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This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Chris Drury

(Born August 20, 1976) -- Chris Drury probably thought his athletic peak came at a very young age at some points of his life.

After all, he was a world champion around the age of 13. Drury pitched Trumbull, Conn., to a Little League World Series title in 1989. That led to him throwing out the first pitch before Game Two of the 1989 World Series, and a meeting with President George Bush.

Drury went from there to a hockey career, starting at Boston University. He had been drafted by the Quebec Nordiques. The forward won the Hobey Baker Trophy in 1998.

Quebec became Colorado, and Drury joined the Avalanche in 1998.  That’s where he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie. In 2001, Drury and Colorado won the Stanley Cup together.

Drury was traded to Calgary in 2002, and became a Sabre in 2003. He had three great years in Buffalo, setting career highs in goals and points. Drury led the Sabres to some great seasons.

He became a free agent in 2007, and broke the hearts of Sabres’ fans when he signed with the Rangers. Drury played four seasons in New York, but his play had fallen off and he retired in 2011.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Taylor Pyatt

 (Born August 19, 1981) -- Count yourself as a true hockey fan if you know the identity of Taylor Pyatt’s father. Nelson Pyatt bounced around pro hockey circles in the 1970s. He might be best remembered for being a member of some really bad Capitals’ teams when they were newcomers in the league ... not that their play was Nelson’s fault.

Pyatt was a first-round draft pick of the Islanders in 1999. He came into the league as big, tough forward. Pyatt scored 18 goals as a rookie and was considered a good prospect.

He obvioiusly attracted the attention of the Sabres that year. When the Islanders wanted to acquire Michael Peca in 2001, Buffalo asked for and received Pyatt and Tim Connolly. It looked like a very good deal under the circumstances, as Peca was in the middle of a contract dispute.

Pyatt played most of the next four seasons in Buffalo. He never showed the scoring touch he had in junior, peaking with 14 goals in 2002-03. Pyatt was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 2006.

The winger spent three years in Vancouver, and then played three years in Phoenix. Over this past summer, Pyatt landed as a free agent with the New York Rangers.  His brother Tom played for Tampa Bay.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Justin Strzelczyk

(Born August 18, 1968) -- Not all of the stories here have happy endings. Justin Strzelczyk is remembered in part for all the wrong reasons.

Strzelczyk grew up in West Seneca; his father Connie was a 6-foot-4 basketball player at Montana State. Justin grew up playing every sport around, and he seemed to be good at all of them. He was a basketball star at West Seneca West.

Strzelczyk moved on to play football at the University of Maine. He was a free spirit, but played well enough to make the East-West Shrine Game. Strzelczyk impressed Steelers coach Chuck Noll and was picked in the 11th round of the 1990 draft.

He beat the odds and played at offensive line for Pittsburgh through 1998. In fact, he started about half of the games in his career and played every offensive line position except center.

Strzelczyk retired in 1999 and had a variety of problems with authorities. He also showed signs of mental problems. In 2004, he died in a car crash in Herkimer. An autopsy revealed signs of brain damage caused by football injuries, starting a medical discussion on the issue that continues until this day.

--- Budd Bailey

Post Time: Fillies set to go in Alabama, Travers field taking shape

By Gene Kershner

Things start to heat up in Saratoga Springs this weekend as the first of the two marquee weekends at the Spa gets underway with the 132nd running of the Alabama Stakes on Saturday. The one-and-a-quarter mile Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies could loom large in deciding this year’s champion within this division. Three of the past four winners of the race have emerged as the Champion 3-year-old Filly.

The race features the winners of the Grade 1 Mother Goose (Zo Impressive), the Grade 2 Gulfstream Oaks and Grade 2 Delaware Oaks (Grace Hall), the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks (Uptown Bertie), the Grade 3 Railbird (Via Villagio), the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks (Questing) and the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan (In Lingerie). There is no shortage of quality horses in the race and this will set one filly apart from the others as the season unwinds.

The race will be telecast on the NBC Sports Network (5 p.m. ET), which will also show the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational during the live broadcast. The $600,000 Alabama has a scheduled post time of 5:46 p.m.

The $1 million Travers field is starting to shape up and it could be one of the largest fields in its long history. Currently scheduled to run are Alpha, Atigun, Cogito, Five Sixteen, Hansen, Liaison, Neck ‘n Neck, Nonios, Stealcase and Street Life. Those on the fence and currently questionable include Fast Falcon, Quick Wit and Teeth of the Dog.

The last time 14 colts went postward in the Travers was 1977.  The largest field in recent years was in 2008 when Colonel John edged out Mambo in Seattle at the wire.

Next weekend’s $500,000 King’s Bishop, the biggest sprint race at the meet for 3-year-olds is also shaping up to be a huge race with Currency Swap, Doctor Chit, Fort Loudon and Trinniberg all probable starters. The $500,000 Test for 3-year-old fillies will feature the second start of the year for My Miss Aurelia, last year’s 2-year-old filly champion, who will square off against Prioress winner Emma’s Encore.

This weekend’s Alabama Stakes features seven 3-year-old fillies as follows (trainer, jockey, odds in parenthesis):

1 – Sea Island (McGaughey, Rosario, 12-1) Shug McGaughey-trained filly was fourth in the Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont and came back to win an optional claimer at the Spa during the second weekend of the meet. She appears to be overmatched by the likes of the opponents in here.

2 – Zo Impressive (Albertrani, Maragh, 5-1) Hard Spun filly has been not been out of the exacta in six career races and should definitely be considered in all exotics plays. The added distance may be the answer for Zo Impressive according to trainer Tom Albertrani.  “It looked like she was finishing in the last eighth of a mile in the Coaching Club. She was gaining a bit late in the race. Maybe that was from [Questing] starting to get tired and drifting out, but I don’t see why she wouldn’t go a little further.”

3 – Grace Hall (A. Dutrow, Castellano, 7-5) The morning line favorite is coming off an impressive victory in the Delaware Oaks, after finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks. Javier Castellano retains the mount for Anthony Dutrow who is 30 percent second off the layoff and 30 percent with shippers. The Empire Maker filly has some serious route pedigree in her blood and should love the added distance on Saturday.  The one to beat.

4 – Uptown Bertie (Margolis, Lanerie, 20-1) Ships in from the Midwest after an impressive victory at Prairie Meadows in the Iowa Oaks. She steps up in class taking on these fillies and at best will fill the superfecta.

5 – Via Villaggio (Hollendorfer, Nakatani, 8-1) Second to Grace Hall in the Delaware Oaks, this Bernardini filly tries her second East coast graded stake after spending her entire career on the left coast. Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer isn’t shy about giving his horses’ opportunities to shine, but it looks like she may be up against it on Saturday.

6 – Questing (McLaughlin, Ortiz, 5-2). McLaughlin will be looking to complete his second straight Saratoga sweep of the 3-year-old filly races. Last year he swept both the Coaching Club and Alabama with It’s Tricky and he’ll try to do the same with Questing. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. will look to win his third Grade 1 of the meet aboard Questing who is ready to roll according to her trainer. “She has been doing great since the Coaching Club, “ said McLaughlin. “She’s training well and is happy. Hopefully she can keep doing what she has been doing. We just have to hope she can repeat the performances she gave in her last two.”

7 – In Lingerie (Pletcher, Velazquez, 6-1). The dangerous Saratoga combination of Pletcher/Velazquez is red-hot at Saratoga winning 38 percent of their races over the past two weeks as of Wednesday. The Black-Eyed Susan winner finished third in the Coaching Club and should be good value at the windows if she stays anywhere around her morning line. The outside post should help her according to Pletcher, the current leading trainer at the meet. “She kind of got stuck down inside and held up, and I don’t think that’s her running style. We hope for more of the kind of trip we got in the Black-Eyed Susan.”

Post Time Outlook:  The race should be extremely competitive and we like how McLaughlin has had his horses ready for the big races at Saratoga, so we’ll go with Questing to complete the sweep.

1 – Questing; 2 – Zo Impressive; and 3 – Grace Hall 

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

Bandits notebook: Two more changes

Changes were expected when the Bandits had a losing season and were eliminated in the playoffs. That's doesn't mean all change is good.

With Mike Thompson retiring, who is going to make all of the Bandits laugh?

Thompson was one of the most upbeat, good-natured athletes in pro sports during his career. He'd always greet people with a smile, no matter how things were going for him personally. On a personal note, when I took over for Tom Borrelli on the Bandits' beat, he immediately made me feel welcome around the team.

Thompson had been said to be considering retirement during the current offseason. On Thursday he made it official. Thompson suffered a knee injury late last season. He no doubt saw the toll the sport takes on goalies, including watching Ken Montour leave with concussion-related issues, and wanted to get out while he coul in one piece.

Thompson joined the Bandits in 2007, and will always be remembered here as the winning goalie in the 2008 championship game. He finishes with 31 career wins, second on the team's all-time list.

Thompson wasn't the only Bandit to announce his retirement on Thursday. Darryl Gibson called it a career after 12 years in the league. He joined the team in 2010.

That's two more roster spots that will be filled by new faces come January. Thompson's departure obviously means Anthony Cosmo is the unquestioned number one goalie, and probably gives us a little clue as to why the Bandits were willing to give up top draft choices for Cosmo last season. One of the upcoming questions for Buffalo now is whether the team is satisfied with Angus Goodleaf as a backup goalie, or if someone else will be brought in to training camp to supply some competition.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Christian Laettner

(Born August 17, 1969) -- You probably could argue that Christian Laettner had one of the greatest careers in college basketball history. You couldn’t argue where he came from.

Laettner was born in Angola, and went to Nichols High School. There he scored more than 2,000 points and won two state titles. Laettner became one of the most heavily recruited players in the country.

The forward picked Duke for his college destination, and he wore #32 because he was a fan of O.J. Simpson when he was a tyke. Laettner became one of four college players to participate in four straight Final Fours. The center/forward won two national championships.

Laettner had a nice summer vacation in 1992 when he played on the most famous basketball team ever assembled -- 1992 United States Olympic team. Laettner picked up a gold medal.

He was drafted by the Timberwolves in the first round, and played for six teams through 2005. Laettner averaged more than 13 points per game. He reportedly lives in Florida.

--- Budd Bailey

Running notebook: The price of success

Here's a question that doesn't come up often: Can a race be too successful?

That issue probably will come up if the organizers of the Moonlight Run in Williamsville get together for a post-race review. I'm not sure how many runners were there, but I saw some bib numbers with a "1" hastily scribbled before a three-digit number. In other words, well over a thousand people must have signed up.

To the race's credit, things generally ran pretty smoothly. But the street for the start is on the narrow side, and runners were spilled over into the grass and sidewalk before the start. It took some time to get to the starting line, and then a little more time before the pack was running smoothly down the street.

I've never heard of a local 5K limiting entries -- like the Turkey Trot does. But it's easy to think the Moonlight Run is getting close to that situation. It's a good problem to have, obviously, but one that figures to be watched.

The weekend's races no doubt will be busy too, although not that busy because of the large number of Saturday races. Here's the schedule from buffalorunners.com:

* Mike Diggins Memorial Taste of South Buffalo 5K, Cazenovia Park in Buffalo, 8 a.m. Saturday, 400-9856.

* Habitat Run 5K, 1675 South Park Ave., Buffalo, 9 a.m. Saturday, 852-6607. This is a nice little run that goes through parts of town that usually don't host races.

* Elba Presbyterial Church 5K, Veterans Memorial Park in Elba, 9 a.m. Saturday, 374-4741.

* Run for Hope 5K, Lincoln Park in Tonawanda, 9:30 a.m. Saturday, 834-9028: This race has two big, big pluses: it might be the flattest course in Western New York, and no one goes away hungry.

* Sunset Bay Experience 5K, 1028 South Shore Dr. in Irving, 9:30 a.m., Saturday, 907-0219.

* Don Carroll Toys for Kids 5K, Jackson Square in Batavia, 6:15 p.m. Saturday, (585) 343-7440.

* Emily Rose 5K, Russell Park in Akron, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 725-2380.

* Run for Row 5K, Como Park in Lancaster, 9 a.m. Sunday, 891-3896.

* Sarah Johnson Memorial 5K Run, Clark's Park in Wilson, 9 a.m. Sunday, 440-6514. You wouldn't believe how fast this race came together, and that's why it is the subject of Sunday's running column.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Jimmy Arias

(Born August 16, 1964) -- Western New York isn’t known as a tennis hotbed, but the area can always claim a top-notch modern player as one of its one. Jimmy Arias turned out to better than most of us dreamed.

He grew up on Grand Island, and quickly dominated local play from a young age. After training in Florida, Arias turned pro at the age of 16.

The climb up from there was a swift one. Arias probably hit his peak at the ripe old age of 19 when he was ranked sixth in the world. He also won his biggest tournament, the Italian Open, along the way, and also reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in that year.

Arias didn’t have as much success in 1984, but still climbed to fifth in the world at one point. That’s partly due to a trip to the fourth round at Wimbledon. However, physical problems became an issue around that point, and Arias never could take that next step.

Since his playing days ended, Arias has stayed involved in tennis. He’s done some coaching as well as worked on television broadcasts in the United States and Canada.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Martin Biron

(Born August 15, 1977) -- There have been better goalies than Martin Biron who wore the Buffalo Sabres uniform. There has never been a more talkative goalie than Martin Biron.

Who else would give Hockey Night in Canada an interview by the bench in Montreal as a backup just before the opening faceoff?

It’s been 17 years since Biron first became part of the Sabres’ organization. He was the team’s first-round draft choice in 1995. Biron played a few games as an emergency recall in 1995-96, but eventually worked his way up to stay. The goalie tried to wear #00 as a Sabre, but the NHL’s computers wouldn’t accept it. He had to settle for #43.

In 2006, after losing the starting job to Ryan Miller, Biron was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers. Then in 2009, he jumped to the New York Islanders as a free agent.

In 2010, Biron was a free agent again, and jumped to the New York Rangers. There he’s been a good backup for Henrik Lundqvist.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Mike Mamula

(Born August 14, 1973) -- Mike Mamula has a unique place in the history of the National Football League. He made some extra money in the process, and taught football executives a lesson.

Mamula came out of Lackawanna High School and played his college football for Boston College. He was a linebacker as a junior and a defensive end as a senior. No matter where he played, Mamula made plenty of tackles.  In fact, he had 17 sacks as a senior.

Mamula prepared for the NFL draft in what was a unique way at the time. He was the first player ever to train specifically for the drills that were used at the NFL Combine. Mamula’s numbers for strength and speed were off the chart. As a result, his draft stock rose quickly.

The Philadelphia Eagles traded up to the seventh pick in the first round, and grabbed Mamula. They gave up the 12th pick, which Tampa Bay used to take Warren Sapp.

Mamula played six years with the Eagles before he retired due to injuries. That’s not bad, although some were disappointed with his performance after the draft build-up. Mamula still lives in Philadelphia.

--- Budd Bailey

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