Some sports stars weren't always stars. Some of the biggest names -- John Unitas, Bart Starr, Larry Bird -- took time to develop.
It's the same in horse racing: Some jockeys and trainers who learn and improve can become standouts.
It's what has happened with Mike Luzzi. He won the Eclipse Award in 1989 as the nation's top apprentice, but there was little evidence to suggest that he would become Maryland's leading rider after losing the bug.
Yet, with just two days remaining in the marathon Laurel Race Course fall/winter meet, Luzzi is the clear winner in the jockeys' race. Through Friday, the 21-year-old Delaware native had 146 winners, 26 more than runner-up Edgar Prado.
When Luzzi lost his apprenticeship, he repeatedly said his goal was simply to "become one of the leading riders in Maryland." He knew the leading rider probably was not going to be him.
"I wanted to keep improving in every aspect of riding," said Luzzi. "After riding so many races, it's coming naturally now. I'm always looking for the right place to be and how to pace my horse."
Luzzi's championship is a testament to what desire, maturity and experience can do for an undeveloped talent.
There are two entities that keep racing afloat: horseplayers and horse owners. So when owner Victor DiVivo took Colonel Hill from trainer Howard Wolfendale last week and shipped him to Leroy Jolley's New York base, the move was his prerogative and within his rights.
Given his history, DiVivo's switch surprised no one. In the past six years, he has hired and fired trainers John DiNatale, Ron Alfano, Carlos Garcia and Wolfendale. The balance of his stable is now at the Bowie training center with Dale Capuano.
As for Colonel Hill, DiVivo -- a wealthy restaurateur with an ego to match his bankroll -- could be cutting off his nose to spite his face. Wolfendale had done a terrific job with Colonel Hill, getting him to win two stakes from five starts. In New York, the colt won't be able to race on the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, nor will he be able to run in Maryland-bred races.
Of course, DiVivo always can order Jolley to ship Colonel Hill back to run in Maryland.
In the press boxes at Pimlico and Laurel, differences of opinion are easily found. But there's a consensus on at least one thing: Eddie McMullen will be missed.
After 29 years, McMullen is retiring from his unofficial capacity as press box steward. Since forgoing a career as a jockey and trainer, McMullen has been the right-hand man of virtually every writer to work regularly at the tracks.
D8 A fond farewell, Mr. Eddie, from all of "your boys."
California update: Everyone boosting Excavate for the Kentucky Derby . . . never mind.
The colt was drubbed by nearly 12 lengths in last Sunday's San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. Jose Santos, who rode him, said the colt "can't run."
Meanwhile, Santos, who rides Derby favorite Fly So Free, is surprisingly high on his California backup. He rides Split Run, easy winner of both career starts.
"It would be a tough choice on who to ride if Split Run and Fly So Free were in the same race," Santos told the Thoroughbred Times. "Split Run hasn't beaten anybody, but he's been so
Santa Anita has announced an April 14 match race, the first in its history.
Sunny Blossom, a top thoroughbred sprinter, will race four furlongs against Griswold, a champion quarter horse.
The $100,000 winner-take-all event is subject to approval by the California Horse Racing Board.
Eddie Gregson, trainer of Sunny Blossom, is eager to participate. "Racing has got to try to get more creative," he said.