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Saturday Sports: Horse deaths; suspicious sports betting; NHL upsets

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The Kentucky Derby overshadowed by horse deaths. A college baseball betting scandal. And underdogs rise in the NHL playoffs. Michele Steele of ESPN joins us. Hi there, Michele.

MICHELE STEELE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: It is Kentucky Derby day, but at Churchill Downs, four horses have died in five days. Saffie Joseph Jr., the trainer of two of those horses, Parents Pride and Chasing Artie, has been suspended. Another horse he trained has been scratched from the race. If there's no pattern or suspicion in these deaths, does it just raise the question again if horse racing itself is just too dangerous for the athletes - the horses, I mean?

STEELE: Well, the horses are the athletes...

SIMON: Yes.

STEELE: ...Here, as well, right? Yeah. Four deaths in a short amount of time is concerning. Two did have injuries, one on the turf, one on the dirt track, and they had to be euthanized - and then two horses who essentially collapsed and died right on the spot. You know, experts say those are the ones that that are very, very troubling here because these are not muscle or skeletal injuries that we've seen in the past. And then sometimes, they have to put the horses down. But these are horses suddenly collapsing and dying. And the trainer who was suspended says there wasn't anything unusual in the bloodwork.

You know, Santa Anita had a number of horses die in 2019, Scott, because of an issue with the track, and they ended up having to shut the track down and rip it up. But Churchill Downs is working here with regulators to investigate. They say it's alarming. They say it's unacceptable. And it's really not yet clear what happened. You know, the horses are getting the horse equivalent of autopsies, and the results could take weeks. And we'll see some answers here, but it'll be well after the derby, which, of course, is the biggest event on the calendar for horse racing.

SIMON: I have to ask you about University of Alabama fired their baseball coach, Brad Bohannon, after an investigation into suspicious betting in the team's game against LSU last week. What do we know, and what did they think would happen (laughter) if sports gambling was legalized?

STEELE: It's a little bit of a watershed moment here, right? Last Friday in the game between Alabama and LSU - this was the first game, three-game series. About an hour before the game, the scheduled starting pitcher had some back tightness. He was replaced by a sophomore who hadn't started since mid-March. And around that same time, Scott, an individual in Cincinnati - don't know who yet - at the sportsbook at Great American Ballpark, where the Reds play, placed two bets on LSU to win. Now, both of those bets were flagged by what's called an integrity adviser in Vegas. He alerted the state of Ohio's regulators, and they took Alabama off the board.

Now, Tuesday, I was in touch with Alabama athletics. They told me that they were aware of this. They were gathering information. And 36 hours later, the head coach is out, Brad Bohannon. He was fired. Now, the inference here is that he may have been passing on inside information, which, of course, Scott, we know - it's a big no-no. You know, for all the concern about players maybe throwing games, Bohannon - he's the head coach and makes around half a million dollars a year in that position.

SIMON: Yeah. OK, quickly, NHL playoffs are in full force. Heavy favorites are out. Bruins, the Lightning, the Avalanche. We've got 20 seconds left. Who are you calling there?

STEELE: OK, OK. All right. Really quickly here. You know, the Blackhawks aren't in the postseason. I do pick one team to follow. And this year, I chose the Leafs. They've got some exciting stars, but that's not the team I'm going with. I'm going with the team that they're facing tomorrow night in South Florida, the Florida Panthers.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: They're up 2-0 in the series. The Panthers knocked off the mighty record-breaking Bruins in the first round, winning three games in a row to take the series. Matthew Tkachuk cannot be denied. He's in his first season with the Panthers. They're playing with so much energy, Scott. I'm going to be watching them tomorrow night in South Florida.

SIMON: Michelle Steele, thanks so much.

STEELE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.