Losers No More

Racing in its several guises--equine, human, automotive--produced some of the most thrilling moments in sports last year. NASCAR cover boy Jeff Gordon, only 27, won thirteen races (tying Richard Petty's 1975 record) to run away with his third series championship in the last four years--despite the usual sour-grapes complaints that his pit crew was cheating. From the start of the Formula One season, Mika Hakkinen and his new McLaren-Mercedes looked unbeatable, but the swift Finn didn't wrest the title away from brilliant Michael Schumacher and his blood-red Ferrari until the last race of the year, when Schumey was sent to the back of the grid after his engine stalled, delaying the start. The Indianapolis 500--remember Indianapolis, where the best drivers and fastest cars used to compete?--was won by long-suffering Eddie Cheever, with nary an Andretti nor an Unser within, well, 500 miles of the place. Tragedy also struck auto racing: On July 26, during the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, Alex Fernandez crashed into a wall at high speed, and a wheel torn loose from his car flew over a catch fence, killing three spectators and injuring six.

At Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, trainer Bob Baffert won the Kentucky Derby for the second straight year with a widely disrespected, 8-1 longshot named Real Quiet. Real Quiet took the Preakness, too, but Baffert failed to win the first Triple Crown in twenty years when Victory Gallop, the runner-up in the Derby and Preakness, beat Real Quiet by a nose in the Belmont Stakes. Talk about racing irony: Jockey Gary Stevens rode Victory Gallop in the Belmont; in 1997, he piloted Baffert's Silver Charm to wins in the Derby and Preakness, only to lose the Belmont.

The happiest man in horse racing, more or less, has to be Denver's Barry Fey, the former rock promoter. Last spring he bought 60 percent of a gelding named Reraise, hoping he was as fast as rumored. In November, Reraise won the million-dollar Breeders Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs going away and appears headed for even bigger things in 1999.

In September, one of the world's greatest human sprinters, Florence Griffith-Joyner, died in her sleep at age 38; by contrast, the world's fastest woman, former North Carolina basketball star Marion Jones, continues turning her opponents around the world into snails. In local track and field news, the Bolder Boulder road race came under fire over the summer for alleged discrimination against the world-beating Kenyans, who have dominated the event: Organizers say their new entrance rules are an attempt to build up the sport for Americans.

In Salt Lake City an Olympic bribery scandal continues to unfold. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers and their fans hope pitcher Kevin Brown is worth $100 million. In New York, fans mourn the deaths of former Jets coach Weeb Ewbank and retired Knicks coach Red Holzman. The world prays that Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, can continue his heroic fight against lung cancer. And on the ropes of life, even promoter Don King must be relieved that, last June, boxer Christy Martin's upcoming bout was abruptly canceled: Martin's opponent, it turns out, was five months pregnant.

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