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Post Time: Derby Trail -- The Road Less Traveled

By Gene Kershner

The Derby Trail turns to two tracks that would have to be the most unlikely to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, but in reality have given us two of the last three champions. Sunland Park, N.M., and Florence, Ky., will become the center of the Derby Trail universe Saturday. A national television audience (NBC Sports Network, 5 p.m.) will be tuning in to the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence.

The Spiral produced last year's Kentucky Derby champion, Animal Kingdom, who made a tremendous move at the top of the stretch to move forward in his progression before doing the same thing at Churchill Downs on the First Saturday of May in 2011. This year's edition has attracted more than its share of top trainers, with John Servis, Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Todd Pletcher and last year's winner, Graham Motion, all putting forth horses to claim a chance to obtain a treasured gate in the Derby.

Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer, puts out the Gulfstream maiden winner Wait The Day Well. When asked where he compares to Animal Kingdom at this point, Motion thinks he is actually ahead from a maturity standpoint at this stage.

"You know, this is a horse that's benefited from his races in this country, without a doubt. I've seen an improvement in him from before we ran him the first time at Gulfstream. I saw a significant improvement in him after he ran when he was fourth in the maiden, and I think I've seen him progress since then, and I think we were in somewhat of a similar situation last year with Animal Kingdom. You know, Animal Kingdom was a very, sort of green, very laid back horse this time last year who I would never have imagined, to be honest, he would have been my first Kentucky Derby winner, had you asked me this time last year. So, I think developmentally they're probably in very similar stages, perhaps even Went the Day Well is a little further ahead even," said Motion.

Ironically, another maiden winner has stepped up as the morning line favorite. It's Heavy Breathing, from the dynamic duo of trainer Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano. The Giant's Causeway colt had won two straight and did not have a problem winning at the 9-furlong distance in his last outing.

Trainer John Servis, last on the Triple Crown scene with 2004 Derby champion Smarty Jones, will have Ill Conceived in the Spiral gate with Smarty's ride Stewart Elliot aboard. He comes off a second-place finish at Turfway in the Battaglia several weeks ago and should be a factor in Saturday's nationally televised race. Servis isn't afraid of taking a shot with a horse who has been working well.

"We were just really looking for something to get him around two turns where he could hopefully start to improve and show his stuff and there just weren't a whole lot of options, so that was one of the reasons why we leaned toward the Battaglia ... as a guess really just to see how he would handle the synthetic and how it would go. And he did well so we decided to move on to the Spiral."

The $800,000 Grade 3 Sunland Derby produced the 50-1 winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby in Mine That Bird, and has made the racing nation pay attention to this race since that fact. A boatload of graded earnings is available and it hasn't kept the country's biggest trainers from making the trek to the New Mexico track. Red-hot Bob Baffert sends out the winner of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, Castaway, who skipped last weekend's Rebel that showcased most of the horses that ran in both divisions of this years' Southwest. Baffert knew exactly what he was doing as jockey Rafael Bejarano rode Secret Circle to a nice victory in the Rebel and will now ride Castaway at Sunland.

He won't have it easy though, as East Coast rival Pletcher ships his talented colt Ender Knievel west to try and join the Derby fray with a good showing at Sunland. An impressive 7-length winner at Gulfstream last out, the Distorted Humor colt may only get better on the stretch out in distance.

The Smarty Jones colt Isn't He Clever will try and redeem himself after a tough go in the Robert Lewis, and also sports a win over the Sunland strip, so he shouldn't be ignored when placing your hard earned dollars at the window. He draws Woodbine phenom Luis Contreras in the irons for the first time and could be a horse for the course.

The race has also drawn Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby winner Daddy Nose Best and talented jock Julien Leparoux. The fact that JuLep will make his second cross country trip to ride this horse has to make one take notice. My only worry is his inexperience on real dirt (7 of his 9 races have been on synthetic or turf surfaces).

I fancy Ender Knievel in the Sunland Derby and Ill Conceived in the Spiral, but think both races should be wide open. Don't count out Baffert's horse in the Sunland nor Motion's challenger in the Spiral.

Good luck this weekend and let's go cash some tickets! 

Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at and tweets @EquiSpace.


This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Jim May

   (Born March 22, 1953): If you don't have a goaltender, it's difficult to prevent the other team from scoring in soccer. Maybe that's why when the Buffalo Stallions got ready to start their operations in
1979, they made Jim May the first person on their roster.

   May is one of the best soccer players ever produced in Western New York. He went to college at Cobleskill and Brockport, and eventually made Brockport's Hall of Fame. That led the Rochester Lancers of the North American Soccer League to sign him. He even got to face shots from the legendary Pele there.

   From there it was on to Cleveland in the indoor game, and he jumped to the Stallions. He spent the next six seasons with the team. The team hoped he'd sell the sport to the masses of Western New York, and he did that.

   May retired and moved into private business, but he couldn't resist it when indoor soccer called again in 1992. He joined the Buffalo Blizzard of the NPSL as the team's vice president and general manager in 1992.

   May stayed in that job through 1999, and even filled in as an interim coach at times.

   The goalie remains involved in the game through ownership of SportsPlex in North Tonawanda, and is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Ed Rutkowski

     (Born March 21, 1941) -- Think the Bills are popular in Western New York? Where else would an emergency quarterback be elected to public office?

     That was the Ed Rutkowski story, the former Bills player who went on to serve in Erie County's highest office.

     Rutkowski came out of Notre Dame to join the Bills as a kick returner and halfback in 1963. He played six seasons withe Bills, and ran for 250 yards in his career while catching 63 passes for 981 yards.

     But he might be best remembered in 1968 for taking a turn as the Bills' quarterback. Buffalo got clobbered by injuries at the position that year, and Rutkowski stepped in when there was no one else. He was 41 for 100 with no touchdowns and six interceptions, answering the call when the team needed him. There's something to be said for that.

     Rutkowski was one of the Bills' radio commentators from 1972 to 1978, thus helping to describe O.J. Simpson's great years. He served nine years as County Executive, winning two elections. Rutkowski went on to serve in state government for 12 years after that.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Jim Baron

     (Born March 20, 1954) -- Jim Baron and St. Bonaventure was such nice a fit once, they had an long encore performance years later.

     Baron, who was born in Brooklyn, landed in Olean in 1973. He eventually became one of the starting guards for some Bona teams that were quite good.

     Baron wasn't good enough to move on to the pros, but he wanted to stay in basketball. He worked his way up the coaching ladder with assistant's jobs in Rochester, Loyola (Md.), St. Bonaventure (one year), and Notre Dame.

     That experience convinced St. Francis (Pa.) to give him the head coaching job for five seasons, where he got the Red Flash into the NCAA tournament in 1991. Baron was hired as the head coach of the Bonnies in 1992.

     He stayed for nine seasons, making the Big Dance once and the NIT three times. His career record for Bona was one game over .500 at 132-131.

     Baron jumped to Rhode Island in 2001, and he stayed there until he lost his job earlier this month. Under Baron, the Rams didn't make the NCAA tournament yet, but did reach the NIT five times.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Larry Fogle

   (Born March 19, 1953): Larry Fogle could put a basketball in the basket. In fact, he could do it better than anyone else in the country at one point in his life.

     The 6-foot-5 forward led the nation in scoring with an average of 33.4 points per game when he played for Canisius in 1973-74. He was a second-team All-American with the Golden Griffins that season, the only Canisius player so honored.

     Fogle was born in Brooklyn but played highschool basketball in Detroit. He had 73 points in one game as a senior, and was named Michigan's best player. From there he went to Southwestern Louisiana, which had so many violations (academic fraud, recruiting issues, cash payments) that the program wasn't allowed to play for two years. He averaged almost 15 points per game with the Ragin' Cajuns.

     Fogle transferred to Canisius, and played after sitting for a year. He stayed another year with the Golden Griffins, and was drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks.

     Fogle played two games for the Knicks in 1975-76, scoring a total of two points. The forward bounced around some minor leagues for a while, including some time as a member of the Rochester Zeniths of the Continental Basketball Association in 1978-79.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Rob Johnson

   (Born March 18, 1973) -- Sometimes one game is all that's needed to launch a professional career. Rob Johnson is proof of that.

   Johnson played his college football at Southern California, climaxing his career with a dominating performance in a win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. His three years as a Trojan led to his selection in the fourth round of the 1995 Jacksonville Jaguars.

   Johnson sat on the bench for his first two years. Mark Brunnell was the usual starter, but wasn't able to play in the 1997 opener. Johnson started, and went 20 for 24 for 294 yards and two touchdowns. It was one of the great debuts by a quarterback in NFL history.

   The Buffalo Bills noticed. They gave up a first- and fourth-round pick to Jacksonville for Johnson, who promptly signed a five-year contract. A slow start that included injuries sent Johnson to the sidelines, and Doug Flutie took over. Flutie led the Bills to the playoffs, and held his job through 1999's regular season.

   But then for the playoff game, coach Wade Phillips picked Johnson to be the starting quarterback instead of Flutie. The Bills lost to Tennessee.

   Johnson stayed through 2001 before he left the Bills. The veteran went through three different teams as a backup before retiring.

--- Budd Bailey

Post Time: Full Field Tackles Rebel Stakes

By Gene Kershner

The Derby Trail turns to Arkansas this weekend for the Grade 2 $500,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. A full field of 13 colts will tackle the Hot Springs oval trying to capture treasured graded earnings and a spot in one of the cherished 20 gates in Louisville on the First Saturday in May.

The last Derby winner to also win the Rebel was Smarty Jones in 2004; however the race has had its share of champions capture this 1 1/16-mile prelim to the Arkansas Derby. Recent winners include Preakness champions Lookin at Lucky and Curlin, as well as the highly regarded Lawyer Ron, who sends out one of his progeny on Saturday to try and match his victory in 2006.

West coast trainer Bob Baffert will try to capture his third straight Rebel after wins with Lookin at Lucky and The Factor the past two years with the promising Secret Circle. Trainer Steve Asmussen looks to capture his fourth Rebel and has entered two colts, Unbridled's Note and Sabercat, winner of the Delta Jackpot.

 Let's take a look at the field for this weekend's big race. (Trainer and Jockey in Parenthesis)

1 - Unbridled's Note (Asmussen, Hill) Only third career race for this Unbridled's Song colt who just didn't have it in the Grade 3 Southwest after a shaky break at the start. Trainer is dangerous in graded stakes and the rail is winning at an 18 percent clip so don't discount this one if his price starts to climb at post time.

2 - Scatman (Lauer, Quinonez) The son of Scat Daddy finished second in the Southwest at odds of 10-1 behind Secret Circle and comes into the race third off the layoff for trainer Michael Lauer. Local rider Quinonez retains the mount and knows the Oaklawn track well. Sports a solid work on Mar. 10 going 5-furlongs and could be poised to emerge in this race as Oaklawn's main contender.

3 - Cyber Secret (Whiting, Albarado) Loses rider to the Asmussen horse on the rail, comes off a bullet work and has faced decent competition through the early stages of his racing career. If you're willing to forgive his last, he could upset with a big number on the board.

4 - Optimizer (Lukas, Court) Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas hasn't had as successful a meet as he did last year when he took the Oaklawn training title. He's only winning eight percent of his races to date and this English Channel colt hasn't regained the promising early form he showed at Saratoga last summer. Passing.

5 - Jake Mo (Milligan, Berry) Finished second in the split division Southwest Stakes behind Castaway, who decided to skip this race. Has a sharp workout on his tab and will have a hot jockey (24 percent) aboard. The Giacomo colt should be coming late and has a better chance if there's a hot pace on the front end.

6 - Sabercat (Asmussen, Nakatani) Off since his big win in the Delta Jackpot which launched him high up on the graded earnings board which puts him in the Derby if he should stay healthy.  He may need a race before putting serious backing behind him. Has the breeding to stay the classic distances, as his sire Bluegrass Cat finished second in both the Derby and the Belmont Stakes and won the Haskell.

7 - Secret Circle (Baffert, Bejarano) Most likely the post time chalk, with the stellar connections and gaudy resume. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint champ already has proven he can win over this surface and comes into the race third off the layoff on the form cycle. It's hard to dismiss all the positives here. The one to beat.

8 - Atigun (McPeek, Thompson) Won an allowance last out, but looks overmatched against the class of horses running in this one. Been working well, but can't see it.

 9 - Reckless Jerry (Smith, Rocco) Chestnut colt gains new rider after finishing third behind Castaway and Jake Mo, which looks to be the weaker of the two Southwest Stakes. First time at the distance, so we'll sit this one out with Jerry who should finish mid pack somewhere.

10 - Ring It Up (Richard, Wade) Red-hot trainer Chris Richard winning at a 29 percent, but this colt has only one win in eight tries and found the going tough in the Southwest finishing fourth, four lengths behind Castaway in the Southwest. We will be looking elsewhere.

11 - Pee H Dee (Richard, Ocampo) Richard's second entry in here also finished fourth, yet in the stronger Southwest division behind Secret Circle. He looks to be the better of the two entries and maybe worth using underneath in exotics.

12 - Najjaar (Peltz, Borel) Shadwell sends out the son of the 2006 Belmont champ Jazil , a deep closer in his own right. He will need lots of pace early to have a chance. There is some speed in here, but  guessing a suicide duel on the front doesn't develop and that this one catches third or fourth in the late going.

13 - Adirondack King (Servis, Elliott) His daddy, Lawyer Ron, won this race in 2006 and other than the outside post, would have a good chance to threaten the top horses. He finished third behind Secret Circle and Scatman in the Southwest, but a good six lengths back. Possible, but not likely.

Post Time Outlook: 1 - Scatman; 2 - Secret Circle; 3 - Sabercat; 4 Najjaar

Good luck this weekend and let’s go cash some tickets!

 Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at and tweets @EquiSpace.

Bandits live blog from First Niagara Center: Buffalo vs. Minnesota

7:05 p.m. -- Another day, another game, another live blog.

The Bandits are ready to finish their last back-to-back weekend of the season with a game against the Minnesota Swarm. From here on in, it's one at a time for Buffalo.

According to reports, everyone navigated the fog safely on the way back to Western New York last night. The Bay Bridge in Hamilton was a little mysterious. The Bandits had a shootaround this morning, and everyone was in good spirits. Coach Darris Kilgour did say that last night's win against Toronto meant little if the team didn't win this game.

Kilgour wasn't planning any lineup changes from yesterday. Mike Thompson will start in goal, while Roger Vyse, Tom Montour and Ian Llord probably will sit.

The Bandits got spanked in their visit to Minnesota earlier this season, in a game that featured a huge brawl at the half. We'll see if there is a carryover effect today.

7:12 p.m. -- The Bandits are sporting special uniforms with a green tint tonight. The game-worn versions will be auctioned off for charity for this week, and you can buy them at the souvenir stands as well. (I assume they'll be available at the Sabres store starting Monday as well).

Shameless plug department: I do post links to Bandits' stories and blogs on my Twitter account, @WDX2BB. I'm hoping to crack 50 followers by June; I'm at 49 now. You will get links to my book reviews and personal blogs, so be forewarned.

7:21 p.m. -- Here's the stat of the night from our research staff: The Bandits outscored Toronto by 10 goals in the second half last night (13-3). That's the second-biggest margin by a Buffalo team back through the start of 2009. The champion half came on Jan. 16, 2009, when the Bandits outscored Rochester by 12 goals.

By the way, Buffalo was outscored by Rochester by seven goals in the first half last week. That's the largest such deficit run up in a half by the Bandits since at least 2009. I didn't have time to go back deeper into Bandits' history.

7:30 p.m. -- Milestone alert: John Tavares needs four points tonight to reach 1,600 for his career.

7:40 p.m. -- No scoring to report in the early going, but a few penalties. Buffalo has taken three minors so far. We had a pair of #98's in the penalty box at one point (Jimmy Purves and Callum Crawford), which probably makes some sort of sports history.

7:48 p.m. -- After Minnesota jumped out by a 2-0 score, Tavares and Scott Self answered. We are 2-2 with 3:47 to go in the period.

7:52 p.m. -- Heard an explanation of the odd play that resulted in a breakaway Toronto goal last night. The league told teams earlier in the week that they must pick up the ball quickly on 30-second calls. Otherwise, it will be considered a loose ball and there for the taking. The Rock picked one up last night and got a breakaway. The Bandits just weren't used to that faster tempo. Still 2-2 late in first. (And that's the way it ends after a period.)

7:56 p.m. -- The Philadelphia Wings say they just set a world record for most people playing the air guitar at once. This was the team that put Twitter handles instead of names on the backs of uniforms for a game with the Bandits this season. Someone is thinking creatively down there.

8:01 p.m. -- A flurry of goals has Buffalo up, 4-3, with 13:27 left in the half. By the way, the Bandits have changed goalies during their last four consecutive games and five of their nine games overall.

8:08 p.m. -- The flurry of minors continues, but the penalty killing has kept the score intact. Brandon Francis just got called for a crease violation, wiping out a goal.

8:11 p.m. -- Sometimes you have to be lucky. A Minnesota shot rebounded out into midfield ... just when Jimmy Purves was coming out of the penalty box. He scooped up the ball and had a long breakaway. Purves converted for his third of the season to make it a 6-3 Buffalo lead, and a 6-1 run. As we take a media timeout, the fans are watching the bloopers and blunders reel -- nothing like seeing other people come close to seriously hurting themselves (at least, I hope that's all they did). It is popular, though, so I'm outvoted on this one.

8:18 p.m. -- Tavares reaches #1599 with a power-play goal. And Francis gets his goal to make it 8-3 with 5:10 left in the half. Meanwhile, Thompson is playing well in goal ... and so are the guys in front of him.

8:29 p.m. -- The Bandits have finished a sparkling half of indoor lacrosse. They lead, 9-3 No goals allowed in the final 13-plus minutes of the period.

8:53 p.m. -- The Swarm are showing signs of life. Two goals have cut the lead to 9-5 with 9:11 left in the third.

9:01 p.m. -- So at nine o'clock on a Saturday (plus a minute), the scoring has stopped. Buffalo has been blanked in the first 10:40 of the quarter, but Minnesota has missed a chance to get back in the game by not scoring after those first two goals.

9:09 p.m. -- Hmmm. Minnesota has scored two more goals to creep back to 9-7. Callum Crawford had both scores. Are the Bandits sitting back too much, or are they just tired? Or, maybe Minnesota is just playing better

9:14 p.m. -- An absolutely huge goal by Kevin Buchanan makes it 10-7. First Buffalo goal of the half.

9:20 p.m. -- John Tavares makes his 1,600th point a big one. He took a long pass from Billy Dee Smith and scored on a breakaway to make it 11-7, Buffalo.

9:28 p.m. -- Ryan Benesch gets a power-play goal to cut the Buffalo lead to 11-8.

9:36 p.m. -- 11-9, Buffalo, with 1:48 left.

9:38 p.m. -- Scott Self adds some insurance with 1:12 left.

941 p.m. -- Bandits win, 13-10. The weekend might have saved the season.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Craig Ramsay

   (Born March 17, 1951) -- Craig Ramsay was always a media favorite when he was a member of the Buffalo Sabres. He always gave insightful quotes after the game, so reporters knew enough to head to his locker frequently to find out what happened in a game. In fact, Ramsay said he figured out it was
time to retire when the media only approached him after losses.

   Ramsay could play almost as well as he could talk. He was one of the great two-way players of his generation, even winning the Selke Trophy.

   The left winger was a second-round draft choice of the Sabres in 1971. He arrived in Buffalo after a brief stint in the minors, and stayed through 1985.

   For someone known for defense, Ramsay could score. He had eight straight 20-goal seasons. At one point in his career, he played in 776 consecutive games to break the NHL record at the time.

   After retirement, Ramsay served as an assistant coach in 1986-87 and served a brief tenure as head coach in that troubled Sabres' season. He moved on to become assistant general manager. In a perfect world, he might have a member of the Sabres' organization for life.

   That didn't work out, and Ramsay has served in a variety of roles … including head coaching jobs with Philadelphia and Atlanta … since leaving. Still, he's a deserving member of the Sabres' Hall of Fame.

--- Budd Bailey

Bandits live blog from Toronto

7:13 p.m. -- Sorry I'm a little late in signing on tonight. Norfolk State's basketball upset over Missouri commanded my attention.

But I'm ready to concentrate on lacrosse. The Bandits take on the Rock here in the Air Canada Center at 7:30. You know the particulars about the Bandits' problems. They have lost six in a row, and the Rock would like nothing better than to continue that streak. Toronto and Buffalo opened the season against each other, and the Bandits came away with a win.

7:21 p.m. -- Tom Montour, Ian Llord and Roger Vyse are sitting tonight, while Anthony Cosmo gets the start in goal. Got an e-mail from a fan this week asking how Montour got in the doghouse in terms of playing time; I was stuck for an answer. He had a good season in 2011 and supplied some valuable speed coming out of the Buffalo end.

7:38 p.m. -- A singer's worst nightmare -- woman forgot the words to O Canada. The crowd was not impressed.

7:47 p.m. -- The Bandits struck first, but then had two delayed penalties as once. Toronto converted on the five-on-three to tie things, and it is still on the power play with 9:43 left in the first.

By the way, whenever I go on the road, I appreciate the Bandits' game presentation that much more. Other teams' p-a announcers make Buffalo's announcer look calm and reserved.

7:57 p.m. -- Bandits have falled behind, 4-1. Toronto got a breakaway goal in an odd situation, as Buffalo didn't pick up the ball fast enough after a 30-second violation. What else can go wrong? We'll see.

8:11 p.m. -- Buffalo comes back within two (6-4) with goals by Mat Giles and Luke Wiles. It looks as if the Bandits have regained their composure, but six goals in a quarter obviously is too many.

8:18 p.m. -- Buffalo has bounced back a bit. Tracey Kelusky has a couple of goals and is playing quite well. Toronto's lead is 7-5 with 10:13 left in the half.

8:27 p.m. -- We've been going back and forth a bit. Toronto just scored to take a 9-6 lead. There will be a break in the action as Travis Irving of the Bandits engages in a fight with Stephen Hoar. Wouldn't be a game between these two teams without some sort of altercation.

8:36 p.m. -- I'm not sure the Bandits wanted to get in a shootout with Toronto, but that's what they've done. Buffalo trails, 10-8, and Mike Thompson has come on for Anthony Cosmo in goal

8:41 p.m. -- Rock leads at the half, 11-8. Tune into Radio 1520 AM to hear me try to make John Gurtler giggle

9:01 p.m. -- Bandits come out with two goals in 12 seconds to cut the lead to 11-10. Hmmm.

9:11 p.m. -- Make it four straight goals, as the Bandits have taken an 12-11. John Tavares scored the go-ahead goal. New goalie for Toronto -- Pat Campbell has come on. It's pretty unusual for both teams to switch goalies.

9:18 p.m. -- Bandits have a 13-12 lead. Buffalo's season-high for goals this season is 14, set on opening night against Toronto.

9:26 p.m. -- Bandits have a 15-13 lead after three quarters. So much for the old season high in goals.

9:35 p.m. -- Luke Wiles has five goals and two assists while Chad Culp has two goals and five assists. Buffalo has a 16-13 lead with 10:51 left.

9:46 p.m. -- The Bandits are taking out their frustrations. They are up, 19-14, with 6:40 left.

9:59 p.m. -- Bandits running out the clock, with a 21-14 lead. The scoring is 13-3 in the second half

10:02 p.m. -- And that's the way it ends. Dominating performance in the second half.

--- Budd Bailey

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About Sports, Ink

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has served in a variety of roles in Buffalo sports in the past 35 years, including reporter, talk-show host, baseball announcer, public relations staffer and author. He covers the Bandits and running for The News when not working as an editor.