Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: 'Hokie Girls' show spunk

When the race ended, the booming voice of Roger Huston -- a man who has called more than 150,000 such events in his lifetime -- dripped with praise.

"I'll tell you, Hokie Spirt showed some Hokie heart!" Huston said. "And O Lucky Me wasn't lucky enough! What an effort by Hokie Spirt!"

Hokie Spirit might not be the most talented race horse in the world, but she's earned the right to dine from a maroon and orange lunch pail this week.

Virginia Tech alumnus Ron Mersky watched with pride last Friday as the 3-year-old filly he bred and owns captured the $30,000 final of the Jans Luck Pace at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, holding off O Lucky Me by a neck.

In fact, the Pennsylvania harness track has been quite a Hokie haven of late.

Hokie Spirit's half-sister, Hokie Heart, won two consecutive starts there before the Jans Luck final, where she rallied to finish fourth.

Both horses were born within weeks of the 2007 mass shootings at Tech. Mersky, who earned a doctorate in educational administration from the university in 1979, decided to name the foals in honor of the school mascot. They've become known as "the Hokie Girls" in racing circles.

Mersky has since discovered they have some characteristics to match their name.

"Of course, not all Tech teams play hard all the time," Mersky said by phone Monday from Paris, Ky., where he runs a 78-acre farm. "But in general, Tech has that reputation of not getting the best recruits but really playing hard, and these girls are the same way. They really make an effort."

Hokie Heart won the first leg of the Jans Luck Pace on April 16, the three-year anniversary of the tragedy. A week later, she cashed in at 6.5-to-1 odds. Later that same day, Hokie Spirit stormed to victory at a 7-to-2 price.

The betting public noticed. The co-entry of Hokie Heart-Hokie Spirit went off as a 3-to-5 favorite Friday, but it wasn't an easy victory. O Lucky Me actually took the lead at the top of the stretch before Hokie Spirit dug in to win. Hokie Heart surged off the pace and nearly got in the money, too.

"When you're an owner or a trainer of a horse, that's what you like to see," said Mersky, 64. "Regardless of whether they're a top stakes horse or a $5,000 claimer, you want them to put out the most effort, and they really do."

Hokie Spirit's next start is scheduled for Thursday at The Meadows.

More horseplay

NBC caught a lucky break Saturday. Now we'll see if the network can learn from it.

Thanks to a CNBC contest, a Houston software engineer named Glen Fullerton won $100,000 to bet on the Kentucky Derby.

To NBC's great delight, he put it all on Super Saver -- who, of course, won the race at 9-to-1 odds, making for some great human drama.

Finally! The gambling component of the Kentucky Derby long has been underplayed in the television coverage.

Obviously, NBC producers know the bulk of their audience isn't hard-core horse players. So it makes sense to focus most of the broadcast on the pageantry of the event. Interviews with the winning jockey, owner and trainer are a must, as are the fashion features and human-interest pieces.

But that's not all they should show. This sport was born and raised on pari-mutuel wagering. There are millions of dollars being won and lost in those grandstands. Is there any event where the audience is as invested in the outcome as the Kentucky Derby?

So talk to the gamblers, NBC. Show us somebody who hit the superfecta, which paid more than $200,000 on a $2 bet this year. When Mine That Bird won last year at 50-to-1, where was the quick interview with an elated bettor who struck gold? And where was the interview with the fuming schlub who dropped 30 grand on the 7-to-2 favorite who finished out of the money?

The guy from Houston was a great story but a serendipitous one. Still, there are great gambling stories every year at the Kentucky Derby.

Here's hoping NBC will start finding them.

Read Aaron McFarling's Daily Sports Briefing on the Press Box blog weekday mornings at http://blogs.roanoke.com/rtblogs/pressbox/

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