By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
FLY LIKE AN EAGLE
Balder than Don Zimmer, faster than a speeding Soriano, able to leap tall Bernies in a single bound: It's Challenger, the eagle who flies to the mound to open postseason Yankee Stadium games. Though we question the wisdom of unleashing nature's fiercest bird of prey onto the field (Chuck Knoblauch probably looks like a tasty snack), the team's gone 11-7 in Challenger's starts. By day, the feathered one takes flying practice with the Yanks, perches in the bullpen, and enjoys a pregame spread of raw cow hearts (hands off, Mariano). At night he hobnobs with celebs in George Steinbrenner's boxsadly, he did not attack the Backstreet Boysthen watches Tim McCarver's insanity on his hotel-room TV. (No, we don't know what "Hop and glide, see the ball before you stride" means, either.)
Having fallen out of a nest, baby Challenger was raised by humans; today he lives in luxury at Dollywood (singer Parton's theme park) and travels with an entourage of five trainers. Last weekend, he visited Manhattan firehouses to honor the heroes of the WTC disaster. "God gave me a vision that this bird should free-fly during the National Anthem," says Al Cecere, whose American Eagle Foundation receives hefty donations from Steinbrennerthe Boss has even employed his private jet to escort the beaky star. If only he'd give Joe Torre the same V.I.P. treatment. Or at least a new contract.
CARRYING A TUNE
One of the more interesting sports-related developments in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack is that "God Bless America" has supplanted "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as the song of choice during the seventh-inning stretch, at least for now. And as it happens, there's strong historical precedent for a patriotic song becoming standard baseball fare during wartime. In fact, it happened with the national anthem.
The tradition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played prior to every game may seem eternal, but keep in mind that the tune wasn't even officially adopted as the national anthem until the 1930s. According to James Charlton's The Baseball Chronology, the first instance of the song being played at a ballgame was on May 15, 1862, during the Civil War at Union Grounds in Brooklyn. Over 50 years later, during World War I, a military band played the tune during the seventh-inning stretch of a 1918 World Series game. "From then on," reports the Chronology, "the song [was] played at every World Series game, every season opener, and whenever a band [was] present to play it."
Playing the anthem didn't become more the rule than the exception until World War II, when public-address systemswhich were installed at stadiums in part for civil defense reasons during the warbecame sufficiently widespread to enable recorded versions to be played. Even then, there were some holdoutsas late as the mid 1960s, the Cubs played the anthem only on holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, because team owner P.K. Wrigley felt that playing the song at each game effectively trivialized it. And Royals owner Ewing Kauffman cited a similar rationale in 1972, when he ordered that the anthem be played only "on Sundays and special occasions," because it "was not receiving the respect it deserved." Public reaction, however, was highly negative, and Kauffman quickly relented.
A DAY AT THE RACES
Orwell missed out when he failed to predict the Breeders' Cup. In the early '80s, racetracks all over America were closing, and people's love affair with the "sport of kings" seemed to be almost over, especially since bettors could legally go to neighborhood OTBs. Then came 1984. If thriving sports like football could conjure up an extra payday with the Super Bowl, a sport like racing was going to have to think bigger and better. And so the Breeders' Cup was born.
This year, the Cup returns to New York turf (and dirt) at wonderful Belmont Park, on the Queens-Nassau border. Eight races, eight winners. The right to be called the best of the best belongs to the winner of the day's final race: the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, usually a rematch of the top horses from the past year. Will we see a repeat Arcangues, winner of the 1993 Classic at 133.60-1, which paid close to $270 on a dollar win bet? On the other side of the coin, Meadow Star at $2.40 (1-to-5) in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies was the lowest return.
Although the fields aren't quite set, let's call upon our favorite handicapper, Jimmy "Gentleman Jim" Napolitano, publisher of The Clubhouse Racing Reviewand recent third-place finisher (out of 6000) in Belmont's Sudden Death contest, to come up with these very lively selections: Distaff: Exogenous (hometown hero, loves this track and distance); Juvenile Fillies: You (gets perfect stalking trip and pounces on leaders turning for home); Sprint: Delaware Township (never been better); and Juvenile: Officer (undefeated two-year-old will put on a show). In the big race, the Classic, Gentleman Jim picks Fantastic Light, predicting a three-horse photo finish in which Fantastic Light noses out nemesis Galileo, with Aptitude flying at the end.