From Babe to Boss, baseball linked to Derby
Triple Crowns just one common thread between the sports' rich histories
Of all the historic photos adorning the walls of Churchill Downs, the iconic site of the Kentucky Derby, one combines two pieces of true Americana like no other.
It's a classic grainy black-and-white shot of Babe Ruth standing in the infield of the old racetrack on the first Saturday of May 1936, alongside Louisville Slugger bat craftsman Bud Hillerich.
Yes, the Sultan of Swat was a horse racing fan, which proves that national pastimes are sometimes impossible to separate.
The Kentucky Derby has had several connections to baseball over the years, but none on a grander scale than when the bigger-than-life Babe himself showed up to take in the Run for the Roses.
But according to sports columnist emeritus Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, it's doubtful that Ruth knew exactly what was going on that day, when Cavalcade cruised past Discovery in the stretch to win the 60th Derby.
"I'm sure Babe went to the track because he heard there was a good party there," Izenberg said. "I don't think he knew too much about horse racing, although I'm sure he placed a few bets."
In 2005, baseball was a big part of just about every backstretch conversation at Churchill Downs because New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner brought his colt, Bellamy Road, to Louisville as the race favorite.
What's in a name?
|Hall of Fame||1951||9th|
|Eye of the Tiger||2003||5th|
|Mr. Hot Stuff||2009||15th|
Bellamy Road, who went off at 5-2 odds, disappointed, battling out of the gate but fading in the stretch to finish seventh, beaten by 6 3/4 lengths by 50-1 winner Giacomo.
Steinbrenner was winless in six Derby tries dating back to 1977, when Steve's Friend did the best of any Steinbrenner runner, finishing fifth in a race won by Seattle Slew.
Steinbrenner was the second Major League Baseball owner to start a horse in the Derby, and the first one, John W. Galbreath, won the race twice. Galbreath, who died in 1988, owned the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1946-85 and won World Series titles with the team in 1960, 1971 and 1979.
He was born -- fittingly enough -- in Derby, Ohio, built a realty business, made millions, and also spent some money on Darby Dan Farm, a thoroughbred racing and breeding business.
In the 89th Derby on May 4, 1963, Galbreath's colt Chateaugay outran 9-1 odds to win by 1 1/4 lengths, and four years later, Darby Dan pulled the trick again, sending Proud Clarion to a shocking one-length Derby score at 30-1.
Picking Bellamy Road wasn't a hunch for most horseplayers in 2005, but baseball fans have had opportunities through the years to pick horses that allude to the grand old game.
The only horse with a baseball-related name to win the Derby was Shut Out -- a grandson of Pennant (out of the mare Swinging) -- who won the 68th running of the Derby in 1942. Shut Out happened to beat two other baseball-named horses that day, too.
Fair Call finished seventh and Sweep Swinger rambled home for 10th place. This year's only horse with a baseball name is Giant Finish. The colt checks in as a huge long shot at 50-1 on the morning line, but hunch players will like the fact that the Giants are defending World Series champions, and, as the No. 7 horse in the 20-entry field, Giant Finish will wear his number in orange and black, the San Francisco team's colors.
One of the obvious links between the two sports is the term Triple Crown.
Horseplayers know it as the rare accomplishment of winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in order, and it hasn't happened since Affirmed, with jockey Steve Cauthen up, turned the trick in 1978.
In baseball, of course, the rare achiever of the Triple Crown is a hitter who leads his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs at the end of a season. The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera did that last year, the first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Even Cauthen was impressed.
"I guess it's just like baseball," Cauthen said. "Same sort of thing. It takes obviously a great player, just like a great horse, and you need a few things to go your way. You can't have injuries or setbacks. It's darn near impossible to do otherwise."
The most bizarre baseball-and-Derby connection has to do with none other than Stanley Burrell of Oakland, known in popular music circles as the rapper MC Hammer.
In the early 1970s, when Burrell was 12 years old, he was spotted in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot practicing his dance moves to get free tickets to A's games. Madcap A's owner Charlie Finley was entertained and struck up a friendship with the local kid.
Soon enough, Burrell, an aspiring baseball player, was hired by Finley to be a batboy. The A's players grew to like him and nicknamed him "Hammer" because of his likeness to Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, and by the time he was 13 he was given the title of honorary "vice president" by Finley. Hammer's job eventually included relaying messages from players to Finley while the owner spent time at home in Indiana and even talking business with other team owners.
Hammer went on to make millions when his 1990 album, "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em," sold more than 10 million copies and stayed at No. 1 on the charts for 21 weeks on the strength of the single, "U Can't Touch This."
Hammer parlayed his fortune into horses, starting the Oaktown Stable. In 1992, his horse Dance Floor made it to the Derby and performed well, leading until the top of the stretch and finishing third at 33-1 odds. Soon after, Hammer lost his fortune and got out of the racing business, but hard-knocking racing fans will never forget the sight of the one-time pop icon flaunting oodles of jewelry and taking his entourage into upscale turf clubs of various racetracks while wearing a sports jacket with no shirt underneath.
"Certainly racing had never seen anybody like him," said turf writer Bill Finley, who covered racing for the New York Daily News in the 1990s and now writes for ESPN.com.
"As you can imagine, most owners are pretty stiff people. Hammer acted like a wild man, and just like he did in the music world, he crashed and burned.
"I don't think there were too many racing people who were sad to see him go."