Wednesday April 30th, 2008

Did you ever talk about Nutsy Fagan around your neighborhood? When somebody acted, well, nutsy, we said, "He's as nutsy as Nutsy Fagan!" There's some question who exactly this Nutsy Fagan was. He might have been a guy in 19th-century New York, who liked to join funeral processions under the impression they were parades. And, of course, we weren't so considerate then. A guy was fat -- we called him "fats;" a guy was nutsy -- hey, we called him "nutsy."

Anyway, I always think of Nutsy Fagan when I see how some sports handle their schedule. For example, the most important NASCAR race is the Daytona 500, the first big race of the year. It would be as if the NFL started with the Super Bowl and worked backwards from there.

The two most different surfaces in tennis are clay and grass, but as soon as the French clay championships end, they immediately switch to grass with Wimbledon just two weeks later. Only Nutsy Fagan could have dreamed that up.

College football teams finishes its regular schedule in November, maybe early December, and then the two championship contenders take off a whole month (or more) before meeting for the national title in January.

Nothing, though, is as dopey as the way horse racing conducts its premier event, the Kentucky Derby, which is run this Saturday by custom -- the first Saturday in May. In how many ways can they screw it up? Let me count the ways.

First of all, the Derby is run at a mile and a quarter, which is a long distance for 3-years-olds to cover. Thoroughbreds race a lot less now, and they're bred more for speed, too. And as if running the mile and a quarter in early May isn't asking too much, the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, will be conducted in just two week's time. And, not only that, the Preakness is shorter than the Derby. So, they run the longer race first, and then rush into the second shorter one.

Then, just three weeks later, is the Triple Crown finale, the Belmont Stakes. That means the three races are jammed together in only five weeks. Big Brown, the probable Derby favorite, has, so far, raced only three times in his entire life. The Belmont is run at a mile and a half -- a distance virtually no racehorse in America runs anymore ... except, of course, at Belmont. But, to make it sound special rather than idiotic, a mile and a half is always called a "classic distance," which is true enough if you think classic means out of fashion. The Belmont is classic, just like the set-shot in basketball is classic. But nobody in basketball is dumb enough to use the set-shot anymore.

Moreover, to start the Triple Crown off at the Derby, 20 horses are allowed to run, which is far too many. The most important race in America is determined more by luck than skill as the thundering herd blasts out of the starting gates. No wonder no colt ever wins the Triple Crown anymore.

So Saturday, when the band starts playing My Old Kentucky Home and the thoroughbred stampede comes onto the track, I will raise my mint julep, and say, "You did it again, Nutsy Fagan!"

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