For Eddie Olczyk, Kentucky Derby is 'the best medicine I've had in a long time'

Churchill Downs should not be confused with Lourdes, Sloan Kettering, the Mayo Clinic or Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Blackhawks and NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olczyk nevertheless has found restorative powers in the racetrack’s annual rite of spring and rebirth.

Olczyk will be on hand for NBC’s coverage of the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, just as he promised himself he would while enduring the taxing regimen of cancer treatments he recently completed.

“I would like to just say that this has been the best medicine I’ve had in a long time, getting back to hockey and horse racing after my battle with Stage 3 colon cancer,” Olczyk, taking a break from Stanley Cup playoffs commentary this week, told reporters.

“This was one of the target dates I put on my calendar back in early September. I was going to do everything in my power to be back and be part of our horse racing family, and I'd just like to thank them for all their support over the course of the last seven months.”

For most, the Derby may get their hearts pumping a little faster for a short while.

For Olczyk, who reported a clean bill of health from his doctors in March, it goes beyond that and even beyond a return to his regular schedule, one not interrupted by hospital visits and the debilitating discomfort that followed. It helps to know how invested Olczyk is in handicapping races when he’s not prepping hockey commentary.

What began as a hobby morphed into so much more for the Chicago-area youth hockey star and teen Olympian, who segued into a 16-year NHL playing career and brief coaching career before reaching television. Handicapping has become a lucrative sidelight in addition to providing another opportunity for TV work.

Olczyk has become adept at wagering on races, whether identifying long-shot winners or which horses to team with a favorite in exacta, trifecta and other combination bets.

“There is a lot of value in this race,” Olczyk said of the Kentucky Derby. “Even if the favorite wins or hits the board, still there's going to be great opportunity because it is such a wide-open race. … We'll have lots of opportunity. I don't think you're going to have to invest a heck of a lot in order to be able to have a real successful day.”

Trainer Bob Baffert’s Justify looks to be the favorite. Justify is undefeated but inexperienced as well, and it’s not clear how big a favorite he will be, sentiment that will affect odds for the remainder of the field.

“Where is the rest of the money going to go?” Olczyk said. “You could have maybe the sixth or seventh choice be somewhere in that 12- or 15-to-1 range, and we have a 20-horse field.”

One of those long shots may be My Boy Jack, which Olczyk said is “one horse I'll use that will probably have a pretty good chance at being somewhere in that 15- to 20-to-1 range, maybe even more than that.” My Boy Jack, he said, “just always fights so hard to be able to pick up the pieces and get a piece of it.”

Olczyk, feeling whole again or at least close to it, no doubt can relate.

Changing channels: Peter King is leaving Sports Illustrated, taking his multimedia work to NBC Sports Group. … The Vegas Stats & Information Network has cut a deal to provide gambling reports for WSCR-AM 670 during Danny Parkins’ and Dan McNeil's weekday afternoon program. … The problem with NBC Sports Chicago’s Sammy Sosa interview isn’t necessarily what Sosa said. Whoever talks to him next, please try a simple, straightforward “Are you ready to come clean about PED use?”

philrosenthal@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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