Horse Racing

Young's Okafor rounding into form

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Young's Okafor rounding into form

How good is Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 sophomore center?

"He is the second best prospect in Illinois regardless of class behind (Simeon's) Jabari Parker," said Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"Actually, the gap between them is not all that great. Like Parker, Okafor is a certain one-and-done player in college and has a great chance to be a future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. We have not seen a current high school post player who is any better."

With 6-foot-9 junior Tommy Hamilton recovering from surgery to repair a torn patella and sidelined for at least four more weeks and 6-foot-9 sophomore Paul White still recovering from an injury and not performing up to expectations, the burden is on Okafor to carry the Dolphins as far as he can take them. And his shoulders are proving to be very strong indeed.

"When I look at today's game, there aren't any guys who want to play with their back to the basket and go into the post," said Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. "(Okafor) wants to be a pure post player. He isn't interested in shooting from the outside. He wants to play with his back to the basket. He is a player that one man can't defend.

"Remember, he is only 16. He has established a great body of work at a young age. He has a great upside. He will impact the high school game in ways no other player has in this state. After four years, we will say he not only is a great offensive player but a complete all-around player."

"Okafor is consistently dominant in the paint and is impossible to move on the block," Roy Schmidt said. "He simply overpowers all of his competition. He is already more advanced and has more maturity than most centers at the college level. There is no question that the sky is the limit."

After observing Okafor for the first time at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina -- he had 23 points and seven rebounds in the first half of one game -- longtime recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports was impressed. But he still had some reservations.

"He is very advanced offensively for a young player. He is strong, big, rebounds and does it all," Gibbons said. "But he isn't a great athlete. He has size and strength and uses it well for a sophomore. But I don't know if he'll be one of the all-time greats."

Another longtime recruiting analyst, Dave Telep of ESPN, described Okafor as "the next Jared Sullinger," comparing him favorably to the Ohio State star who is a leading candidate for National Player of the Year recognition in 2012.

Slaughter believes Okafor could emerge as the best big man ever produced in Illinois, better than NBA lottery pick Eddy Curry of Thornwood and Rashard Griffith of King. "Curry and Griffith were not at his level of offense at the same time in their development," Slaughter said.

At the moment, however, Okafor is all about potential. He is a 16-year-old sophomore who isn't in the best of shape, doesn't run the floor well, hasn't learned to face the basket and must develop in several areas in the next two years before he can be compared to 6-10 Russell Cross, the former Manley star who probably was the most dominating and intimidating big man ever produced in Illinois.

Cross was an All-Stater in 1979 and 1980. He led Manley to the state quarterfinals in 1979 and to the state championship in 1980. He starred for three years at Purdue, then opted for the NBA and was the sixth overall pick in the 1983 draft by the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered in high school that never fully healed eventually limited his NBA career to only one season.

The state has never produced another player like Cross, before or since. He was tall, long, mobile and agile, a great rebounder and shot blocker and defender, a high school version of Bill Russell without any exaggeration. At this time, Okafor doesn't resemble Cross in any way, shape for form.

"(Okafor) has become a better rebounder this year," Slaughter said. "Defense will come with more work. And better conditioning, too. Will he be the defensive player that Cross was? Will he be as good as Anthony Davis (the Kentucky freshman from Chicago Perspective)? I believe in the next two years he will be a phenomenal defensive player."

In fairness, Okafor and his Whitney Young team are competing against what is arguably the toughest schedule of any high school in the country. The brand of competition can't help but to improve his skills, bolster his motivation and inspire his resolve.

Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Okafor as the No. 2 player in the class of 2014 behind 6-foot-7 Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian-born wingman who attends a prep school in Huntington, West Virginia.

Okafor claims his recruiting is wide open, that he isn't close to making a decision, that he is enjoying the process and plans to take full advantage of his opportunities to evaluate colleges, their coaches and programs and campuses. He already has made unofficial visits to several schools, including Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State and Illinois.

He has several scholarship offers from major Division I schools but his father denies a published report that his son is "most impressed" with Arizona, Duke, Illinois and Michigan State. It is much too early, his father insists, to disregard Ohio State, Georgetown, Connecticut, Iowa, Arkansas, Purdue, Tennessee, Missouri and DePaul.

And what about four perennial national powers that are on his wish list but haven't offered scholarships yet--Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse? Each has talked to Slaughter and expressed interest in recruiting Okafor.

Look for Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse to leap into the Okafor sweepstakes. Each has talked to his coach and expressed interest in recruiting him. But they haven't offered yet. Okafor did make an unofficial visit to the North Carolina campus.

Okafor also has talked to Kentucky freshman star Anthony Davis and would like to be in a position to consider Kentucky. "I'm a big fan of Kentucky. I really like what they have to offer. But I haven't heard from them," he said. However, some critics doubt Okafor could be effective in the dribble-drive offense that coach John Calipari employs.

What else do you need to know about Okafor?

He is a distant cousin of Emeka Okafor, the former Connecticut star and 2004 Olympian who currently plays for the New Orleans Hornets in the NBA.

He was a member of the gold medal-winning USA Under-16 national team that won the FIBA Americas championship and qualified for the Under-17 FIBA world championship in 2012.

He plays the tuba.

His favorite basketball announcer is Dick Vitale.

Well, nobody said he was perfect.

There's no rainouts in horse racing

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There's no rainouts in horse racing

It is playoff time here in Chicago. The hometown Cubs are back to their third consecutive NLCS. The Bears have played in gorgeous weather to open their season. The Bulls and Hawks get optimal conditions indoors. In racing, this isn’t always the case and last Saturday was one of those instances. 

After nearly two months of drought conditions in the Chicagoland area, racing at Hawthorne Race Course to close out the summer harness season was optimal. While the sprinklers were used constantly to keep the turf course green, the pond at Hawthorne had nearly dried up.

All of that came to an end last week at Hawthorne as Mother Nature was not quite as generous to open October. With the fall thoroughbred season commencing, the skies opened as well, with rain falling on numerous occasions to kick off the season. That was clearly the case last Saturday, when over five inches of rain came down during the course of the Hawthorne racing card.

In baseball, there would be a rain delay or cancellation. Youth sports teams get the day off. Outdoor attractions closed as flooding was prevalent in numerous locations. Here at Hawthorne…..we race.

At any racetrack, the equine stars are the showcase, but there are so many others necessary to put on the show. The folks brave the conditions and have to be well prepared.

Five stories above the racetrack, Hawthorne track announcer Peter Galassi provides the play-by-play for the racing action. With over 65,000 races called on his career, Peter has seen it all.

“I’ve called races in every weather condition possible and what we raced in Saturday was one of the tougher conditions to call in,” Galassi said. “When I announced races at Balmoral Park, fog would be my biggest concern. Fog was the worst. We had an occasion where myself, and our track stewards had to go from our location on the roof down to trackside for a race because the fog was so bad. We had to get below the fog to get a vantage point. Here at Hawthorne, dealing with the rain, especially at the rate it came down last Saturday, is very tough. Consider the windows of my announcer’s booth being the windshield of a car, but without window wipers. Streaks of water rolling down the panes of glass in your direct view. Add to that the glare of the lights off the glistening racetrack and thoroughbreds and riders covered in mud. It isn’t always the easiest, but what these athletes deal with on the track and in those conditions are far worse than what I am subjected to.”

Moving trackside, the race begins at the Hawthorne starting gate. Veteran assistant starter Bill Fultz and crew are responsible for safely loading the horses into the gate and keeping the horses calm in preparation for a fair start. While the job is complicated and dangerous on a clear day, the focus needed on a day where the weather conditions are menacing only increase.

“When the weather is tough and we are dealing with rain or snow, additional clothing and gear for our crew is needed,” Fultz said. “This is a physically demanding job as we are in the mud, working with horses, making sure they are safe, while also focusing on our safety. Fortunately we have an experienced crew that takes a lot of pride in their job and I feel it shows in the horses’ clean starts and performances.”

On horseback, the jockeys are limited in numerous aspects. On a good day, a rider has to not only worry about maintaining their weight, but also controlling a 1,000 lbs. thoroughbred, racing at 35 MPH, while balancing on a pair of two inch wide metal stirrups. In harsh weather conditions, limited additional clothing is allowed as the jockeys goggles become one of the most important pairs of equipment. Last Saturday was a good day for Hawthorne’s second all-time leading rider Chris Emigh as he won a pair of races in the monsoon.

“I figure you can either go out there and be miserable or go out there and have fun,” said the affable Emigh. “A lot of dirt and water gets thrown back at you and you just have to find a good spot in between the sprays of water and mud. Goggles are the key, a normal race I may have three pairs on, but on Saturday that amount doubles. We are controlling our mount, keeping balance, and trying to flip down to a clean pair of goggles numerous times each race. I get concerned when I come to that last pair and still have a quarter of a mile to go. When that happens, we just focus on what visibility we have and your finger becomes your window wiper.”

As all of the action takes place, cameramen positioned in towers around the track televise the action. Positioned at the finish line are Ryan Thompson and Nicole Thomas, the track photographers for Four Footed Fotos that work tirelessly to capture the Hawthorne action. When others may choose to wait until the last minute to capture to winner on the finish line, Ryan and Nicole take the weather as an opportunity to capture great images.

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

"NOT IN OUR HOUSE!" a Cubs coach yelled as he walked through the media throng awaiting entry into the clubhouse.

There was Kyle Schwarber standing at his locker, emphatically saying, "we're not gonna go down quietly."

There was Jake Arrieta, already making plans for what he would do to celebrate after the Cubs beat the Dodgers in the NLCS.

What a difference a day makes.

The Cubs looked completely beat and worn down after Game 3 Tuesday night. Kris Bryant echoed the same line — "why not us?" — he delivered last fall when the Cubs were down three games to one in the World Series, but this time, it just didn't feel the same.

Bryant looked shellshocked and admitted the team was drained after the NLDS and traveling across country to get steamrolled by the Dodgers in the first two games of the NLCS.

Wednesday night, things were different.

Even though the offense still hasn't broken out. 

Even though all the Cubs' runs still came off early homers — they have yet to score in this series not off a longball.

Even though Wade Davis is unavailable for Game 5 Thursday — the Cubs haven't won a game this postseason in which Davis did not pitch.

Even though the best pitcher on the planet — Clayton Kershaw — awaited the Cubs Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

The belief was back in the home clubhouse at Wrigley, even if it was just for one day.

But was it just for one day? 

I've been saying it all fall — the only time this Cubs team has played up to their potential is when they've had their backs against the wall. Your back couldn't possibly get more against the wall when down 0-3 in the NLCS, a deficit only one team in baseball history has come back from.

Conceivably, yes, the Cubs can pull this off. They can climb all the way out of this hole and make a second straight World Series.

If any team can do it, it's the group that erased the longest championship drought in American sports history and did it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Will the Cubs be able to pull it off? 

I have no idea, honestly. I know that's a cop-out, but screw predictions at this point of the postseason. 

There's a very real possibility the Cubs offense finally breaks out and takes one more step toward writing this team's entry into the baseball history books.

There's also a very real possibility Kershaw comes out and slams the door on any talk of Cubs magic and finally pitches his way into the World Series for the first time.

Either way, the build-up to Thurday night around Wrigleyville is gonna be fun as hell.