National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

California swag: Easy to dream on 2014 Kentucky Derby champion

(By Joe Posnanski, NBCSports.com)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every year, more or less, the Triple Crown talk begins about nine seconds after the Kentucky Derby ends. The Triple Crown in horse racing has been an annual obsession for a long, long time. But the Triple Crown talk will be louder this year, much louder.

Horse racing -- like golf and boxing -- hungers for a bright star at the center.

And Saturday, on a late Kentucky afternoon so perfect you could almost step back in time, an impossible dream of a horse named California Chrome took the lead into the stretch, pulled away, won the Derby and put horse racing at the heart of American sports again ... at least until the Preakness in two weeks.

The California Chrome story is so absurdly good that it triggers an odd emotion in sportswriters. We spend our days and nights and weekends trying to wring the last drop of delight or curiosity out of players who spew clichés and coaches who barely hide their contempt and games that barely have even a whiff of drama. We do this continually and then, every now and again, we get a quotable character or a truly heartwarming story or a thrilling game, and these feel like small miracles.

So, what is there to do with Chrome -- a horse with TOO MANY good stories? What do you do when you have a Kentucky Derby winner that somehow emerged from a $10,500 investment ($8,000 for the mother; a $2,500 breeding fee for the sire)?

What do you do with horse owners and breeders who named their partnership Dumb-Ass Partners because it was built around a mare that a groom said only a dumb ass would buy?

What do you do when the horse is trained by a kindly little 77-year-old man (now the oldest to ever win the Kentucky Derby, of course) who had only been to the Derby once, almost 60 years ago, when he was the guy responsible for cleaning up after a Derby winner called Swaps?

What do you write when everything around you -- absolutely everything-- is magical and impossible and, in the truest sense of the word, unbelievable?

“I’m sorry,” jockey Victor Espinoza is saying after he breaks down crying. He is not crying over winning his second Derby. He is crying thinking about the young cancer victims it will help ... Espinoza gives 10 percent of his earnings to City of Hope, a cancer treatment center in Los Angeles.

OK, hold on, jockey helping kids with cancer, let me write this down here ...

“If I shed a tear, just bear with me,” co-owner Steve Coburn is saying, “This colt was born on February 18, on my sister Brenda’s birthday. She died of cancer at age 36. It will be 36 years this year since there’s been a Triple Crown winner.”

No, wait, stop for a second ...

“Yeah, I went over there and said a little prayer,” the trainer, Art Sherman, is saying -- he is talking about visiting the grave of his old friend Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner. Swaps is buried here at Churchill Downs. “He was a super horse. Swaps. Six world records at one time. I said, ‘Hey, let me have half your talent, put it into Chrome. I’ll be the happiest guy in the world.'”

No. That’s it. Stop. Horse prayers? Numerology? Racing for sick children? It’s too good. It’s too much. Can they give some of these amazing and heartening stories to the New England Patriots? To Tiger Woods? To anyone in college sports? Horse racing fans talk all the time of the need for a superstar horse to capture the nation’s attention, but there is enough in California Chrome for TEN superstar horses.

“He’s the rock star,” Sherman is saying. “I’m just the manager.”

So, let’s go over it one more time. Coburn and his partner Perry Martin bought a losing mare named Love the Chase for eight grand. She may have loved the chase, but she did not ever actually catch anybody; the sellers were more than happy to dump her on Coburn and Martin for $8,000. Then they bred her with Lucky Pulpit, a sire few had much use for either.

Three weeks before California Chrome was born, Coburn had a dream ... and in his dream he saw a beautiful chestnut colt. He described the dream horse to his wife, Carolyn. One day after Chrome was born, they went to see him and he looked exactly like the description. “Look,” Carolyn said. ‘There’s your dream.”

So they gave him to Art Sherman, a former jockey from Brooklyn who moved out West to be around horses and has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse.

“He was always easy to train,” Sherman would say in his understated way.

“I knew he was special,” Coburn would say in his overstated way.

After a few early races, Sherman asked Espinoza to ride Chrome. The connection was immediate. First time out, Hollywood Park, Chrome put on this late charge that put chills in spines. Next time out, he won by five lengths. Next time out, he led wire-to-wire at the San Felipe … the same race that launched Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner.

And then he won at Santa Anita by five lengths and he was the Kentucky Derby favorite and this crazy story went national. All week, people didn’t believe it. Trainers and various horse people grumbled that California horses fade on the Kentucky Derby. They predicated the bubble would burst. In a way, you couldn’t blame them. Stories this good NEVER pan out.

Only there was California Chrome on Saturday, and Derby observers found themselves struggling to remember the last time a horse so thoroughly dominated the race. It wasn’t the margin of victory -- the 1 3/4 margin was hardly historic -- but it seemed obvious more or less from the first turn that Chrome was going to win. He worked to the lead without exerting any energy at all ... Espinoza found himself pulling Chrome back. There was a brief instant when Espinoza found himself boxed in, but the instant passed and, as Espinoza says, “I knew he would win at the three-eighths poll … it was just so smooth. Turning for home, I let it go. That was it.”

“I was riding those last 70 yards with Victor,” Sherman said.

“Do you think you’ve changed your life?” Sherman was asked Saturday.

“I’m just the same old Art Sherman, you know,” he said. “Except I won the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby is so unpredictable; that has been so much of its charm and wonder. It has to be unpredictable when you sent 20 or so horses out there for their first mile-and-a-quarter race in front of 160,000 people dressed in suits, hats and mint juleps. California Chrome made it look routine. You got the sense when it ended that if that ran this race 10 times, Chrome would win eight or nine of them.

And that’s what will send the Triple Crown talk volume to 11. Chrome looked like a super horse on Saturday. He looked entirely in control.

Of course, Coburn  had something to say about it -- the guy can’t HELP but be quotable: “I said, ‘When this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown. ... I told people this colt will go down in history. When he wins the Triple Crown, he will be the first California-bred to ever win a Triple Crown. That’s where we’re going.”

When someone asked Sherman how he felt about his boss predicting the Triple Crown, he just smiled. “The man has a dream,” he said.

So here we are, two weeks from the Preakness. The last Triple Crown was in 1978; that was Affirmed. In the years since then there have been 12 horses go to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown and miss. Spectacular Bid couldn’t put together a spectacular bid. Sunday Silence was silent. Silver Charm lost, Real Quiet lost, War Emblem (with Espinoza on board) barely showed up, Smarty Jones couldn’t quite hold on, Big Brown couldn’t even finish.

Each time along the way there was an excited nation of sports fans thinking, “This time.” Each time the American sports fans cared about horse racing like it was a time gone by. California Chrome looked good enough Saturday to take America on another ride. Will it happen this time? It’s like Art Sherman said. The man has a dream.

Clippers hold off Warriors 126-121 to win Game 7

LOS ANGELES (AP) Blake Griffin scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 22 points and 14 assists, and the Los Angeles Clippers outlasted the Golden State Warriors 126-121 in Game 7 on Saturday night to win their thrilling first-round playoff series.

Jamal Crawford scored 22 points for the third-seeded Clippers, who won just the franchise's third playoff series in 38 years after persevering through two tumultuous weeks for their franchise.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA on Tuesday after a recording of racist comments by the 80-year-old billionaire was made public last week.

Los Angeles advanced to a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who eliminated Memphis earlier Saturday.

Stephen Curry had 33 points and nine assists for the Warriors, who blew a late lead in Game 7.

California Chrome breaks away for Derby win

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) A horse with a humble pedigree. A couple of working stiff owners. A 77-year-old trainer with his first Kentucky Derby horse.

Even Hollywood couldn't have made this up.

California Chrome made it look easy on Saturday, pulling away down the stretch to win the Derby by 1 3/4 lengths.

In a sport dominated by wealthy owners and regally bred horses from Kentucky's bluegrass country, this was a victory for the little guys. Owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn bred an $8,000 mare to a $2,500 stallion to produce the winner of the world's most famous race with their one-horse stable.

"This is just a dream come true and a great birthday present,"' said Coburn, who turned 61 on Saturday.

California Chrome ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.66 and paid $7, $5.60 and $4.20. The chestnut colt was sent off as the 5-2 favorite by the crowd of 164,906, the second-largest in the Derby's 140-year history.

His trainer, Art Sherman, became the oldest trainer to win the Derby, 59 years after he traveled from California as an exercise rider for Derby winner Swaps. He watched that race from the barn area; this time he smelled red roses in the winner's circle.

Sherman was all smiles after the race. "He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life," he said.

California Chrome has the unlikeliest pedigree for a Derby champion. His mother, named Love the Chase, won just one race. She was purchased by Coburn and Martin, a move that prompted a trainer to call them "dumb asses" for getting involved in racing.

Feeling inspired, they named their operation DAP Racing, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. Their silks include an image of a donkey.

Coburn lives near Reno, Nevada, rising at 4:30 a.m. for his job as a press operator at a 13-employee company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and driver licenses.

Martin lives on the California side of the border near Reno, running a laboratory that tests high-reliability equipment, like car air bags and medical equipment.

Coburn and Martin's partnership is based on a handshake, and their wives are friends who enjoy the sport, too. The group came up with California Chrome's name by drawing it out of a hat. The horse hadn't even been out of his home state until this week.

"Sometimes you don't get a lot of respect," Sherman said. "We're in Kentucky and you know most of the Derby winners are bred here and few outside of Kentucky."

Sherman visited Swaps' grave near the Derby museum earlier in the week and whispered a prayer: "I hope he's another Swaps."

He sure was.

California Chrome extended his winning streak to five races, won by a combined 26 lengths. It was the second Derby win for Espinoza, who rode War Emblem to victory in 2002.

"I thought he rode him perfect," said Sherman, a former jockey. "I was riding the last 70 yards with Victor, so I think he was riding two. He had a lot of weight on him, I can tell you that."

Espinoza had California Chrome sitting comfortably in third in the 19-horse field as Uncle Sigh and Chitu set the early pace.

California Chrome made his move on the final turn in tandem with Samraat. It looked like those two would decide the outcome, until California Chrome sped away to become the first California-bred to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962.

"This horse has so much talent," Espinoza said. "By the three-eighths pole I knew that was it. I could see other horses struggling a little bit, and he was just smooth."

Dale Romans, who trained eighth-place Medal Count, quickly changed his tune about California Chrome after believing the colt had no chance to win.

"I'm very impressed the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared and the way he ran," Romans said. "Now he has a new fan."

Commanding Curve, a 37-1 shot, rallied for second, with Danza third. Wicked Strong was fourth and Samraat finished fifth.

Commanding Curve returned $31.80 and $15.40, giving trainer Dallas Stewart his second straight runner-up finish with a double-digit longshot. Danza, named for actor Tony Danza of "Who's the Boss?" fame, paid $6 to show as the 8-1 third choice.

Trainer Todd Pletcher came up empty with his four starters, finishing third with Danza, 10th with We Miss Artie, 12th with Intense Holiday, and 17th with Vinceremos.

Wicked Strong, the 6-1 second choice, was fourth. Samraat was fifth, followed by Dance With Fate, Ride On Curlin, Medal Count, Chitu, We Miss Artie, General a Rod, Intense Holiday, Candy Boy, Uncle Sigh, Tapiture, Harry's Holiday, Vinceremos, and Wildcat Red. Vicar's In Trouble, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, finished last.

Before the Derby, Coburn had told anyone who would listen that California Chrome "would go down in history." He remains just as unabashed.

"I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown," he said, something that hasn't been done since 1978, when Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in a five-week span.

"That's where we're going."

NBA to appoint CEO to supervise Clippers

LOS ANGELES (AP) The NBA said Saturday it will appoint a chief executive officer to supervise the Los Angeles Clippers' operations after banning owner Donald Sterling from the league for life.

The league announced its decision a few hours before the Clippers faced the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for racist comments made on an audio recording, fined him $2.5 million and urged league owners to force him to sell the team.

"The best way to ensure the stability of the team during this difficult situation is to move quickly and install a CEO to oversee the Clippers organization," Mike Bass, the NBA executive vice president of communications, said in a statement. "The process of identifying that individual is underway."

The decision was welcomed by Sterling's long-estranged wife, Rochelle, who said she was fully committed to making the Clippers the best team in the NBA.

"I spoke with Commissioner Adam Silver this week to tell him that I fully supported his recent swift and decisive action," said Rochelle Sterling, who was expected to attend Game 7.

"We also agreed at that time that, as a next step, both the league and the team should work together to find some fresh, accomplished executive leadership for the Clippers. I welcome his active involvement in the search for a person of the utmost character, proven excellence and a commitment to promoting equality and inclusiveness."

A forced sale would require approval of three-fourths of the league's owners. The NBA's 10-member finance/advisory committee held a conference call Thursday, agreeing to move forward quickly on the potential sale.

Sterling hasn't said whether he will fight the league in court.

Clippers President Andy Roeser has been the franchise's most prominent executive in recent years, but Roeser upset many team employees last weekend when he released a statement questioning whether the incriminating recordings of Sterling were legitimate. Roeser's statement seemed too sympathetic to Sterling for many outraged employees, with apologetic words about the 80-year-old owner alongside criticism of V. Stiviano, the other voice on the recordings.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers spent Friday morning speaking with upset employees who felt further betrayed by Roeser's statement. Rivers also serves as the Clippers' senior vice president of basketball operations.

Rivers wasn't fazed by the timing of the league's latest decision shortly before the Clippers' biggest game of the season.

"We've got to talk about everything else, so let's talk about that, too," Rivers said. "The NBA has to do their job, they really do. They have a lot on their plate as well, and I don't think it's something they can wait on. They're going to do their job."

Rivers said he hadn't yet been consulted by the league on the specifics of its CEO search, although he is in regular contact with Silver.

The NBA has made similar moves in the past. The league appointed Jack Sperling to supervise the New Orleans Hornets during the 2011-12 season after taking over financial operation of the team from owner George Shinn.

The Clippers have already begun their transition away from the last 33 years under Sterling, the NBA's longest-tenured owner.

When the players went back to work at practice Friday, Sterling-related memorabilia had been removed from the trophy case in a public hallway at their palatial $60 million training complex built by Sterling six years ago. Even the "Sterling Drive" sign outside the Playa Vista facility had been taken down.

If the NBA is able to force the Clippers' sale, the team is certain to be pursued by many wealthy buyers. Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen and Larry Ellison immediately expressed interest in a joint bid, while Magic Johnson's ownership group with the Los Angeles Dodgers also is likely to be interested.

Pacers roll past Hawks, 92-80 in Game 7

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George scored a playoff career-high 30 points and Roy Hibbert finally came up big to lead the Indiana Pacers past the Atlanta Hawks, 92-80 on Saturday night in Game 7.

Indiana staved off elimination for the second time in three days. It's the first time since mid-March the Pacers' regular starters have won back-to-back games.

Instead of becoming the sixth top seed to lose in the first round of the current 16-team playoff format, the Pacers will be back on their home floor Monday night against Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Kyle Korver scored 19 points and Jeff Teague had 16 for Atlanta, which won just 38 games in the regular season but proved to be a tough opponent for the Pacers.

The game turned on a 24-6 run over a 10:02 stretch that spanned the second and third quarters. That gave Indiana a 57-40 lead it never surrendered.

Hibbert, who scored 20 points total in the first four games, had a series-high 13 points and seven rebounds. Lance Stephenson finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, and George added 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double in the playoffs.

And they all played like they had something to prove after twice squandering chances to take control of the series on their home floor.

They refused to let it happen again.

Indiana completely flipped the script on Atlanta. Instead of chasing the Hawks, the Pacers pulled away. Instead of yielding to the Hawks' 3-point shooters, the Pacers took advantage of their size by dominating the glass and creating openings for perimeter shooters. And instead of trying to hide Hibbert, the All-Star center who had failed to score in Games 5 or 6, the All-Star center was his old imposing self.

The Pacers finished with a 55-38 rebounding edge and with Hibbert clogging the way, the Hawks were forced to rely primarily on 3-pointers. Atlanta wound up just 11 of 44 from beyond the arc, most coming as it tried to dig out of a double-digit deficit.

It didn't take Indiana long to demonstrate why this game would be different from the first six.

After the Hawks went on a 7-0 run to take a 23-17 lead late in the first quarter, Indiana answered with its own 7-0 run to make it 24-23 entering the second.

Then after trading the lead seven times early in the second, the Pacers seized control by closing the half on a 14-2 run for a 47-36 lead. Indiana's usually stout defense didn't allow a basket over the final 6:12 and Ian Mahinmi emphasized the point with a clean block of Teague's dunk attempt at the buzzer - a play reminiscent of Hibbert's series-changing block of Carmelo Anthony in last year's playoffs.

When the Hawks charged back with a 13-4 run late in the third to get within 66-58, David West hit a midrange jumper and George followed that with a 3. George then opened the fourth by scoring the first six points in the midst of a 9-1 run that gave Indiana an 80-64 lead.

Atlanta never got closer than 10 again.

Notes: Indiana played Game 7 at home for the first time in its NBA history. ... The Pacers will face Washington at home on Monday and Wednesday, then hit the road Friday and Sunday. ... Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap didn't make a basket until the third quarter. ... Atlanta is 2-3 all-time in Game 7s since the franchise moved from St. Louis. ... Defending Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan attended the game. ... The 14-point margin was Indiana's second-largest victory margin in Game 7, trailing only a 27-point win at Boston in 2005.

Lillard's 3 at buzzer leads Blazers past Rockets

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Damian Lillard hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer and the Portland Trail Blazers stunned the Houston Rockets 99-98 to take their playoff series in six games and advance to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years.

In the raucous postgame celebration, Lillard took the public address microphone and shouted "Rip City!"

Portland, making its first playoff appearance since 2011, had been eliminated in the first round in its last six trips, and hadn't advanced to the second round since 2000.

Dwight Howard's layup and foul shot put the Rockets up 96-94 before Nicolas Batum's fadeaway jumper tied it again with 39.9 seconds left. Chandler Parsons scored on a reverse layup with 0.9 seconds left to give Houston the lead before Lillard won it.

Portland will face the winner of the series between San Antonio and Dallas.

Rays finally break loose in 14th, outlast Yankees

NEW YORK (AP) Wil Myers and the Tampa Bay Rays broke loose in the 14th inning while holding Derek Jeter to the worst hitting performance of his career, outlasting the New York Yankees for a wild 10-5 win that ended at 12:57 a.m. Saturday.

Jeter went 0 for 7 for the first time and grounded out with the bases loaded to finish the 13th. It was already a crazy game by then, and Yankee Stadium was nearly empty when it finally ended after 5 hours, 49 minutes.

The late innings saw a bit of everything: Rallies by both teams, a wild rundown featuring seven throws, two umpire's calls overturned and the ejection of Rays manager Joe Maddon.

The Rays also spent time trading gloves when they went to a five-man infield in the 13th. The switching positions led to a most strange putout: Brett Gardner grounded out and it was officially scored as 3-9 - first baseman to right fielder.

Kane lifts Blackhawks over Wild 5-2 in Game 1

CHICAGO (AP) Patrick Kane scored two goals for Chicago in the third period, including a terrific dash through the Minnesota zone for the tiebreaking score, and the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-2 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday night.

Bryan Bickell also scored twice for the Blackhawks, who have won five in a row after losing their first two playoff games. Marian Hossa had a goal and an assist as the defending Stanley Cup champions made the most of two costly high-sticking penalties on Minnesota defenseman Jonas Brodin.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday afternoon.

The Wild showed no sign of any fatigue just two days after their dramatic 5-4 overtime win in Game 7 of their first-round series against Colorado. Playing in the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2003, Minnesota used third-period goals from Clayton Stoner and Kyle Brodziak to tie it at 2.

Brodziak's third goal of playoffs on a slick pass from Erik Haula silenced the sellout crowd of 21,116 with 13:04 left, but Kane then electrified the United Center once again with his 33rd career playoff goal.

The flashy wing carried the puck into the Minnesota zone, hesitated as teammate Patrick Sharp skated behind him, and then split Brodziak and Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin on his way to the net. He finished the play by roofing a backhand over goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's left shoulder at 8:22.

Kane then yelled "Showtime!" twice and pumped his right arm as the delirious crowd cheered wildly. But he was only getting started.

The 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner picked up his fifth goal of the playoffs on a nice pass from Ben Smith, and Bickell added an empty-netter as Chicago pulled away.

Bryzgalov had 17 saves in his first start since he was pulled from Minnesota's 4-2 loss to the Avalanche in Game 2. Darcy Kuemper took over for the Wild in net until he got hurt in the third period of the final game, and Bryzgalov made one save to help the Wild advance.

Kuemper is day to day with an upper-body injury, but Wild coach Mike Yeo said before Game 1 against the Blackhawks that the goalie was not in Chicago, making it unlikely that he'll be able to play Sunday.

Stiviano speaks about Sterling, recording

V. Stiviano says Donald Sterling's racist comments on an audio recording leaked to the public were not the first by the Los Angeles Clippers owner in conversations with her.

"There's been a number of occasions where Mr. Sterling and I had conversations just like this one. This was one of very many," Stiviano told Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20" in an interview that aired Friday night. "Part of what the world heard was only 15 minutes. There's a number of other hours that the world doesn't know."

Sterling told Stiviano in the recording that she should not post online photos of herself with black people, including basketball great Magic Johnson, or bring black people to Clippers' games.

The recording, which an attorney for Stiviano said was leaked by a third party, led to public outcry across the country and the NBA. Some sponsors dropped the Clippers and others re-evaluated their relationship with the NBA.

On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life, fined him $2.5 million and urged league owners to force him to sell the team. A three-quarters vote by the NBA owners is required to force him to sell.

Though Stiviano told Walters that Sterling should "absolutely" apologize, she said she still loves him like a father figure and does not believe he is a racist.

"I think Mr. Sterling is from a different generation than I am," she said. "I think he was brought up to believe these things ... segregation, whites and blacks. But through his actions he's shown that he's not a racist. He's shown to be a very generous and kind man."

Stiviano said that since the ban, Sterling has felt confused, alone and not supported by those around him.

"I think he's highly more traumatized and hurt by the things that he said himself," she said. "I think he can't even believe or understand sometimes the thing he says, and I think he's hurt by it. He's hurting right now."

A real-estate mogul, Sterling has been accused of racial missteps before.

The billionaire had paid a $2.76 million settlement to resolve a federal lawsuit accusing him of systematically excluding blacks and Hispanics from his rental properties. He also won a wrongful termination lawsuit by general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of various slurs and slights.

Ellis, Mavs top Spurs 113-111, force Game 7

DALLAS (AP) Monta Ellis scored 12 of his 29 points to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, Dirk Nowitzki added 22 and the Dallas Mavericks forced a Game 7 in their first-round series with top-seeded San Antonio, beating the Spurs 113-111 on Friday night.

The eighth-seeded Mavericks bounced back from consecutive losses by handing the Spurs their first road defeat when leading after three quarters this season.

Tony Parker scored 22 to lead the heavily favored Spurs, who are stuck in a tossup series after they won all four games against Dallas during the regular season. San Antonio took a nine-game winning streak against the Texas rival into the sixth postseason meeting between the teams.

The second Game 7 between these teams is Sunday in San Antonio. The Mavericks won the other one there in 2006.

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