Vegas sequel: Lots of upsets – none I could predict

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PM           LAS VEGAS — As I was about to enter the walkway to the U.S. Air plane, I passed a poster that said, “Our No. 1 priority is keeping you free from hassles.”

That was not comforting to me.  I wanted the No. 1 priority to be getting me to my destination safely.  Crashes concern me more than hassles;  I’ve survived many of the latter.

So my Las Vegas Football Gambling Sequel started off on a shrill note, perhaps an unsettling harbinger.  It would be a weekend of shocks and, for me, economic downturn.

It would have me pondering how many Vegas bachelor party movies can be made and how many times will I go to Vegas searching for the impossible edge?

After my hassle-free and safe flight I checked into the Paris, distinguished by its Eiffel Tower that is precisely half the size as L’Original.  This is a hotel with lots of belle époque (should that be italicized?) architecture, and you do hear a few people speaking French, and the Napoleon bar is justly praised as the best place in the city for good martinis and live music at a reasonable price.

Alas, the sports book is small, cramped and furnished not at all plushly, and they don’t bring you free drinks.  I was much happier at the Mirage and Harrah’s, but they’re about a half-hour walk up the Strip, given all the interruptions to pedestrian traffic caused by stairways, bridges and hawkers pushing flyers about erotic entertainment.

So I settled for Paris, in a plastic chair, and proceeded to watch and bet the Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s showcase event (nine Grade 1 races).

Horse racing is a tough sport to bet, which is why it now appeals to only a small minority of gamblers.  The odds are stacked heavily against you, with the “vigorish” amounting to a staggering 20 percent, after the track, the horsemen and the tax man all get their shares.

Still, horse racing offers rewards for those who are patient and picky.  My favorite horse play is the Only Front Runner, and Saturday’s Breeders Cup offered two such opportunities.

The first was in the Juvenile Fillies race, where She’s a Tiger showed the earliest speed.  She also had a Hall of Fame jockey – and an accomplished Hollywood actor — Gary Stevens, who makes few mistakes and figured to have an easy ride on a horse that would be in front of the traffic and not in it.

She’s a Tiger finished first, but replays showed she veered out and bumped the 32-1 runner-up, Ria Antonia.  The stewards debated for ten minutes before taking down Tiger and costing me a 5-1 win.  But I admit, it was the right call.

I just wish I had thought to put something on Ria Antonia, the sort of longshot I find enticing in Breeders Cup races, where the fields are so strong that almost every horse has better than a 30-1 chance.  Ria had improved her speed in each of her past three races and had a red-flag jockey switch to the relentless charger Javier Castellano.  Too bad I was asleep on the switch.

I suffered the disappointment not only of seeing a win snatched away but also the tragedy a horse fatally injuring herself, and her jockey hauled off to the hospital.  This is the dark side of racing, thoroughbreds bred for speed with no consideration for durability, since a strong slow horse will never win a purse.

On the far turn Sweet Compass broke a foreleg and sent jockey Johnny Velasquez tumbling.  It was the first horror of this sporting weekend-after-Halloween, but unfortunately would not be the last.  The horse was euthanized and the jockey, one of the superstars of the sport, underwent surgery on his spleen.

In the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, the Irish mare Laughing had secured the front end in four of her previous five races.  She was facing no other horse with a similar fondness for the pace, and her odds were wonderful at 8-1.  So I expected to be Laughing all the way to the bank.

Laughing got out to the front but quickly pulled back.  I never found out what happened;  she tried to get back in the race but finished seventh out of ten.

Aside from the two front runners who failed me I didn’t find much appealing on this card.  Seems it was a much better event before it was split a few years back into two days of racing.  In order to stretch the racing extravaganza to a second day, some Breeders Cup races were added on Friday, causing dilution of numerous fields.  Therefore, not so many live longshots.

Unlike most horseplayers I don’t try to pick winners.  I shop for value – the 6-1 horse that should be 3-1, the 20-1 that should be 6-1.  I usually don’t expect to win, but over the course of time I get pleasant surprises that make it worth the wait.

So I passed on Wise Dan, at 4-5, in the Mile.  He had lost his last race, after winning nine in a row.  The horse who beat him, Silver Max, would be going again, along with a couple of fast European imports.   I assessed his win probability at about 60 percent, so 4-5 is no bargain.

Of course, Wise Dan made a fool of those of us who questioned him.  He was ridden to an easy victory by Jose Lezcano, who has won all four times he’s been aboard this likely Horse of the Year.  Lezcano was subbing for Velasquez, whose operation was reported as successful, but for now his racing career is clouded.

The Mile was the backup event to the Classic, which offered three unusually talented runners:  Game on Dude, Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, who were in that order on the tote board.  I liked Mucho Macho as the mucho value, at 4-1, thinking Game on could be slightly off his game with a nine-week layoff leading into a race where the winning horse will have to be very sharp.

Mucho Macho’s trainer, Kathy Ritvo, who has quietly become one of the best in New York, at 22 percent, is a heart-transplant recipient.  She did a smart thing, shipping her horse from the east coast and working him five times over the hard Santa Anita sands to get him comfortable and primed for his biggest race.

Stevens, who had fouled out so ingloriously in the Juvenile Fillies, found perfect rhythm with Mucho Macho Man.  He blew past Game on Dude on the far turn and it was game over for the favorite, who faded to ninth.

One test remained, however as Will Take Charge closed hard to draw within a nose of Mucho Macho Man, who was just a little too much on this particular day.

Despite hitting the Classic, I was still down a little for the day, but everything set up well for me Sunday.  Or so I thought.

So what happened?  One of the most bizarre days of pro football I’ve seen.  One of the most upsetting, and disturbing.

Who would have thought Nick Foles, the underthrowing second-year quarterback of the underachieving Philadephia Eagles would throw seven touchdowns?  What sort of odds could I have gotten on that?  To bet Nick Foles would land on the same line of the record book as Peyton Manning, Y.A. Tittle and George Blanda.

But there were bigger shocks.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ravaged by a staph infection (or was that a coaching staff infection?), dissension or perhaps even worse, a unified dislike of head coach Greg Schiano, somehow they found some motivation to make a stand in pro football’s most inhospitable pit.  The 0-7 Buccaneers jumped ahead, 21-0 on the Seattle Seahawks, who hadn’t lost at home since 2011.

Seattle eventually rallied to win in OT, but that was little solace to those of us who gave 16 points and – even worse – recommended it to others as a reasonable play.

And how does it feel to pick the Under at 42 and see New England and Pittsburgh in a 55-31 shootout?  What was this under?  The Matterhorn?

And then came the horror of the Colts and Texans game on Sunday night.  Local boy hero Case Keenum leads the home team to an 18-point halftime lead.  And as the Texans are leaving the field for intermission, coach Gary Kubiak stumbles, collapses, gets carted away, taken to a hospital where he would be found to have suffered a “mini-stroke.”

Without Kubiak, who had Keenum executing a quick-tempo, smartly varied passing attack, the Houston offense slowed and faltered.  The defense also lost its vigor, as its coordinator, Wade Phillips, took over as interim coach in the second half.

As CBS analyst Phil Simms put it:  “Now Wade Phillips is the head coach.  Is he calling defensive plays the same way he would if all he was thinking about is his defense?  They weren’t as aggressive in the second half.  That is Gary Kubiak’s offense.  Rick Dennison is the coordinator but he hasn’t called any plays for that team this year.  They were much more conservative in the second half.”

The Texans lost 27-24, but if you had bet on the Texans (I passed on this one but enjoyed watching it for entertainment value only), you had to have been mortified by that sort of U-turn.

As for what horrors occurred on Monday night?  I don’t even want to get into it.

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