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Female feline

Sports | Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa has already captured LPGA player of the year honors twice

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

The comparisons to Tiger Woods are unavoidable-and hardly a stretch. Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa, 26, has already captured LPGA player of the year honors in 2006 with six victories and 2007 with eight victories. She is a near lock for the award again in 2008, collecting wins like bananas-that is, in bunches.

But for all that success, Ochoa appears refreshingly unimpressed with herself. She is wont to follow dominating performances with praise for her opponents and dips in nearby water hazards. That show of personality has endeared her to fellow Mexicans, who selected her Mexican of the Year in 2007 over President Felipe Calderón.

The award had as much to do with strokes of philanthropy as it did the golf ball. Ochoa's Catholic foundation operates an elementary school and plans to build a high school in an impoverished area outside Guadalajara. The world's No. 1 female golfer often drops by to play basketball with students during recess.

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Ochoa's Christian faith is no less evident on tour, where church and Bible studies are staples of her routine. She has always maintained that family life will trump golf one day, allowing time for her legacy off the course to meet or surpass her accomplishments on it. That's a tall order.

Off track

Some 150,000 fans packed out Churchill Downs May 3 while another 12-15 million tuned in on television for the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby. But even as horseracing's premier event remains an epic draw, industry leaders harbor concerns over the sport's apparent dip in cultural traction throughout the United States.

Most every significant indicator of commercial health has leveled off or decreased in recent years: On-track betting has fallen 43 percent over the past decade; and off-track wagers are down 2 percent in the last fives years, hardly a modest decline when adjusted for inflation and considered against the backdrop of a rising online culture.

Attendance has likewise dropped precipitously: The New York Racing Association attracted almost 4 million spectators to its three tracks in 1990 but drew just 1.8 million last year. Many tracks throughout the country have long since stopped recording attendance figures due to unreliable data, but anecdotal evidence of waning fan participation is rampant nationwide.

Reasons for such shrinking interest range from marketing shortcomings to a lack of television coverage to the limited star power of jockeys and horses. But the central impetus behind horseracing's slide from prominence could well lie in the proliferation of gambling. Fifty years ago, the track offered the only game in town. Now, state lotteries cull millions of betting dollars, casinos dot strip malls across America, and online bookies and gaming sites offer the chance to gamble on every sport, game, or activity conceivable.

Recognizing that alternative forms of gambling rather than other sports make up horseracing's primary competition, many tracks have installed slot machines to attract new clientele. But some industry analysts worry that lever-pulling gamblers will never cross over to the more complicated action of a Pick Six or superfecta. For many Americans equine majesty can't compare with flashing lights and falling fruit.

Not enough Heat

In the wake of a 15-67 season, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley announced his retirement from coaching-for the second time in his 24-year career. Riley made a similar exit five years ago but returned to the bench in the 2005-06 season to capture the fifth NBA championship of his coaching career. Whether this departure sticks for good could turn on just how long the Heat takes to rebuild. With 1,210 career victories to just 694 defeats, Riley is unlikely to return to a loser.

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