NBC’s NHL Stanley Cup Final analyst told Bob Costas on the network’s Belmont Stakes pre-race show Saturday afternoon, about an hour before the last leg of the Triple Crown was to be run, that California Chrome wouldn’t be making any history.
“For me, I like Wicked Strong,” Olczyk said. “He can sit behind California Chrome and beat him to the punch the last eight of a mile a win.”
Well, not so much.
Wicked Strong and California Chrome finished in a dead heat. For fourth place.
Then again, the decision to add the long-time horse-savvy Olczyk as part of the NBC crossover buildup to the race for his handicapping know-how wasn’t such a bad idea. Even if the one-time Kings player and a member of the last Rangers’ team to win a Stanley Cup had enough in front of him back at Staples Center preparing for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final broadcast that would be coming on just minutes after the race post-game show ended.
Olczyk’s years of involvement in thoroughbred racing as a full- and part-owner of many horses reaches back to his days as a kid growing up at Arlington Race Track near Chicago, where he currently has a philly named Lavender Patch on his watch. He has said he’s cherished his short but sweet time in Los Angeles in 1996 in part because of his access to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.
After all, it was a Friday night race card at the now defunct Inglewood track that allowed Olczyk to cash a $497,000 winning Pick 6 ticket in 2003. He told the New York Times recently that he was flying back to Chicago from Las Vegas his flight was delayed. He had been handicapping races all afternoon, got his bet down through an Xpressbet account while on the runway at O’Hare, asked his son to record the races on the family DVR and he watched them once he got home.
And it was Costas who introduced Olczyk to Saturday’s Belmont pre-race coverage as someone who “hit the trifecta at the Preakness” a few weeks earlier.
Olczyk made sure he watched from a TV monitor how the Belmont played out – another of his pre-race favorites, Tonalist, eventually prevail – but he said he couldn’t hear the audio of what California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was telling NBC reporter Kenny Rice in an interview that eventually blew up on social media.
Coburn said he thought the ownership group for Tonalist was taking a “coward’s way out” in competing in the last leg of the Triple Crown after skipping the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, giving him fresh legs over several who were much more taxed over the last five weeks.
Olczyk said he figured out what was going by all the texts he was getting from friends filling him on the story as the Kings-Rangers game started.
“If you have to win gracefully you should have to face defeat the same way, and that’s something I live by and try to preach,” Olczyk said of Coburn’s remarks while rushing out of Staples Center to catch his red-eye flight to New York after the Kings’ 5-4 win in the second overtime.
“I understand the emotions of the moment. This is the sport at the highest level. But you do show your true colors not when things are great for you but by when you’re down and how you lose and react.”
Asked if he may agree with Coburn’s argument about how horses that only qualify for the Kentucky Derby should be allowed to run in all the following Triple Crown races, Olczyk added: “We haven’t done that in the past and it’s not part of the rules. You can’t have it both ways.
“I think he needs to sit and take a breather. This is just how the game is. It’s sad and disappointing that what happened takes away from the unbelievable run California Chrome has had, and all the positive momentum that (trainer) Art Sherman has given to the game. I know it’s emotional. I do think people make mistakes. Hopefully, we all learn from that.”
What Olczyk, working his eighth Stanley Cup Final for NBC, has learned from watching the Kings wicked strong performance in claiming the first two games of this championship series is that his prediction of an L.A. title clinched in six games might have been overestimating the team’s resiliency.
NBC studio analyst Keith Jones went so far as to say during the intermission between the first and second overtime that if the Rangers didn’t eventually win Game 2, the series wasn’t coming back to L.A.
“I’m sticking to the Kings in six,” said the 47-year-old Olczyk, a former roommate of Kings coach Darryl Sutter when the two played in Chicago in the mid 1990s. “I’ve had a good couple of days at Santa Anita (while in L.A. for the Stanley Cup Final), and a good day in the races I played today (at Belmont), and a true horseman stays with his original decision.”