Big Day for Harness Racing at the Meadowlands

August 12, 2015

It may not capture the attention of America, but The Hambletonian is a big event

by John Furgele

Harness racing used to hold an esteemed place in America. In another lifetime, it was common to see 25,000 to 50,000 people descend upon a harness venue on a Saturday night to see pacers and trotters run the mile. And with 15 minutes in between races, that usually means more races and more opportunities to bet. The crowds have dwindled, but there are still plenty of big races on the trotting and pacing calendar.

Harness racing has some things going for it. For the most part, the fields are pretty full. It is very rare to see a pace or trot with just three or four entries. On tracks that are less than one mile around, the common field size is 8, with some at 9. At places like the Red Mile in Kentucky or the Meadowlands in New Jersey, you can squeeze in a few more.

Despite yearns for yesteryear, harness racing carries on. Buoyed by video gaming machines, many harness tracks are keeping their heads above water. Lest we forget, think about all the people harness racing employs. From trainers and drivers, to those that groom, manicure, clean, and administrate, it is part of the economic engine that drives this nation.

On Saturday, the biggest day of the harness calendar took place at Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey as three year trotters ran in the Hambletonian. To call the Hambletonian the “Kentucky Derby,” of harness racing is unfair because the race is limited to trotters. Harness racing also features pacers, who usually go a little faster than their trotter counterparts. That said, the Hambletonian is the most famous race in harness racing and the Meadowlands is the host for it.

The Meadowlands went all out on Hambletonian Day, too. There were 13 stakes races on the card, and overall track handle was over $6.6 million. This included the two Hambletonian elimination heats, each valued at $100,000. That’s a unique feature of harness racing. In order to win the Hambletonian, a trotter has to run twice. They have to qualify for the final before they can compete for the first place prize of $600,000 and the forever glory that goes with winning.

The elimination heats went as expected. Pinkman, driven by Yannick Gingras won the first heat and then the filly, Mission Brief, driven by Yannick Gingras won the second. For the final, Gingras had a dilemma; drive the favorite, the filly, or drive Pinkman. As one could expect, he drove the filly, leaving Pinkman for Brian Sears and Pinkman pulled off the upset, winning by two lengths in 1:51 for a mile.

Gingras did drive Wild Honey to victory in the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks, winning easily in 1:52.2. The only thing missing on this day was legendary Hall of Fame driver John Campbell, who broke his wrist on July 31 and missed the Hambletonian for the first time in 32 years. Campbell, still active at age 60 has won six Hambletonians.

A great idea was to move the Cane Pace, the first jewel of the pacing Triple Crown to Hambletonian day. While the Hambletonian has always been relatively easy to find, most know nothing about the three races that are most important to pacers, and while the Little Brown Jug will always be the most prestigious, moving the Cane Pace was nothing short of brilliant. And, the race didn’t disappoint as 26-to-1 long-shot Dealt A Winner won in a stakes record time of 1:47.3.

For the record, the second leg of the trotting Triple Crown is the Yonkers Trot on September 5 at Yonkers Raceway with the final leg being the Kentucky Futurity, which commences at The Red Mile in Lexington on October 10.

As for the pacers, up next is the Messenger States on September 5 at Yonkers Raceway, followed by the Little Brown Jug, at the Delaware (OH) Fairgrounds on September 24.

In harness racing, the horses are referred to as standardbreds, and though they are not as fast and majestic as the thoroughbreds, they are certainly more durable. Most standardbreds can race at least once a week and as we saw Saturday, the good ones can run twice in one day.

American Pharoah is America’s Horse right now, but he is certainly not America’s only horse as the standardbreds can attest to.

Until next time.

Bob Baffert Coy, But Not That Coy

August 3, 2015

Pennsylvania Derby will be American Pharoah’s next race

by John Furgele

Bob Baffert is the essence of cool. The great white hair, the designer shades, the younger wife. He appears to be a man that has it all. I recently attended, for lack of a better word, a symposium on the eve of the Saratoga meet, and trainer Gary Contessa said that if you like old school, you have to like Baffert. He trains like legendary old school guy Woody Stephens who believed that horses are better off racing, not sitting and waiting for weeks and months.

Baffert’s prize is the Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. We all know how great the three-year-old son of PioneeroftheNile is. On Sunday, Baffert went back to a place that he knows and loves and that is Monmouth and the Haskell. He has been the winning trainer of this race eight times, including last year with Bayern. Bayern would go on to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic albeit in controversial manner.

The Pharoah toyed with the other six horses. I’ve seen some great horses but no horse can change speeds as good as this one can. He can go out and rate. He can speed up and then after he gets what he wants, can slow the pace down and keep the others at bay. In the Haskell, he stayed right near Competitive Edge through good fractions of 23.00, 46.14 and 1:09.60. He then swept to the lead, opened an eight length lead and then shut it down. His final time was 1:47.95, but it could have been 1:46 flat had he actually run the last 220 yards.

After the race, speculation ran rampant as to where American Pharoah will run next. Baffert won’t tell us, but he knows. In fact, he tells us by what he says and doesn’t say. Those that live on the West Coast think Baffert should run American Pharoah in his home state of California at Del Mar. Saratoga is the oldest race course in America with the most prestigious race of the summer, the Travers. Many think that an appearance at the Spa is a must for a great horse.

The key to all this is to listen to what Baffert says. He says that right now, it doesn’t make sense to run against older horses. That means the Pacific Classic, slated for August 22 at Del Mar is out. The same goes for the Woodward Stakes on September 5 at Saratoga.

Baffert says that Saratoga’s track is gimmicky and that it’s important for a horse to run there before a big race. That means the Travers is out. Baffert hasn’t had much luck in the Travers, although he won it impressively with Point Given in 2001. And, as everybody knows, Point Given suffered an injury in that race and was retired. Last year, Baffert won the Haskell with Bayern, then sent the colt to the Travers where he finished 10th. Bottom line–he is not coming to Saratoga to run in the Midsummer Derby.

So, where are we? No need to run against older horses. No love for the gimmicky track at Saratoga. I would like to see American Pharoah run against older horses now. The Woodward would be a perfect race for him. It’s a month away and it’s a quality race. But, it’s at that gimmicky track, thus it’s a no.

Monmouth Park had a record crowd of 61,000 plus to see Pharoah jog to victory and track organizers have said that they will put together another $1 million race in September to lure him back for an encore. Nothing wrong with Monmouth Park doing that. They are a running a business and they know that there is a thing called star power. The country waited 37 years for a Triple Crown winner, so capitalize now or be damned.

This conjures up memories of what New Jersey racing did in 1985 when they created the Jersey Derby to lure Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck. It worked as the handlers of the colt skipped the Preakness to run at Garden State Park in the aforementioned Jersey Derby. That didn’t go over well with the purists and it resulted in Visa coming up with a $5 million bonus if a horse won the Triple Crown. They had a consolation prize of $1 million for a horse that ran in all three races and had the best average finish. So, you see, New Jersey, a state that likes to gamble, has done this kind of stuff before.

Money is money, but does it make sense for Pharoah to come back to Monmouth and run again? Would the crowd exceed 61,000 in September with football in full swing? What would the race be called, and would it be a one-and-done affair?

I expect the next race for the future Horse of the Year will be in Bensalem, Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Derby on September 19. It fits Baffert’s hinted criteria. It’s not against older horses. It’s not at a gimmicky track. It allows him to stay in class against 3 year old horses, giving him the opportunity to beat up on them some more. And, yes, there is financial incentive for the connections.

Parx Racing offers $50,000 for winning a Triple Crown race, and as we know, Pharoah won three of them, meaning the connections get $150,000 just for entering. Parx also stated that it would pay out another $50,000 for a horse that wins the Travers or the Haskell. That gives Team American Pharoah $200,000 for coming to Parx on the third Saturday in September. And, it’s perfect for the colt. He’ll have seven weeks off between the Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby and another six before the Breeder’s Cup Classic.

And, let’s not forget what happened last year. Baffert won the Haskell with Bayern, then took him to Parx, won the Derby, beating California Chrome in the process. Chrome, because he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness collected $100,000 for coming to Parx and Bayern picked up 50k for his Haskell win in addition to the $600,000 for winning the PA Derby. The formula worked for Baffert last year, why wouldn’t it in 2015? And, there are rumors that Parx may throw in an extra bonus for a “horse that wins the Triple Crown.”

My math skills have never been good, but American Pharoah might receive $300,000 for just showing up to Parx. The purse, currently $1 million could be increased to not only lure Baffert and Pharoah, but other horses, too. Second place is worth 20 percent of the overall purse. Think about Keen Ice in the Haskell. He was second best, but his connections pocketed $350,000, which is $150,000 more than a $1 million purse and just slightly less than what Texas Red ($360,000) received for winning the $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Saturday, August 1.

Baffert has said that he doesn’t want his colt to lose before the Breeder’s Cup Classic and as much as he wants to protect him, if the goal is the Breeder’s Cup Classic, then he needs another race. There are good races in California; there are some pre-Breeder’s Cup stakes races at Keeneland, the site of the BC and there is tradition at Saratoga and Del Mar. A case can be made for each track and each race. But, to me, there isn’t much doubt. The colt and his connections will take seven weeks off and then head to Parx for the (I’ll predict) $1.5 million Pennsylvania Derby. If all goes well there, a six week break, the Breeder’s Cup Classic and then off to the stud farm.

Last year, Parx had over 16,000 on its Derby Day (there is also the $1 million Cotillion for 3 year old fillies and the $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes). The track handle was over $10 million and there is the Parx Casino right across the street. Imagine what would happen if American Pharoah showed up? The crowd would surely increase, the handle could double to the delight of all. And, Baffert left Parx last year smiling so why wouldn’t he come back there for an encore.

The Dog Days of Summer Are Here

July 18, 2015

by John Furgele

Some call July and August the dead zone in sports. Basketball and hockey, with its long post seasons have ended, baseball’s second half has just begun and for the football obsessed nation, training camp hasn’t started. You can have training camp, for the record, both NFL and college football don’t really begin until September.

Summer flies by of course, especially in the Northeast where another long winter, was, well, long. For the record, there have been some interesting developments that have taken place in this the early summer.

The women’s World Cup was a huge success. Despite forcing the ladies to play games on field turf, attendance in Canada was very good. The Germany-United States semifinal drew 51,000 plus to old Olympic Stadium in Montreal and another big crowd watched the United States blow out Japan in the final at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver. Women’s soccer may never convert the masses in this country to fans, but Americans enjoy big events and the 15.2 TV rating demonstrated this.

Soccer continues to grow in this country, and even though the true meat and potatoes sports fan will never accept and acknowledge this, the numbers don’t lie. Games on ESPN and Fox Sports have seen increased ratings. Rather than scatter the games, Major League Soccer created Soccer Sunday and that means a doubleheader each week. Attendance at games continues to do well with many teams playing at or very near capacity. Believe it or not, this is the 20th season of Major League Soccer, and with more kids playing and teams becoming part of the fabric of their communities, soccer in America is here to stay.

Baseball still has most of summer’s attention and even though the game, with many young stars, is in good shape, it amazes me how little talk it generates. If you listen to sports talk radio, the lack of baseball talk is stunning. ESPN, NBC, CBS and Fox Sports radio virtually ignore baseball talk, choosing to focus on issues like domestic violence, college football, the NFL and perhaps the most concerning to MLB; the NBA. The NBA may have overtaken MLB as the nation’s number two sport. The NBA has always done a better job of marketing its stars and now, the TV ratings suggest that more Americans prefer the NBA over MLB. In the long run, MLB will be fine because regionally it does well. The Kansas City Royals, for example are generating huge local ratings and in the end, baseball will never be truly neglected by Americans. It has been around too long, it is too American and because of that, Americans will never abandon it. But, those that run the sport can’t be happy to have the Deondre Jordan-Mark Cuban saga garner more attention than Mike Trout and tight playoff races.

Rob Manfred, in his first season as commissioner, is putting his stamp on the game. His main goal is to speed it up and use the clock more. Purists always celebrate the timelessness of the game, but America has changed. We are in a hurry and more than anything, we want to move on to the next thing. Manfred realizes this, and if he can convince the players, he will continue to try and speed up the game. This year’s Home Run Derby used a timed format, and even though the Derby does nothing for me, it was an improved event over previous years.

Baseball’s All-Star Game is still the best of them all, which isn’t saying much because the others are really bad. Well, the Major League Soccer All-Star Game, which pits the MLS All-Stars against a team like Aresenal is quite good. Unfortunately, because Cincinnati was the host, “Pete Rose talk,” took most of the attention. Curt Schilling said it best, stating that “he was tired of Pete Rose and all the attention he garners.” Rose will always be popular. He played the game the right way, persevered and retired with the most hits of any player in history. But, he violated the cardinal rule when he bet on the game as a manager and if recent allegations are true, a player. Rose will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame, so let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here.

Manfred also hinted that baseball may be willing to expand at some point in the future. Personally, I think this is a great idea. Because it’s played every day, the sport needs even numbered teams in each league. Expanding by two would give the American and National League 16 teams each. That would eliminate daily interleague play which all teams would be happy with. Baseball remains the only sport with two different sets of rules for each league and that is beyond annoying. Before, when there were 14 teams in the AL and 16 in the NL, interleague play was condensed to two times per year. That way, teams could plan. They could call up a player to serve as the DH for NL teams, but now, it is too random. Manfred can probably sell expansion to the owners more than he can sell adding the DH to National League owners. The Gary Cohens of the world be damned, the DH should be added to the National League, but resistance remains, so why fight for it? Someday, it will naturally happen, but until then, why waste our collective breaths?

Expansion would give MLB many tasty options. They could realign divisions if they choose to spice things up. They could create four eight team divisions, eight four team divisions, or they could follow my suggestion and create two 16 game “tables,” in each league. That way, each team would get an equal chance to play one another. Under the table, the Royals, for example, could play each AL team 10 times and then play 12 interleague games. The top six teams could make the playoffs with classic 3/6 and 4/5 first round matchups. We really don’t need to see Yankees-Red Sox 19 times each season.

If baseball does expand, the proverbial question is where? Manfred seems to have a soft spot for Montreal, a city that baseball mistreated and then relocated the old Expos to Washington. Of course, Montreal needs a new stadium and there will always be concern about the value of the Canadian dollar. There are the usual cast of characters like Charlotte, Portland and others but it will come down to money. The southeast United States is intriguing because Atlanta is the team for much of the area, so in some ways, Charlotte makes sense. I would like to see baseball return to Montreal. The city has 1.8 million people, more than enough to make it work. And, how about a division featuring Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New York should a eight division four team scenario be implemented?

Finally, if summer has you down sports wise, the Saratoga racing season is six days away. Horse racing is what it is, but Saratoga and Del Mar in California cannot be ignored. And, with American Pharoah getting ready to race again, this could be a summer where the Sport of Kings gets a bit more attention than usual.

Tough Next Step for American Pharoah

July 3, 2015

Keep running against 3-year-olds or graduate to older horses?

by John Furgele

If you’re old enough to remember the first Naked Gun movie which debuted in 1988 and starred Saskatchewan born Leslie Nielsen there was a scene to remember. In it, things are exploding in the background and Nielsen’s character, Frank Dreben, says, “Please disperse; there is nothing to see here.”

The reason I bring this up is the movie reminds me of the plight of horse racing superstar American Pharoah. Where will he run next? Who will run against him? Will it be the Haskell? The Travers? Both? What about the Jim Dandy? The Woodward? The Whitney? The beat goes on to be sure.

We all remember how American Pharoah electrified the nation on the first Saturday in June when he romped in the Belmont to capture the elusive Triple Crown. That said, a month has passed and the memory is starting to fade, so the question is simple. When and where will he run next?

The NYRA, which recently announced its plans and prices for the 2015 Saratoga meet wants the Pharoah to run here badly. Senator Chuck Shumer, always primed for a publicity opportunity started a petition imploring the connections to come to the Saratoga Race Course this summer. The Saratoga meet, despite a decrease in attendance in recent years can stand on its own even if American Pharoah bypasses Spa Town. And, unlike Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course, there will never be crowds that near 100,000. There is no infield and the NYRA will cap attendance to keep things manageable. If American Pharoah did come to the Spa, the crowd would definitely spike, but what is exactly best for the Triple Crown winner?

On Thursday, the connections announced that the colt will run in the Haskell Invitational on Sunday August 2 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. It certainly has validity. Trainer Bob Baffert has won the race seven times, the nearly two month gap between the Belmont is more than sufficient and the $1 million purse certainly doesn’t hurt. Monmouth has also been known to pay appearance fees to lure a star horse, which also doesn’t hurt. Appearance fees are something that the NYRA doesn’t do.

If American Pharoah runs well at the Haskell at 1 1/8 miles, he can certainly come back four weeks later to run the Travers at 1 ¼ miles at Saratoga. For many that would be a win-win, two races at two parks with guaranteed good crowds and healthy handles. In fact, all 12,000 reserved seats have been sold for the Haskell and that was before owner Ahmed Zayat announced intent.

Truth to be told, when I heard that the Haskell was the next race, I yawned. And, it was a big yawn. Nothing against the Haskell; I look forward to it every year and last year’s winner, Bayern, went on to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic. We know it’s a good race, a very good race, but American Pharoah has no business running there. There simply is no benefit in competing here.

He also doesn’t benefit running in the Travers either. Sorry Saratoga, but it’s true. Yes, the Travers is a classic American race at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles, but the thought of the colt running in it also produces a yawn. If it happens, there will be excitement and dripping anticipation, but here’s hoping that it doesn’t happen and here’s why.

American Pharoah has nothing else to prove running in restricted races against 3 year-olds. He has already demolished them. He stomped on them in the Rebel Stakes, then truth-to-be-told as good as he was in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, his best race was probably the Arkansas Derby on April 11 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR, where the colt glided with ease to victory. If he beats more 3-year-olds in the Haskell and Travers, it would be just more of the same. His record would improve as would his legend, but he probably has more to lose than he does to gain.

The other problem with the Haskell and Travers is the owner’s intent. The plan is to race him three more times, then retire him to stud after the October 31 Breeder’s Cup Classic. If that’s the case, then it is imperative to see Pharoah run against older horses sooner than later. Why not try the Whitney Handicap on Saturday, August 1? There he would face older horses and there would also be a $1.25 million purse. Now, if the plan was to run him as a 4-year-old, then forget what I’m saying and stay with the 3-year-olds, but we all know that after 2015, it’s off to the breeding shed.

The prior two Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) —ran as 4-year-olds, so they could do things differently than American Pharoah can and will. Slew and Affirmed even ran against each other in 1978. But 2015 will be the end of the line for Pharoah and while that’s understandable, it’s also sad.

With three races left in his career, why not a Whitney-Jockey Club Gold Club double before the Breeder’s Cup? The Jockey Club race is in late September at Belmont Park at 1 ¼ miles and would be a tremendous prep for the Keeneland based Breeder’s Cup. The Woodward is contested the week after the Travers at Saratoga and it would be a nice race against older horses. However, the Woodward has just a $600,000 purse. Is that enough to entice the sport’s new superstar? We have seen the NYRA jack up prices to get tickets to its meet, but along with $100 picnic table rentals we have not heard them try to entice American Pharoah by upping the purses at both the Travers and Woodward to get the sport’s biggest star. Would a $2 million Travers purse help land him? How about a $1.2 million Woodward purse? The NYRA has never paid appearance fees and I think that’s a good thing, but if this is the one chance to land the Triple Crown winner, why not go all in by increasing those purses?

The Pacific Classic at Del Mar would also be a good race. Run at 1 ¼ miles with a $1 million purse, it would give the California bred a chance to run in his home state and would provide another opportunity to run against older horses. With the Haskell all but a lock, it might be tough to run him back in 20 days now that the Triple Crown grind is over.

Deciding which race to run is far from easy. All the tracks want him. Heck, Canterbury Park in Minnesota has offered to alter the Mystic Lake Derby on Saturday, August 29 to accommodate Pharoah. They would increase the purse from $200,000 to $2 million and would move the race from turf to dirt. The $2 million purse is the same as the Kentucky Derby and in North America, only the Breeder’s Cup Classic, at $5 million is richer.

Everybody has an opinion on where and when the great American Pharoah should run again. I just don’t think there is anything to prove by continuing to run against 3-year-olds. That said I would be not be shocked to hear Baffert point to a Haskell-Jockey Club Gold Cup plan. That would satisfy many. He would get to another track (Monmouth) and then would take on older horses at the scene of his epic moment, Belmont Park. The Pennsylvania Derby at Parx (also in September) might have something to say before it’s over as well, so who really knows what will happen.

It’s easy to say that American Pharoah should run at the nation’s oldest race course and the best attended meet in the country, but that doesn’t mean the Travers is the best situation for the colt and his connections. Right now, it’s the Haskell, but after, please stay tuned.

People Wanted a Triple Crown, and American Pharoah Delivered. Now What?

June 8, 2015

The crowd and nation loved what they saw; can it last?

by John Furgele

As soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line, the experts were already busy assessing the long-term impact that a Triple Crown winner would have on the sport. The main question—will American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run “save” horse racing? Will more fans come to the proverbial horse racing table to become permanent fans?

Naturally, to dismiss those questions would be a grave error. The people who love the sport got the boost that they wanted. American Pharoah became the 12th horse to win the Sport of King’s elusive Triple Crown.  His performance in the Belmont was breathtaking, and the 90,000 in attendance who launched a deafening roar as he crossed the line brought a tear to my eyes and I’ll assume thousands more across the country.

And, for those desperate to see a Triple Crown for the first time since 1978–some to the point of calling for alterations for how it is conducted–a few years of silence has been bought. Winning the Triple Crown is hard and it’s supposed to be hard. We live in a society that no longer has patience. We want things when we want them, and we don’t believe in waiting. Last year, we were treated to California Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn saying that having fresh horses in the Belmont was the “cowards way out,” when one of them, Tonalist, drubbed his little colt in the last furlongs of the race.

Those in the know, and that includes winning trainer Bob Baffert, state that it takes a super horse to win the Triple Crown. By doing so, Pharoah now qualifies as one. His time of 2:26.65 is the sixth fastest Belmont of all time, and the second fastest of the Triple Crown winners behind Secretariat in 1973. The astonishing aspect is that American Pharoah ran negative splits. His first six furlongs were timed in 1:13.41 and his final six in 1:13.25. That is almost unthinkable, and he did it without any pace as he led from wire to wire.

In addition to having to be a super horse, you do need some racing luck on your side. It’s anything goes in the 20- (this year 18-) horse Kentucky Derby as we have seen horses get bumped, boxed and everything in between. Point Given was a great horse. He won the Belmont in 2:26.56 and before that the Preakness, but his Derby trip was not a good one. Afleet Alex had an off Derby then dominated the Preakness and the Belmont. Both were fantastic horses, but in order to be a legend, you need the talent and yes, some luck.

We have seen horses win the first two legs and for the most part, they usually stumble at Big Sandy, a relentless dream killer. My contention is that California Chrome, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and all the others didn’t lose the Belmont; Big Sandy won it. Before yesterday, previous Belmont winners had at least raced at Belmont Park as a two or three year old and that isn’t easy to do. If you don’t race the previous fall as a two-year-old, you’re not going to be able to run the Derby, Preakness and race there before the Belmont Stakes, because nobody races at the big park from January to late April. American Pharoah proved that neither a race nor a workout at Big Sandy is essential.  Once again, a super horse is what we saw. And, as much as I have rooted for Big Sandy to blow up would-be Triple Crown dreamers, it has to be said that American Pharoah brought her to her knees, and the great thing is that Big Sandy acknowledged that. As relentless as she can be, she knows greatness when she sees it.

What will this win really do for Horse Racing? In the grand scheme of things probably not a lot. But the sport had to have gained thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of new fans. These fans probably won’t flock to race tracks, but if they watch the TV listings, they will likely tune in here and there to watch racing. Horse racing doesn’t need people to go to the track per se, but they do need people to open up betting accounts and do some gambling, and yesterday’s result should help there. Horse racing is gambling based, but it competes with casinos, illegal bookies and fantasy sports. In a case of clear irony, yesterday’s NBC broadcast was presented by Draft Kings, a fantasy sports company that offers daily competitions and cash prizes. This is just one example of what horse racing has to deal with.

The television rating for yesterday’s race was a 12.3 and the share was 27. That is very good, slightly below Game One of the NBA Finals which drew a 12.9. Sadly, it was lower than last year’s 12.9, but then again, a Triple Crown was also on the line. The key to the sport’s staying power will be the Breeder’s Cup, which will be contested on October 30 and 31. Love it or not, the Breeder’s Cup is the sport’s Super Bowl, and the Breeder’s Cup Classic will be featured near prime time on Halloween Saturday. History says the ratings will be low. Last year’s rating for the Breeder’s Cup Classic was a 1.8, lower than Serena Williams’ Saturday morning 1.9 in the French Open final. The key is to somehow burn this moment into our collective conscience so we will remember to tune in this fall.

The owner of American Pharoah, Ahmed Zayat, says that horse racing needs stars. However, the big money is in breeding, and that presents a dilemma. Billy Turner, the trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, says that it would be important to see American Pharoah run as a four-year-old before going off to stud. Seattle Slew did that, as did 1978 crown winner Affirmed; in fact, the two raced each other in 1978. That would the best thing for the sport, but would it be cost effective? Zayat has already sold the breeding rights to Coolmore Farms for a reported $100 million. For horses, every race could be their last; American Pharoah could break down in his next start and be euthanized. Nobody wants to think of that, but Zayat has to.

The likely scenario is to have American Pharoah get some rest and race three or four more times in 2015 and then head off to a life of making babies. It’s certainly not a bad retirement, but it will deprive the country of seeing this star run in the future. Does that help or hurt the sport? This is far from new. Secretariat didn’t run as a four-year-old, and the older horses that do run never won big races like the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

America is a fascinating place. We are obsessed with sports. Sports draw people in for many reasons. For some, it’s passion for their city. The person in Cleveland is going to root for the Indians, Cavaliers and Browns come hell or high water. For others, it’s about magical moments—like seeing Tiger Woods dominate in a major; Roger Federer win 17 Grand Slam tennis tournaments; and Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana win four Super Bowls. For most born in 1972 or prior, the signature moment of their sports lifetime was the “Miracle on Ice,” the 1980 United States hockey team beating the Soviet Union and then Finland to win an unlikely gold medal. This is why people watch sports, sometimes endlessly and often to the detriment of health and even family and loved ones.

The 2015 Belmont Stakes was one of those moments. One of those “where were you,” moments that frankly don’t come around very often, and if they did, well, they wouldn’t be magical or timeless. It put horse racing on the map for a period of yet-to-be determined time, but for 60 minutes or so on a sunny Saturday in Elmont, NY, the sport and the horse with the misspelled name shined brightly.

The key isn’t how long the moment will last, it’s having the moment, and that is what America got for the first time in 37 years.

Why Can’t Todd Pletcher Embrace the Preakness?

May 16, 2015

The nation’s top trainer has plenty of horses, but seems to have disdain for the second jewel.

by John Furgele

Today is the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown when the Preakness Stakes is contested at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A solid field of eight will enter the gate and run for the Black Eyed Susans. The usual cast of characters will be there; the big name jockeys, the trainers and the owners. All except one. Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher, for many reasons, doesn’t like the Preakness. And, that’s bad for the sport of horse racing. As a trainer, Pletcher has sent 43 horses into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby but only seven at the Preakness. He has never embraced the 1 3/16 mile race, even when he won his only Derby. After Super Saver won in Louisville, Pletcher’s less than enthusiastic response about heading to Baltimore was telling.

Pletcher is not ludicrous for not being overjoyed about running horses at Old Hilltop. He is a new school trainer, one who believes that six to eight weeks between races is suffice. To run a horse twice in two weeks doesn’t sit well with him. He is certainly not alone in his thinking. There are no more Woody Stephens in the world, guys that would run their horse once a week if they thought it was worthwhile. Pletcher’s mentor, D. Wayne Lukas is the last of the old guard, a guy who would do anything to get a horse ready for an American classic race.

Pletcher was thrilled to win the Derby in 2010, but only took Super Saver to Baltimore because, as Derby winner, Super Saver was the only horse that could win the Triple Crown. In that way, he was obligated to run the colt back in 14 days to see if history could be made. After the colt finished eighth, Pletcher’s convictions were cemented even more.

In contrast to Pletcher, is the above mentioned Lukas. Lukas is more likely to run a horse that might not be ready for the big stage because at 79 he, enjoys being on the big stage. For Lukas, it’s all about trying to win the big race, and in this land, there are four of them: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Sure, there are other fine races, with million dollar purses and tons of prestige, but to the American sports fan, those four are what matter. Lukas wants his horses to be ready for them. In fact, Lukas wanted Mr. Z to enter the Preakness so badly, he orchestrated a sale from Ahmed Zayet, who didn’t want to run him, to Calumet Farm, who will.

What is even more puzzling is that nobody has more horses in training than Pletcher. He has won numerous Eclipse awards as the nation’s top trainer and when newbie owners want to join the game, they turn to Pletcher. Mike Repole, Don Lucciarelli and Ed Stanco are just three examples. What I don’t fully understand is how Pletcher can send anywhere from four to six horses to the Derby, but zero to the Preakness? Once again, it is easy to explain away why his four Derby horses aren’t in Baltimore, but what about the rest of his stable? Isn’t there one worthy of an attempt?

One would think that Pletcher could go to his owners and tell them simply that it is his recommendation to save their horse for the second jewel rather than the first one. Yes, it is tough to tell an owner that the Derby isn’t in the cards because for most trainers, it is their dream to be one of the 20 to qualify for the Run for the Roses. To win it is almost unfathomable, but getting there can be a realistic goal. And, trainers want to be a Kentucky Derby winner. A win or two there usually is good enough for the Hall of Fame.

Bob Baffert, like Lukas, is the anti-Pletcher. He wants to be there, and has had great success with five Preakness victories. If one of his horses runs well in the Derby, there is a little doubt that he’ll bring him back in the Preakness. When Bodemeister lost in the stretch to I’ll Have Another in 2012, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he finished a heartbreaking second. When Lookin at Lucky struggled in the 2010 Derby, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he won convincingly. When Dortmund tired in deep stretch to finish third two weeks ago, Baffert had no reservations about bringing him to the Preakness where he will square off against his stablemate, the Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharoah. The trainers work for the owners, but something tells me if Baffert approached Kaleem Shah, the owner of Dortmund and asked him to not run in the Preakness, Shah likely would have respected the sentiment. But, to his credit, Baffert didn’t do that.

Pletcher is hurting the Triple Crown. Before the last hour sale of Mr. Z, there were only seven horses readying for the Preakness. That’s not enough. Eight horses is a nice number, but with Pletcher’s barn, there should be more. Why not run at least two? If you can run four at the Derby, why not one or two for the Preakness? A full field for the Preakness is 14 and while that is not necessary, it would be nice to have at least 10 each year.

Pletcher’s disdain for the Preakness has rubbed those at the Maryland Jockey Club the wrong way. They have mildly threatened to move the Preakness to July, well after the Belmont Stakes in an attempt to get more runners in the race. While this is not likely to happen, the message is clear: run the Derby, run the Preakness because it’s good for the sport. Some say that the mild threat is aimed at Pletcher and truth be told, because the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are three separate entities, the Preakness could move and not face any sanctions, because there is no national governing body like an NHL, MLB, NFL or NBA. In fact, some owners—Pletcher for sure—would embrace the move because it would allow sufficient rest between races.

The Triple Crown is the magical time of the year for a sport that sits on the fringe. The big players need to do what’s best for the sport and that is to showcase themselves and their horses in the three signature events. There are only three of these races and to see perhaps the most talented trainer skip the race at will each year is disturbing. He can’t be forced to run horses in the Preakness, but he could and should be encouraged to do so because the sport needs him and his horses.

I’m sure the Maryland Jockey Club has spoken, encouraged and even begged Pletcher to bring a few horses to Pimlico, but he continually balks at the notion. Maybe somebody else can get to him, to convince him that the sport will benefit greatly with his presence at all three races, not just the Derby and the Belmont.

The Kentucky Derby Does it Once Again

May 4, 2015

Sport may not be at the top of the lists, but Americans embracing Derby more and more

by John Furgele

Horse racing may have seen its best days, but one thing becomes clearer and clearer each year, and that is that Americans love the Kentucky Derby.  The 2015 edition generated a 10.8 TV rating and 24 share and was attended by a record crowd of 173,000 plus.  On most days, the crowds are sparse and the off track parlors are filled with guys generally over the age of 60.  I went to an off-track betting parlor on Friday to make my Derby bet, and at age 47, I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  But, the Derby has taken its rightful place as a true American event.  I’m not sure why this is but as our lives become more hectic and more separated, I believe that many are trying to instill old American values into their kids and younger people in general.

The sport was much more popular in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and the 70s, when we saw three Triple Crown winners, yet there was never 173,000 people at Churchill Downs to see the classic races and the  horses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.    Now, when Churchill Downs resumes racing this week, the crowds might be lucky to reach 5,000, but an event is an event, and people want to be there and watch it.

The Preakness will be another classic event.  The TV rating will be lower, but there will be at least 110,000 at Pimlico on the third Saturday in May.  The city of Baltimore should look forward to the celebration.  The last few weeks have not shown Charm City in its best light, but those who know the city, know it’s a great town and Baltimoreans have always done right by the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.  Furthermore, the right horse won the Derby in American Pharaoh.  For the first time, he was hooked and he responded, pulling away from the feisty Sunland Derby winner, Firing Line and another toughie in Dortmund.  Because he was the favorite and not some 50-1 shot, the country, at least until 7 pm on May 16 believes that he can win the elusive Triple Crown.   The belief brings the hype and for the next 12 days, it will be felt.

Horse racing has done many good things in the last 25 years.  More tracks have become family friendly, knowing that to exist long-term, they have to get younger people to venture out a few times a year and do some betting.  Another great thing is the creation of syndicates.  Most of us can’t plunk down $250,000 to buy a yearling, but through groups like West Point Thoroughbreds, you can pay a monthly fee and get in the game.  The sport will continue to get the wealthy involved.  These people have earned that right.  They’ve made their money and when you have money, there has to be something that excites you enough to spend it.  Despite that, the bluebloods and those of high society have seemed to have made peace with the commoners buying into a syndicate to get involved in the game.  The scions of American racing can’t live forever and we need the Mike Repoles as well as the syndicates to get involved in the sport.  The Sport of Kings is allowing the bishops and knights and a few peasants in and overall, that’s a good thing.

Many of the 173,000 at Churchill Downs might not have seen the race.  Let’s be honest, for many, it is a great party, a great excuse to get drunk, stumble around and have some fun.  And, does any country like a party more than the United States?  That said there is something for everyone.  For me, it was like Christmas Day.  I wake up excited and earlier than usual for a Saturday, but what I cherish is sharing the joy with others.  It is the one time of the year where I can profess my love for horse racing and my friends, colleagues, co-workers and even my mother actually seemed interested.  I received several texts from friends asking for my Derby winner (for the record, I picked Firing Line) and that never happens the rest of the year.  What does that tell you?  That people care enough to seek a horse racing lover and ask that question.  And, as those texts came in, my face lit up with joy because they were sharing—if only for one day—in the big race.

I don’t expect to get those same texts for the Preakness and if American Pharaoh doesn’t win, they surely won’t be coming for the Belmont, but as a fan of the sport, you take it when you can get it.  But, if Pharaoh pulls it off at Pimlico, then, once again, America will get jacked up for another run at the Triple Crown, which is never a bad thing.  The great thing is the resolve of Americans.  Twelve times since 1978, a horse has won the Derby and the Preakness and 12 times, they have been denied in the Belmont.  But, despite the letdown, Americans gear up and hope that the next time will be the charm.  They refuse to be deterred and say that it won’t happen.

As much as fans of the sport want a Triple Crown, I have concerns about it if it happens.  America loves its suffering.  Red Sox fans suffered for 86 years, White Sox fans for 88.  Cleveland baseball fans have suffered since 1948 and Cleveland Browns fans for another 50.  If American Pharaoh wins the crown this year, what will happen in 2017 when another horse wins in Louisville and Baltimore?  Will we wave a collective hand and say, I just saw that?  As the drought gets longer and longer, the suffering becomes a rite of passage.

I believe that the sport receives more attention when the horse is denied because, invariably, the sports talkers and writers bring it up the Monday after the Belmont.  The failures generate conversations that last for a few days.  Would success generate as many?  Of course, most of us would like to measure that after one horse sweeps the three and joins that elite group.

All in all, we, as a country embrace the big events.  My dad wanted us to watch the Derby and I make my kids watch it because someday I’ll be gone and hopefully my kids will make their kids watch and pass on not a love of horse racing, but a love for America and its traditions.  And, May is good month for traditions with the Derby and the Indianapolis 500 at the beginning and the end of the month.

As we grow more diverse, there has to be something that can bring us together if just for a few moments, hours or days.  The Kentucky Derby did that again and for a nation, that’s all good.

Five Weeks of Spectacular

May 2, 2015

Horse Racing no longer mainstream, but America still likes big events

by John Furgele

For youngsters, Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but in the sport of Horse Racing, the most wonderful time of the year is now. The next five weeks not only is a time for fans of horse racing, but the only time of the year where the sport takes it place on the national landscape. When ESPN sends a crew to cover the Kentucky Derby, you know that America cares.

What will we see in the next five weeks? As is always the case, there are many that are hoping that this is the year when the Triple Crown drought of 37 years will finally end and one of these colts will be able to string victories in the Derby, the Preakness and the stumbler of recent times, Belmont Stakes.

We all know how difficult it is to do and we all know the reasons why. Horses are trained differently and because they are, they can’t withstand the grind of three races in five weeks. Horses are bred more for speed, and to ask one to win the first two legs and then go 1 ½ miles in the Belmont is far too arduous a task. The answer to this is very simple and that is the reason why the Triple Crown hasn’t been completed since Affirmed in 1978 is that there hasn’t been a good enough horse.

The chase begins at Churchill Downs when 18 horses (El Kabeir was scratched) line up for the 141st time in the Kentucky Derby. It is an American tradition, always the first Saturday in May and even people in the Northeast actually believe that spring is indeed, finally here, so in a sense, the Derby is the start of something most look forward to. The Derby is hard enough as 18 of the 19 entered have never raced more than 1 1/8 miles. As good as Dortmund, American Pharaoh and others have looked in their prep races, can they get that last eighth of a mile?

We have seen great horses come and go. In 2004, Smarty Jones looked great in the Derby, even better in the Preakness but was gunned down in the final strides of the Belmont Stakes. A year earlier, Funny Cide had good fortune in the Derby, backed that up with a 9 length victory in the Preakness before fading to third at Big Sandy (home of the Belmont). Barbaro looked like the real deal in the Derby, but never even finished the Preakness after suffering an eventual fatal leg injury.

To me, American Pharaoh has looked the best. His victory in the Arkansas Derby was breathtaking. Jockey Victor Espinoza’s biggest challenge was to stay on the horse. The colt glided down the stretch and looked like he could run forever. To me, the others have to come and get him. I would never say he is the class of the field, nor would I call it an upset if he gets beat, but to me, he is the one to catch, the clear favorite.

Dortmund is another tough horse. Like American Pharaoh, he is trained by Bob Baffert, and is perhaps a bit more tested in his races. He has been looked in the eye, but each time he’s been able to thwart all competitors. It would surprise no one if he won the race.

The Derby is so tough for these horses. The first time going 10 furlongs, the crowd, which will exceed 150,000 and 19 horses to is a lot to deal with. America loves an underdog, but it would be better suited if one of the favorites wins the Derby. If that happens, America will begin to believe that a Triple Crown is in fact a possibility. When a longshot wins, it often doesn’t translate television wise to the Preakness because Americans think that the longshot was lucky to win the Derby and they don’t believe that the luck can continue. America believed in Smarty Jones, they believed in Big Brown and those horses ate up the competition at the Preakness and by Belmont, the hype was more than on.

The Derby is the best race of the three, but the Preakness is the most important. That sets the table and that’s why it’s so vital and of utmost significance. If the Derby winner wins there, the ballyhoo to the Belmont Stakes begins; if he doesn’t, than the Belmont is just another major stakes race on a Saturday in early summer.

A Triple Crown winner will not save horse racing, it will not rekindle interest and put the sport on the front of sports pages and websites. It can be argued that the sport is better off with the near miss. The close-but-no-cigar theory works because lamenting is good for business as any Chicago Cub fan will tell you. Think about it; if the Cubs win a World Series, what will Cub fans have to be miserable about? The near miss scenario keeps people hopeless, yet interested.

I will spare you with my predictions because unlike most fans, I don’t love the sport because of the handicapping aspect. Sure, I’ll wager a few bucks on Firing Line, the Sunland Derby winner, but to me, it’s about the event, and the Kentucky Derby, is an event. There will be 150,000 at the track and another 12 million watching on television, making Derby Day very much a part of Americana. The Preakness will exceed over 100,000 when it is contested in a hopefully healing Baltimore and depending on what’s at stake, another 50,000 to 100,000 will descend upon Belmont Park on June 6.

In the 1970s, we saw three horses (Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978) win the Triple Crown. It looked so easy and when Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness in 1979, most thought a threepeat was in the bag. Little did we know how good we had it. If three could win it in a five year span, then surely it would keep happening with regularity. Obviously, that has not been the case, but tomorrow is the start of another year and another attempt at glory.

Buffalo Bulls Athletics: No Place to Go

April 22, 2015

Big city, small conference hampers efforts

by John Furgele

The Buffalo Bulls appeared to be heading in the right direction.  In football, they hired a proven winner, and more importantly, a program builder when they plucked Lance Leipold from Wisconsin-Whitewater.  In basketball, they got the big name in Bobby Hurley and even though he had no head coaching experience, the name alone was enough to get Buffalo basketball on the radar.  The only better hire might have been Christian Laettner.

We can dissect the Hurley departure any way we want do, but at best, Hurley would have been gone in two years. There are certainly no guarantees that the Bulls would have made the NCAA Tournament in 2016 because of the one bid nature of the Mid American Conference, but the odds would have been good for next year’s team to win at least 20 games.  And, each successful year put in by Hurley would have just led to more and more speculation that he would leave.

Personally, I thought Hurley would have stayed at Buffalo for one more season.  He certainly garnered enough attention and one would think that three years at Buffalo would have landed him the higher profile job that he would ultimate covet and want.  Fortunately, for Hurley, it only took two years.

We can also speculate how everything went down, too.  Did AD Danny White leak information about Hurley signing an extension? Did the Buffalo athletic department only offer him $1,000 more than the highest paid MAC coach was making? We might never know the true particulars, but ultimately, Hurley had to take the Arizona State job.  Let’s be honest; the Buffalo job is an okay job.  Bad league, bad winter weather and only one chance to make the NCAA Tournament.  At ASU, he walks into a program that spends money, wants to be good but for some reason, can’t seem to get over the hump in college basketball.  Believe it or not, the Sun Devils are adding Division I hockey next season, so their commitment to athletics is strong.

Buffalo had some advantages, too.  For one, even though WNY fans are a passionate bunch, the passion wanes for college athletics.  The fans here would never demand NCAA Tournament or bust each season.  They would be happy with a few appearances here and there.  We know where the passions lie; with the Bills and as evidenced by the two year tank fest, the Sabres.

When Buffalo made the International Bowl under Turner Gill, the WNY faithful got excited, but soon, Turner Gill was gone and by the time the Bulls played in the Potato Bowl in 2013, few outside the UB loyalists cared.

I don’t know Bobby Hurley, but my bet is he wants the Duke job when Coach K finally retires.  In theory, you don’t want to be the guy who follows the guy (where are you Gene Bartow), but in college basketball, there are only four or five programs who ultimately can win the NCAA title.  Duke is one of them.  Coach K is 68, he can’t coach forever and Hurley knew that jumping from Buffalo to Duke would have been very difficult, but jumping from Arizona State to Duke—not so much.

The writing was on the wall even before the wall was built.  Deep down, Buffalo did get shortchanged by Hurley but in a one bid league, paying him close to $1 million would have made no sense.  If the MAC were a four bid league, the high salary could be justified, but UB could go 27-7 next year and if they don’t win the MAC Tournament, they go to the NIT, CIT or some other alphabetical post season alternative.

I worry a bit about Buffalo athletics because they are clearly stuck in college sports purgatory.  Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure know who they are; small schools content in the MAAC and Atlantic 10 respectively.  They view basketball as their high end sport and try to compete each year.  The Bonnies play the best basketball, a multi bid NCAA Tourney league.  If the Bonnies go 24-8, they’re dancing no matter what they do at the A 10 Tournament. Niagara and Canisius are the small, private schools, content to play games on campus and see what happens.

But, Buffalo is a different animal.  They are the big, public “city” university.  Branding aside, they carry the name Buffalo on the jerseys and when West Virginia and Buffalo came up in the brackets, America knew who they were and where they were from.  Ask somebody from West Virginia if they know where Canisius is, or even Siena for that matter.

They are the big guy, but they are stuck in a dreadful conference.  The MAC doesn’t produce national champions in any team sport.  Not volleyball, not cross country, not even bowling.  While the directional Michigans, Ball State and Northern Illinois are content where they are, Buffalo is the restful soul.  Competition wise, Buffalo isn’t ready to be a juggernaut–in any sport–but branding wise, they have bigger aspirations than the MAC.  Geographically, they’re a nice fit, and athletically, they are too, but there’s more to it.  If Buffalo wants to be THE public university in New York, they have to be more like Ohio State than Kent State or Murray State.  But, does anybody want them?

There are some that say Buffalo should pursue a bigger and better basketball conference and drop down to FCS in football and that might have been the route to take before MAC membership.  Buffalo could have tried to get into the Atlantic 10 or even the revised Big East had they stayed at the FCS level for football.  Villanova is the example.  They remained FCS for football, but stayed in the top flight Big East for basketball.  Once Buffalo went into the MAC, there was no turning back as Massachusetts found out.  The Minutemen didn’t want to give up A 10 membership, so the MAC, refusing to keep them as football only, gave them the boot after the 2015 campaign.

Buffalo may have found a great coach in Nate Oats.  And, unlike Hurley, he is a no-name who won’t parlay two good seasons for a Power 5 job.  Because life isn’t fair, Oats will have to bide his time and succeed mightily at Buffalo before moving on.  For the university, that’s a good thing.  But, the big issue is clear and that’s how does Buffalo escape college athletics purgatory?

A Better Way to Fix Baseball

April 13, 2015

The game is fine, but needs some minor tweaks

by John Furgele

This year, baseball is trying to speed up a timeless game. And, it’s not for the fans at the ballpark, who generally don’t keep of track of time when they’re there. It’s for the couch person, the person who wants to sit down at 7 pm, watch a baseball game and then be in bed shortly after 10 pm. Last year, with the average game running 3 hours 7 minutes, that didn’t happen. Personally, if they enforced rules rather than resort to timers and clocks, the games might have been shorter.

Baseball—like all sports—has problems. Foremost is the length of the season. The attention span of Americans has become shorter and shorter. You can blame high speed internet, online shopping, Smart and I phones, and the fact that we are addicted to them; but the bottom line is that it’s tough to devote three hours to anything unless it’s really, really important. TV ratings will never be great when there are 162 games over 26 weekends of action. If you miss one game, there are 161 more and then one becomes 30 and before long, it’s Thanksgiving. Basketball and hockey with their bloated 82 game seasons also suffer from this, so let’s not ignore them either.

Another problem with baseball is the sports refusal to showcase all the teams. They prefer to give you Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants regardless of record and even mid-season, they refuse to alter that strategy. In the NFL, they flex games, so if it’s Week 14 and the Eagles and Giants are 5-8, that game gets dumped from prime time for a better one. How many times did ESPN show you the Royals last year?

Offense is down in baseball and the sport continues to play by two sets of rules, even though there is interleague play every day. It’s time to ask for forgiveness from the purists and make the National League adopt the designated hitter. As mentioned, offense is down, and pitchers have enough trouble staying healthy just pitching. We don’t ask the field goal kicker to punt anymore, why make the pitcher bat? And, asking the American League pitcher to bat in a National League park is almost inhumane.

Watching the Yankees play the Red Sox 19 times and for that matter, Tigers-Indians is just too much. Baseball likes to think that’s what everybody wants, but it’s simply not true anymore. And, it’s also not fair. In the old days, where just the division winners made the playoffs, it made sense, but with two wild cards, the unbalanced schedule doesn’t cut it anymore. If the Yankees are competing against the Red Sox AND the Mariners, then they should have equal cracks at both teams. When baseball instituted the wild card in 1995, people scoffed, but after the Yankees and Mariners hooked up in that memorable Division Series—won by Seattle in five games—the skeptics and the scoffing stopped.

Baseball should steal something from the English Premier League and get out the table. Forget about the archaic divisions, and eliminate them. Line the American League and National League teams up 1 thru 16 and have a go at it. That’s right, 1 thru 16 because baseball needs to expand by two teams to get to 32. Put an National League team in Mexico City (18 million people) and an American League one in Montreal, a city you abandoned and divorced well before 2005 when they moved.

This would create a 16 team table and the top five or even six would make the playoffs. You can say what you what about expanding playoffs, but that’s really what America enjoys. Most of us monitor the regular season, but many of us watch the playoffs. We love the sense of urgency because as previously stated, our attention spans are short.

Montreal would flourish in the American League because they would have natural rivalries with Toronto, Boston and the Yankees and Mexico City would fare well with Miami, Arizona and San Diego. The table creates fairness because to make the playoffs you would get equal cracks at your opponents.

The table plan would eliminate interleague play on a nightly basis, obviously with an even number teams, it isn’t necessary. If I were the king, I would eliminate interleague play altogether because the Giants aren’t competing against the Yankees for the playoffs. If that was done, each team would play opponents an average of 10.8 times per season. My math skills notwithstanding, that would be tinkered with to make it 162. The Yankees would still play the Red Sox 11 times per year, but they would get the same amount of games against the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s.

If interleague play is maintained, league teams could play each other 10 times, leaving 12 games to play teams from the other league. The NFL, NBA and NHL have interconference games, so it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep it going in baseball. However, forcing Yankee fans to watch Mike Napoli 19 times and Robinson Cano just six, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Think about the table. You could take the top five teams for the playoffs, have 4 play 5 in the one game wild card, or, you could take the top six teams and give the top two teams a bye (rewarding the regular season) and have 3 play 6 and 4 play 5 in preferably a best of three. The NFL has 32 teams and takes 12 for the playoffs and before long, it will be 14. The playoffs are what get people excited. The ratings soar and the interest goes from marginal to substantial. The regular season serves a great purpose. It is a product and it provides entertainment for millions of people, but Americans can’t get enough of postseason action.

Few products can survive without evolution. Ketchup and mustard are two, but the mantra of change or die has never been more relevant. The great thing about the new baseball plan is that after 15 years, you could change it again. Nothing has to be permanent, but why not practice other ideas? Doing so will certainly at the very least, generate a lot of talk and buzz and even gain some new fans, which is the ultimate goal of any sport.


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