff format will remain the same, with four teams from each division qualifying. That will lead to a season that almost looks like one drawn up for NASCAR -- a 16-game regular season that will eliminate only two teams, and a single-elimination playoff that should be close and compelling.

Coaches will have the chance to dress two more runners (non-goalies) for games this season, as the roster limit goes from 16-and-2 to 18-and-2, just like hockey. That means the scratches go from five to three for a particular game.

Wheeling and dealing

Vinc, perhaps the league's best goalie, didn't stay in Colorado long. He was sent to Rochester in a deal that brought forward John Grant Jr. to the Mammoth. No one will want to play the Knighthawks in a playoff game with Vinc around.

Calgary did some major retooling. It traded Josh Sanderson, the league's top scorer in 2010, to Boston for Daryl Veltman, Kyle Ross, and Jon Harnett, while Tracey Kelusky went to Buffalo. Geoff Snider, one of the league's best at faceoffs, joined the Roughnecks.

Closer to home, Joe Smith was cut by the Bandits in preseason, but signed with Philadelphia. Mike Accursi joined Rochester as a free agent.

Departures and arrivals

A couple of longtime standouts in goal retired from lacrosse, and both had Bandit connections. Steve Dietrich and Pat O'Toole had some great seasons in Buffalo; they now will become assistant coaches in Toronto and Rochester respectively.

The biggest new name -- and biggest contract -- in the NLL in 2011 is Cody Jamieson. He was the Knighthawks' first overall pick in the draft, and promptly signed a record 10-year contract with Rochester. Jamieson was a standout for Syracuse University.

An old name who is back in action this season is Athan Iannucci, who has missed most of the last two years with a knee injury.

At season's end

Boston looks like a power in the East, but the firing of coach Terry Ryan on the eve of the season is a bit troubling. That might mean that Toronto has the favorite's role in the East. In the West, Washington is the league's defending champion and looks even better for 2011.

Minnesota and Philadelphia are the consensus choices to miss the playoffs, with the other teams playing a car crash of a playoff in which practically anyone could win. It's going to be quite a ride.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: An even dozen

     January 7, 1972 -- Expansion teams are supposed to struggle in professional sports. The Buffalo Braves were no exception to that rule. The Braves were in the middle of year two when they lost their 12th straight game, a franchise record.

     The "historic" loss came at the hands of the Phoenix Suns by a score of 123-110. The contest wasn't a happy return home from a West Coast road trip that had seen Buffalo lose five straight games by at least 14 points. The streak saw the team go from 12-16 not too bad -- to 12-28 -- not too good.

     Buffalo finally got a win a day later, beating the Royals in Cincinnati, 97-87. Then the Braves lost 11 of their next 13.

     The season was noteworthy for two guys named Smith. Elmore Smith was the team's first draft choice, and he instantly became one of the best shotblockers in the business upon arrival.

      However, it was Randy Smith who made the bigger impression. Randy made the team at forward because of amazing athletic ability, and eventually moved to guard as he stayed a Buffalo Brave until the team's departure for San Diego in 1978.

   For more on that Braves' season, click here.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Oops!

     January 6, 1990 -- This is not one of the happiest moments in the history of the Buffalo Bills and their fans. Did you throw anything at the television when Ronnie Harmon dropped that pass?

     The Bills lost a playoff game in Cleveland, 34-30, in a game best remembered for that one particular play. However, there was plenty of other drama in a fabulous contest.

     Buffalo appeared to be marching down the field for the winning touchdown when Harmon dropped what most people thought was a catchable pass in the end zone. Then, Clay Matthews of the Browns intercepted a Jim Kelly pass on the 1-yard line to end Buffalo's hopes for good.

     The Browns headed for an AFC Championship game with Denver. The Bills went home.

     "I'd rather lose a game, 34-0, because when you lose like that you know you never had a chance, but we had a chance," said running back Thurman Thomas. "It really hurts to lose a close game like this."

     Buffalo learned some lessons, going to its first Super Bowl a year later.

---Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Change in coaches

    January 5, 1998 -- When Marv Levy retired as coach of the Buffalo Bills, there wasn't a great deal of debate about his successor. Wade Phillips was considered the obvious choice at the time. Phillips was the team's defensive coordinator under Levy, and he had previous head coaching experience.

   The announcement, then, didn't cause a great deal of conversation. It was interesting, however, that Phillips wasted little time in putting his own particular stamp on the team. He rehired five of Levy's assistants, and told six others to leave.

   Ted Cottrell was picked as the new defensive coordinator, a promotion from linebackers coach. Dan Henning was let go as the offensive coordinator. 

   "Guys that fit with Marv Levy aren't a natural fit with me, but that doesn't mean they didn't do a good job," said Phillips, the Bills' defensive coordinator for the previous three years. "I'm starting anew. This is a new era. There will be changes, and that's inevitable."

   Phillips stayed three years, getting the Bills into the playoffs twice before he was fired after an 8-8 season.

 --- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Hot time in the Cold war

    January 4, 1976 -- Back in the Cold War days, games between East and West were huge events.
That was certainly the case when the Sabres hosted a team from the Soviet Union for the first time in their history.

    The Aud was absolutely electric that day when the Wings of the Soviet came to town, and the Sabres were magnificent in a 12-6 win. Buffalo jumped out to a 4-2 lead after the first period, and a 9-4 lead after two.

    Rick Martin had two goals and three assists and was the game's first star. However, a better pick might have been Jerry Korab, who probably played the game of his life. Korab hit everything in an opposing uniform that Sunday afternoon.

     The game marked the worst loss by a Soviet team in international competition. Buffalo played so well that it created a group of fans for the team ... in the Soviet Union.

    "It was the all-time high point for the Sabres, in fact," Sabres general manager Punch Imlach said a while later.

--- Budd Bailey 

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: The comeback

   January 3, 1993 -- Were you at the game? And if you were, did you leave early? Did you drive somewhere to watch on television, or merely listened on the radio?

   Those questions came up a lot when the Bills overcame a 35-3 deficit in the third quarter to beat the Oilers, 41-38, in one of the most memorable playoff games in Buffalo history.

  If you were around then, you probably remember all of the details. The game was played before a non-sellout crowd of 75,141 - which meant it wasn't televised locally - and was decided by a 32-yard field goal by Steve Christie 3:06 into overtime.

   The Bills made their comeback without Jim Kelly and Cornelius Bennett for the whole game, and without Thurman Thomas in the second half. Frank Reich had the game of his life in leading the comeback.

   The Bills went on to the Super Bowl after that win. When the Erie County Historical Society had an exhibit on the Bills in 2009, this was the game showed on a television, over and over again. I'll bet many stopped to watch it.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Too many turnovers

   January 2, 1999 -- Way back in the 1990's, Bills' playoff appearances were almost expected from the team. The ride to the postseason in the 1998 campaign was a particularly happy one, what with the team rebounding from an 0-3 start on the arm and feet of quarterback Doug Flutie.

   That made the 24-17 loss to the hated Miami Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs that much more disappointing.

   The Bills shot themselves in the proverbial foot to some extent. They had five turnovers, including four fumbles. Buffalo also was penalized nine times for 93 yards, including one that took away a possible touchdown.

   "I can't think about satisfaction right now," right offensive tackle Jerry Ostroski told News reporter Vic Carucci. "It's going to take a while. We gave one away today. We made mistakes and we beat ourselves. We knew the only team that was going to beat us was ourselves, and that's what we did."

    "We had too many turnovers and penalties," said left tackle John Fina. "You can't win like that. I mean, you can. We damn near took it to overtime. But it's the long, hard way to do it. And if we had won the game, we'd have won it in spite of ourselves."

   Flutie was 21 for 36 for an NFL career-high 360 yards and a touchdown. Eric Moulds caught nine passes for 240 yards. It wasn't enough. The loss was Buffalo's third straight in the playoffs.

 --- Budd Bailey

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