On Draft Day, Derby Dreams and Daisies

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | may 2017

Here's a huge shout out to spring, which is breaking out all over the place — finally!

No matter how selfless they might be — no Northeast-Wisconsinite need feel guilty for enjoying the warm up and the sunshine. (Those chilly spring showers will keep the spirit from soaring too far out of control.)

It's time to air out the house and get yourself out of doors. Flowers are blooming. Daylight hours are growing gloriously longer on both ends. And that delightful spring smell is in the air — even out here in farm country.

As fishermen get set to hit the waterways the first Saturday in May, Packers fans will have had a week to digest the most-recent additions to the huddle.

For fans of horse racing it's Christmastime, relatively speaking — the Kentucky Derby awaits and Triple Crown season is underway.

Packers Add a … “Good Football Player"!

This piece is written just after Packers' GM Ted Thompson pre-draft press conference and the NFL's release of its 2017 schedule — a week before the draft itself.

As for this coming season's schedule, the NFL likes our Packers and the schedule puts them toe to toe with the rest of the league's elite. Excellent contests are on tap with the Seahawks, Falcons, Cowboys and Steelers in weeks 1, 2, 5 and 12, respectively — as well as the usual slate of head-on clashes with the Vikings, Lions and Bears. Just five Packers games are at noon.

As for the draft? Let's start with the caveat that every “expert" prognosticator who ever created a “mock" draft must explain how they could be so damned wrong before they launch into next year's forecast like a TV weatherperson. There, that's off the chest.

Now, it's hard to argue with the overall success of Packers General Manager Ted Thompson — though many do and more might as the Packers continue under his direction sans one or more additional Super Bowl titles.

Since taking office as Packers' GM on January 14, 2005, Thompson has posted one of the better resumes in the NFL. Like every resume — there are the raw-stuff and the shined-up versions.

To be sure, the Packers rank fifth out of the thirty-two NFL teams in total wins since 2005. They've won the NFC North Title six times and gone to the playoffs all but three years under Thompson's tenure.

Demonstrating Ted's prowess in assembling a team and its impact when that team does get to the Super Bowl, 49 of the 53 players in the Super Bowl XLV win over Pittsburgh were acquired by Thompson — including 26 through the draft.

Still, there's just that one championship and six fruitless NFL seasons have since passed.

Last year, the Packers made a serious run toward the playoffs despite being declared dead in the water with a 4-6 record. That's when QB Aaron Rodgers said that the Pack could “win out. And they did. Which is exactly why watching an anemic Packers defense laid waste by the Atlanta Falcons was especially tough.

The cerebral Rodgers knows that more needs to be done as he feels his own biological clock ticking. Right after that loss, he averred that the team needed to be “all in" and most saw it as a pitch for Thompson to do more than just “draft and develop" — i.e., acquiring a reasonable compendium of free agents who could put this team back in the title game. Ted's aversion to free agents be damned.

Did Rodger's “all in" comment prompt Ted to pick up the handful of free agents he did? Not likely. Thompson has always been his own man — seemingly impervious to the thoughts of anyone save for his scouting staff.

That's likely why it tickled some that Thompson — referring to his scouting department — told the press, “We spend a lot of time in the dark." Some opined that this was exactly why the Packers defense was so pathetic last season. It certainly fed into the narrative of sports writer Bob McGinn earlier this year when McGinn said that Thompson's insistence on doing things his way was “holding hostage McCarthy and his coaches."

So, here's the only pre-draft prediction this writer will make: Despite everyone else's assessment that this team needs defense … defense … defense, Ted Thompson will take the “best player available" in every one of the team's selections. Perfect — if those players are defenders, especially cornerbacks. Other than that — no one's projection will look anything like the real thing.

“And … They're Off!"

As for Saturday, May 6th's Run for the Roses, no obvious favorite has emerged from this spring's derby preps — making this a wide-open a field.

I will give horse “experts" a little more elbow room than NFL draft prognosticators, only because the best ones tell you why they erred: “Black Stallion drew an inside post and — as a speed horse — it was either blast to the front or hope the racing gods were smiling." “There was no excuse for Fury today; he just didn't have it and ran his worst race since his two-year-old campaign."

The bad news about no clear front-runner? We likely won't see a Triple Crown Winner this year and betting — for the average fan — is as much a crapshoot as ever. In a crowd of twenty horses, this also means that post-position draw, running style and good old-fashioned racing luck play a huge factor in the outcome.

The best part of this time of year for horse fans is the good-natured debate that breaks out around winners and also-rans — especially after the race. Eventually one of them admits, “If my horse had just slowed down a little, he could have won the next race."

This writer usually likes the winner coming out of the Florida Derby in the Kentucky Derby. It's a similar length on dirt at 1 1/8 miles, its hype is akin to the Derby hum — at five weeks prior — it offers the modern racehorse a reasonable layover.

Since 2000, that's made me look like a genius with Nyquist, 2016; Orb, 2013; Big Brown, 2008; Barbaro, 2006; and Monarchos, 2001 — and a bonehead every other year.

This year, it means I like Always Dreaming and I do. In sprints as two-year old, he closed nicely. As a three-year old, his natural speed has served him well while running “routes" of two turns — allowing his jockey-to-date, John Velazquez, to put him in a position near the front and settle in for the ride.

In the Florida Derby, “Dreaming" was jostled heading into the first turn, but recovered and still eked out a five-length win. In the heavy traffic of the Derby, that experience should serve him well and he should find a suitable position near the lead. After that — well, that's why they run the race.

With the Kentucky Derby point system, instituted in 2012, the top twenty horses going in — in order — are an eclectic group of speedsters, stalkers and closers: Girvin, Classic Empire, Gormley, Irap, Irish War Cry, Thunder Snow, Always Dreaming, Gunnevera, Practical Joke, J Boys Echo, State of Honor, Tapwrit, Malagacy, Hence, Fast and Accurate, McCraken, Battle of Midway, Patch, Battalion Runner and Cloud Computing.

A week out, it's anyone's guess as to whether all of these horses load into the starting gate. But whatever twenty horses do lunge forward the instant those automatic doors fly open a bit after 5:30 pm our time, the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" will be underway.

Typically, some horse players will put in more time making their picks than a doctorate candidate does their thesis. Others will do little more than grab a name they like and place a “Win" bet. Either way, the pageantry — including the mint juleps, big hats and red carpet appearances of stars like Aaron Rodgers — make the Kentucky Derby must-see TV.

Oh, and don't forget the Oaks on Friday, May 5 for a real celebration of “Girl Power." There, six fillies standout: Farrell, Miss Sky Walker, Ever So Clever, Sailor's Valentine, Paradise Woods and Salty.

Summer's Just Around the Corner

Between May 1 and June 20, the summer solstice, we will gain another 81 minutes of pure daylight and temps will warm another 16 degrees on average.

In Titletown, it won't be long and the kids will be splashing in the water and patio grills will be working overtime. Bay Beach — still the best bargain in town — will be buzzing. Live music and fireworks will be ubiquitous and area farmer's markets will be display a cornucopia of gorgeous, tasty local produce.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

With its snow tires finally off, 2017 rolls down the highway. Meanwhile, educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to write about all things Titletown from a horse farm west of Green Bay and a cobblestone cottage near Lakewood. He is also working on a reprise performance of “The Vagabond Halfback" stage play for this fall.

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