Is There a Bigger Game Than Harvard-Holy Cross This Weekend?

October 17, 2019

Two old colonial powers square off for the 71st time in Worcester

by John Furgele (The Nostalgic 228)

It may not qualify as a big-time college football game, but if you like football—and like Northeast football—then Saturday’s Harvard-Holy Cross football game may indeed qualify as big.  Okay—semi-big. The schools have met 70 times.  Harvard has always been in the Ivy League while Holy Cross went from eastern independent to a Patriot League member.

The Ivy League and the Patriot League have been playing each other for decades.  Back in the day, both leagues followed similar models.  That meant no athletic scholarships.  Kids were recruited, sold the value of a quality education and if they qualified for financial aid, so be it.

Ivy League schools don’t offer merit aid; in their eyes, everybody that applies has merit and there really is no need to recruit bright students as it’s done automatically.  Conventional wisdom says that if a kid gets into Harvard, they’re going—unless they get into Yale.

Patriot League schools were a little different.  They did offer some merit, but that merit money had to be available equally to all applicants, not just the football players and the other athletes.  So, a football player from Bucknell might get both financial aid and a merit scholarship, but that was it.

Even though the Ivies didn’t offer anything more than financial aid, the football teams remained competitive, and were beating the Patriots more often than not.  It’s funny, because even though Ivy League schools don’t give money, they get good football and basketball players.  March Madness is proof.  While schools from the SWAC, MEAC, NEC and other lower conferences usually get drubbed in the opening round, Ivy League schools are very competitive, in fact, more than that.  We’ve seen Yale, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton spring upsets.  We’ve seen Cornell reach the Sweet 16 just a few years ago.

The reason for this is simple.  The Ivy League is the Ivy League; there are only eight of them in the country and when they recruit you, you have to consider them. The Patriot League adopted the Ivy model, and even though Bucknell is damn near Cornell’s equal academically, it falls just below.

As good as Bucknell, Lafayette and Colgate are, they don’t have that Ivy League designation and the pedigree.  Kids would pick Delaware over Lehigh because Delaware could offer scholarship money.  That same kid might pick Brown over Delaware because even though Brown would be more expensive, the payoff would come after graduation when Brown gets affixed to the resume.  It’s a not an affront to Delaware, a great school in its own right, but not an Ivy League school.

It was becoming clear that Ivy League football was of a better quality than that of the Patriot, but games between the conferences carried on because of ideals and principles. The problem was that Patriot League schools wished to participate in the then 1-AA playoffs.  That was and still isn’t a problem for the Ivies.  Despite constant clamoring, the Ivy League presidents still do not participate in the now FCS playoffs.

That should surprise no one.  Some might label it snobbish, but the Ivy League does their own thing.  They really were the ones who spurred the creation of 1-AA (now FCS) football.

In the late 1970s, the Ivies decided to de-emphasize football and by 1981, the mission was accomplished.  Rather than build new stadiums to compete with Syracuse, Penn State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Ivies decided to play “down a level.”  Nobody knew what that level was but there were many schools that played Division II football and Division I basketball that kind of liked what the Ivy League was thinking.  The result was Division 1-AA; meaning you could play Division I at every sport, but football would play at this new hybrid level that became known as Division 1-AA.

We all know what that means now.  Bucknell can play Duke in basketball; there it’s Division I versus Division I; both teams have the same number of scholarships to offer.  In football, they can still play, but it’s two different divisions. For Division I football, there are 85 scholarships, all of which are full ones.  At the FCS (1-AA) level there are 63 and they can be broken up.

Because football drives the sports bus, it has become tougher for schools that do not play Division I FBS football to win basketball titles.  Villanova finally broke through when they won titles in 2016 and 2018, but prior to that, the last “FCS” school to win the basketball title was—Villanova in 1985; the last non Power 5 school to win it was UNLV in 1990.  Yes, some may say, Connecticut in 2014, but the Huskies had just transitioned out of the then Big East, which was still considered a power conference that had an automatic invite to a BCS bowl game.

In football, the Ivy League stuck to a rigid 10 game season while the other conferences allowed for 11 games.  That number became 12 for the FBS, but the Ivies adhered to tradition—no football before the third Saturday in September, and then 10 straight weeks with the season concluded on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

For the Ivies, it was the seven league games that mattered most.  There was no playoffs to worry about, so if Yale went 0-3 in nonconference games and 7-0 in the Ivy League that’s all that mattered.  Sure, the Ivies wanted to win more, but for them, winning the Ivy title was and remains the grand prize.

Ivy-Patriot league encounters were considered fair fights.  Harvard could play Bucknell and Holy Cross in nonconference and because each league was non-scholarship, it was considered a 50/50 game.  Now, the Ivies could play their seven conference games, two Patriot schools and maybe one scholarship school to complete their schedules.

The Patriot League schools suffered more.  They played 11 games and because they started play on the last Saturday in August or at worst, the first one on September, they had to play scholarship schools like Delaware, James Madison, William and Mary and at the time, Connecticut and Massachusetts.  They won some of those, but they lost more.

In 1997, Patriot League schools were given a slot in the FCS playoffs, but if they won a game, it was considered an upset.  Eventually, the old schools with great football traditions cracked.  It started with Fordham.  They began offering athletic scholarships and though they were not kicked out of the Patriot, they were ineligible to win the football title.

It took a couple of years, but the Fordham model won out and in 2013, six of the seven Patriot schools offer athletic scholarships with only Georgetown holding out.  The Hoyas of course are usually are at the bottom of the conference standings, and though they lose more than they win, they have been a tough out; a competitive team.

Patriot League schools allow for 60 scholarships; three below the FCS maximum. Because of that, Patriot League schools will schedule FBS schools.  This year, Holy Cross played Syracuse; Colgate played Navy, Fordham played Ball State and Bucknel-Temple. Ivy League schools don’t really do that—yes Army played Yale in 2014 and will play Princeton and Dartmouth in the future, but those are rare.

The Ivy-Patriot rivalry is still big.  Colgate still plays Cornell every year with Saturday’s game set for Ithaca.  Earlier this year, Georgetown beat Columbia; Dartmouth beat Colgate; Yale beat Fordham and Georgetown beat Cornell.  The list goes on, but these schools still share some ideology and of course geography, so it’s still fun to see them play.

Holy Cross is 3-3, but it is a peculiar 3-3.  This will be their second contest against an Ivy League school, having lost 23-10 to Yale back on Sept. 21.  But the Crusaders are 3-1 against FCS teams—they beat New Hampshire, Bucknell and Brown; their two losses were to Syracuse and Navy, games they really had no chance to win.

Because of the extra Saturday in the fall 2019 calendar, FCS schools were allowed to schedule a 12th game and the Crusaders decided to cash two checks by visiting Navy and Syracuse.  That 3-3 record is deceiving to be sure.

Harvard comes to Worcester at 3-1.  The Crimson opened up at Pioneer League power San Diego and lost 31-23.  The Pioneer is like the Ivy—no athletic scholarships, and they would love to play more Ivy League schools in the future.  The Pioneer does offer merit scholarships, but most who follow FCS football consider the Ivy League to be much superior to the Pioneer League.

Perhaps this game is more prestigious than big; it is certainly a nostalgic encounter.  As mentioned, there have been 70 meetings between the schools and like many schools in the Northeast, they’ve been playing football since the 1800s—Harvard started in 1873, Holy Cross, 1891.

With sunny skies and temps in the 50s forecasted, it will be a perfect day for two old and proud rivals to get it on at Fitton Field on the Holy Cross campus.


It’s Too Hard

October 1, 2019

Today’s NFL is virtually impossible to officiate and it’s not the refs fault

by John Furgele (The Bewildered 228)

I’ve been watching football since 1976. The first game that vividly comes to mind is the 1976 Rose Bowl, when Dick Vermeil’s UCLA Bruins upset the undefeated and number one ranked Ohio State Buckeyes 23-10.

My first Super Bowl memory came later that month when the acrobatic Lynn Swann was named Super Bowl MVP as his Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 to win Super Bowl 10.

I was at last Sunday’s Patriots-Bills contest in Orchard Park and after watching the game, the conclusion is this; the game of NFL football is too hard and virtually impossible to officiate.

NFL games are very painful to watch, especially in the stadium.  The commercial delays are nauseating and the noise than emanates from the PA system is equally so.  Even though half the fans are 45 and up, those that run NFL teams feel that the crowd has to be engaged and stimulated for each second.

Everybody likes to blame the officials.  On Sunday, Buffalo QB Josh Allen took a vicious hit to the helmet.  It resulted in him being placed in concussion protocol. The screams of “how could you miss that, and if that was Brady, the player would have been ejected from the game,” bellowed from the stands.

The refs also missed a Patriot DE grabbing Josh Allen’s facemask.  Once again, the fans screamed that the refs had it in for Buffalo.  Of course, the fans don’t realize that calls and non-calls have to be made in a split second, but fans have never subscribed to using logic.

There were 16 accepted penalties in the game.  After most flags, there were huddles that seemed like they lasted for minutes.  There are replay reviews to look at when a coach challenges or a buzz comes from the booth.  The only way for there not to be a penalty on a kickoff is for the ball to go through the end-zone for a touchback, for if the players touch each other, the yellow hankie is being tossed.

The officials have about 830 rules that they need to know.  The refs are bright men.  Some run companies; some are executives, COOs etc., yet even these bright men can’t know everything there is to know when it comes to what the NFL wants.

They look more confused than ever on the field.  I don’t remember seeing all these conferences and huddles back in the day. Today’s refs officiate scared.  One throws a flag because it’s obvious he has seen an infraction.  Then, they get together to have the conversation.  The other refs want to make sure that what he saw is what he saw.  They know that every call gets reviewed by the league office and they want to make sure they won’t be downgraded in their reviews.

These huddles have a Keystone Cop affect.  The fans see them, they start booing and when they decide to pick up the flag and announce that “there is no foul on the play,” it makes the fans boo and scream louder than ever.

Replay has hurt the game.  Scared of missing a big play, it has become a nuisance.  Now, any questionable call gets scrutinized and often reviewed.  For all the calls that are overturned, there are hundreds that aren’t and moreover, shouldn’t have been reviewed in the first place.

I’m okay with a blown call here and there especially if it’s a judgement call that requires a split second decision.  I don’t like the fact that pass interference can be reviewed.  In last year’s NFC Championship Game, an apparent pass interference call was missed and many felt had the call been made, the New Orleans Saints—not the LA Rams—would have played in the Super Bowl.  We can’t make the determination for sure, but the Knee-Jerkers out there demanded that ‘PI” be reviewable and now it is, further bogging down the game.

Sal Maiorana has covered the Buffalo Bills for over 25 years for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and he agrees that today’s NFL is impossible to officiate.

“I agree 100 percent,” he said, “they have so many things to remember and process.  They can’t possibly get everything right because they have too much to do out there and it’s only getting worse as the league gives them more rules.”

The game just doesn’t move like it used to and like it should and while everybody blames the refs, it’s not their fault.  The NBA can still be officiated; so can the NHL and MLB, but the NFL no longer can.  It’s simply too hard for human beings like you and me to keep track of all the rules, regulations, procedures and consequences that take place in the modern game of professional football.

The players make way more mistakes than the officials do.  In Sunday’s game, Buffalo QBs threw four interceptions and their special teams allowed a blocked punt that resulted in six points for New England.  Patriot QB Tom Brady missed on 21 of 39 throws, threw a pick, yet at the end of the game, the fans were saying that the refs sucked.

That’s the way it is and it always will be.  The refs are crooked, the games are fixed and the best teams like the Patriots get all the calls.  That isn’t going away, but the game has become impossible to judge; impossible to officiate.  I would think the league cares; that the league watches these games and wonders how it has gotten this bad, this bogged down. They have added and added and once you do that, it is very tough to take away.  But something has to be done.  Sunday’s game lasted 3 ½ hours, yet we, as a nation, complain about the length of baseball games.

I hope they can fix it, but I have doubts—major ones.  Let me huddle up and get back to you.



The Old Gray Mare Needs To Go

October 1, 2019

The stadium experience at New Era Field is less than good. 

by John Furgele (The Uncomfortable 228)

ORCHARD PARK, NY—I made the pilgrimage to New Era Field to take in the Patriots-Bills game and watch for 31st  time in 33 meaningful games, Tom Brady and the New Englanders take down the Fighting Buffaloes.  The game, marred by poor play calling, awful quarterback play and too much officiating was just the beginning of a difficult day.

The stadium; in one word, is a dump.  Now, it is clean, and it is not falling apart, but the time has come for the Bills, the Pegulas, Erie County,  and the city of Buffalo to get serious and get planning the future home of the Bills.

The sightlines are fantastic.  You can see the game, there are no unobstructed views and as long as you stay in your seat, you’re fine.  But, that’s the problem.  The seats are small, bleachers with the metal blue chairbacks and very narrow aisles.  Getting up to go to the bathroom is a chore.  The people need to stand up to let you through, but they try the old shift to the right and let you step over technique.  It is not an effective one.

The problem with that is there isn’t enough room for you to get by.  Even if they stand, it’s very hard to get through.  If you aren’t careful, you’ll wobble and fall into the row of seats in front of you and that’s if you’re sober.

There aren’t enough bathrooms and concession stands either and let’s face it, if you go to a Bills game and do some tailgating, you’re going to need to use the bathroom at the place originally known as Rich Stadium and sadly, that’s challenging.

When the game ends, it takes the better part of 30 minutes to get from your seat to the concourse and then, it’s time to start the trek back to the parking lot.

The Bills know they have to figure something out soon and they know that by 2025, they will be playing in a new playpen, either in Orchard Park or in the city of Buffalo. They float the idea of a massive renovation of New Era, but deep down, everybody knows that’s silly.  They state that Buffalo doesn’t need all the bells and the whistles, but they’ve renovated this place at least twice and the narrow seats have remained.

Do I sound like a 51-year old ornery old man—you bet, but the fans deserve better.  Season ticket holders have been polled about the new stadium and have been asked if they prefer it downtown or in Orchard Park; they have been asked how much they’d be willing to pay for a personal seat license and they have been asked how much they’d be willing to pay for a season ticket.

The Pegulas are in a tough spot.  Right now, the Bills have the lowest ticket prices in the league.  I landed my seats for 75 bucks each; those same seats at Gillette Stadium would have cost between $250 and $400.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that the league prefers a new palace, but the Bills owners know that the citizens of Western New York are not flush with cash like those in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

Buffalo is not poor; rather, it is an area of $50,000 to $100,000aires.  Hubby makes $57,000, wifey makes $57,000; in Buffalo, that’s good enough to have a nice home and provide for your kiddies.  It’s not enough to plunk down $20,000 for two PSLs and then another $2,500 for two season tickets (10 games at $125 per ticket).

There are plenty of jobs, but not enough corporations who can buy 100 luxury boxes.  The Bills know this and so too, does the league, so this will be a slippery slope when the time comes.  Bills fans think of themselves as the best in the game and many fear that the real fan will be priced out in a new stadium.

The Bills know if they price the real fans out, there aren’t enough CEOs, CFOs, COOs and Executive Vice Presidents to snatch up all the seats and boxes in the new stadium.  There is reason why they’re sending out questionnaires to current season ticket holders.  They don’t want to lose them so they have to know what they’re willing to pay for the new place.

Because of all this, the new stadium will be smaller.  The current one fits roughly 72,000 fans; most feel that the new place will seat 60,000, maybe a few thousand more.  If it were up to me (and nobody cares what I think), I’d make it smaller with wide seats, big aisles and lots of comfort.  It would never fly, but to me, the stadium should seat no more than 48,000 and those 48,000 seats should be the best in the game.  Many feel that the new place will be in the 55 to 60,000 range; to me, that’s too big.

As much as Bills fans will yell and scream, the stadium should also include a non-retractable dome.  This will outrage the real fans who think the elements favor the home team, but that really isn’t the case anymore.  All teams have beautiful indoor practice facilities, meaning that even the tough-weathered Buffalo Bills players really aren’t exposed to brutal conditions before game day.

Bills fans are a hearty bunch, but if the team is middling, the December games are always a tough sell.  The above mentioned hubby-wifey making $114,000—if the team isn’t good, and sometimes if it is, they have holiday presents to buy for the kids, so they’ll opt to stay home and save the parking fees and the cost of tailgate accessories.  Even tough, used-to-snow Buffalonians really don’t want to sit out in it for six hours.  Sure, the Bills-Colts game from 2017 was a spectacle, but I’m sure most fans would have preferred to have watched it in a nice, comfortable domed stadium.

For now, New Era is what it is.  I didn’t enjoy my stadium experience and I’m glad I don’t have to do it eight times a year.  Bills fans will call this blasphemy, but I do feel that as I have aged, I have developed a keen sense of objectivity over the many years.  Let’s make a plan and prepare smartly for the future.

The time is now.


Gut Check Time For Jimmy Harbaugh

September 22, 2019

Despite bad loss, the sky is not falling in Ann Arbor.  It’s up to Harbaugh to turn things around

by John Furgele (The Watch Too Much Football 228)

Do you really want to coach college football?  That’s the question I have for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.  We all know he can coach.  We all know he can lead.  We all know he can recruit and we all know he can surround himself with talented and accomplished assistant coaches.

Let’s not carried away and call for Harbaugh’s dismissal.  Let’s not carried away and say that Harbaugh is on the hot seat. That happens way too much in college football.  Look at poor Clay Helton.  The next loss supposedly leads to a pink slip, but here he is at 3-1 with his third-string quarterback.

College football is the craziest sport.  Every booster wants the team to be 11-1 and in the hunt for the CFP championship.  If you go 9-3 too many times at places like Michigan, Ohio State, USC, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and Nebraska, you get fired.  Programs then begin chasing their tail.  The next guy comes in and goes 8-4 and the fan base gets more impatient.  Programs like Miami and Florida State are living proof of that.

It’s different with Harbaugh.  He went to Michigan, excelled there, and then overachieved as a player in the NFL.  He was never a pure starter, but he had moxie and he was a Hail Mary incompletion away from a Super Bowl trip with the 1995 Indianapolis Colts.  After the playing career ended, he started coaching—first, at non-scholarship San Diego in the famous Pioneer League, then at Stanford, where he groomed Andrew Luck and then it was off to the NFL.

He coached the Niners for four seasons.  In his first three, they lost in the NFC Championship Game in overtime to the Giants; lost the Super Bowl to Baltimore and then lost to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.  He has won everywhere he has been and he still knows how to coach.

But, there is something missing back in Ann Arbor.  Sure, the fans will get on him because he doesn’t beat Ohio State, doesn’t beat ranked teams and so on and so forth.  In three games this year, they haven’t looked sharp at all.  They were sloppy in the opener against overmatched Middle Tennessee, survived a white-knuckler against the tough-to-prepare for Army and then, were drubbed at Wisconsin on Saturday.

Maybe Wisconsin is a CFP team, maybe they’re the class of the Big Ten, we’ll see.  It just looks like something is off at Michigan.  Is Harbaugh all-in?  I don’t think he is thinking about leaving Michigan and heading back to the NFL.  Others do, but Harbaugh is not like that.  He’s not a guy that’s half-in, half-out.  That is why he left San Francisco, because the organization prevented him from being all-in.

Michigan can be fixed and that comes from a former adversary, Urban Meyer.  Meyer was emphatic on the Fox college football studio set that there is plenty of time for UM to get things right.  But it has to start with Harbaugh.  He has to get back to basics.  No more publicity stunts, no more going on the airwaves saying that chickens are nervous birds or milk and steak are made for each other.

Harbaugh is too good to be pummeled like he was yesterday and like he was last November in Columbus.  He looks intense and like he is all-in on the sidelines, but his teams are not playing like it.  Is he distracted?  Is he focused?  Because of his history, you’d have to say yes, but they certainly don’t look that way on the field.

Maybe this is what Michigan is.  We always hype things, maybe we overhype them.  Maybe, just maybe, the 2019 Michigan football team just isn’t that good.  Sure, those that scout and rank high school players proclaim that the Wolverines’ roster is stocked with four and five star recruits, but there is a huge, huge difference between high school football and college football and I don’t care how much high school football the Luginbills and McSheas watch, there is no way of projecting how good a star high schooler will be at the college level.

It’s up to Harbaugh.  Let’s see how good of a coach he is.  He needs to grab his Wolverines and teach them how to play football.  They have nine games left; they can win many of those nine.  They might end up 8-4, or 7-5, or 9-3, 10-2 or 11-1, but regardless of record, they need to be coached up and they need to play better.

In college football, much is made over one loss, too much.  Michigan looked bad yesterday, but all is not lost.  Now, it’s up to the coach to see if things can be turned around.

An American Travesty

September 10, 2019

The start of the football season is killing baseball, but it doesn’t have to be that way

by John Furgele (The All-Time 228)

It’s not 1975, but Jaws is back and like he did to many in Amity Island 44 years ago, he is swallowing others whole.  The Jaws I’m referring to is the NFL and like it does every September, once the real games begin, it swallows up everything in its wake and in the last 25 years, its primary victim has been baseball.

Once the football season begins, the media drools over it like a dog would a steak.  I used to blame them, but no longer.  The ratings are just too good to play the sports morality card.  In Buffalo, nearly 40 percent of the population was watching their game against the Jets, so fighting it is an exercise in futility.

Even college football is doing well enough to take attention away from baseball.  Baseball has become an American travesty.  It’s a sport that has all but disappeared on a national level.  If you don’t believe me, listen to a national sports talk radio show on your morning commute.

There is plenty of regional interest.  If you listen to Mike Francesa on WFAN on your drive home, there is plenty of talk on the Yankees and Mets, but nationally–forget about it.

Clay Travis is the morning host for Fox Sports Radio.  Each Thursday, in the 7 am ET hour, he is joined by Jon Morosi to talk baseball.  It’s a good solid 15-minute segment.  Travis asks good questions, shows interest and Morosi delivers.

But that’s it.  The rest of his week revolves around football and the issues of the sports world.  Why?  Because that’s what America wants.  We have become England; we treat football like they treat soccer.  We are consumed by it and it’s a 24/7/365 consumption.

The sad thing is that baseball, under the leadership of Commissioner Rob Manfred does nothing to combat America’s passion for football.  The game is stale and broken.  On Saturday, the Phillies beat the Mets 10-7, a nine-inning game that took 4 hours and 29 minutes to complete.  In today’s game, we see three things–home runs, strikeouts and walks.  It’s not uncommon to see all the runs come from home runs with 22 strikeouts between the teams in a typical game.

Manfred knows the baseball is juiced, yet says nary a word about rectifying the problem.  If the ball wasn’t wound tighter than a golf ball, then maybe that player who hits .230 with 30 home runs and 66 RBI will see those numbers drop and will have to adjust his game.  It would be nice to hear Manfred say something like, “We know there are problems with the baseball and they will be addressed this offseason in time for 2020.”  Instead, we hear nothing.

The other problem with baseball is its actual season.  This is September; teams are trying to get into the playoffs, yet now that football is here, there is no buzz.  And, once America begins its football consumption, the sport can’t just say “October Baseball,” and get Americans back.  The declining playoff ratings each year are proving that.

For proof of football’s impact on baseball, take a look at these ratings for Game 7s of the World Series.  In 1986, the Mets beat Boston 8-5; the rating was a robust 38.9; in 1997 when Florida (Miami) played Cleveland and beat them 4-3 in 11 innings, the rating was a 24.2.  In 2017, when Houston beat the Dodgers, 5-1, the rating had fallen to 15.8 and even when the beloved Cubs broke their 108-year drought, the Game 7 rating was just 21.8.

Are those bad ratings?  Of course not, but the AFC and NFC Championship Games do better; last years’s NFC title game (the early game) did a 24.6 and the evening AFC title tilt, a 27.6.

Baseball is broken, but it can be fixed and it can regain some of that national luster.  The changes need to be progressive, but not radical.  If the sport wants to be relevant, it has to bold and unafraid.

For starters, let’s shorten the regular season and end it on Labor Day before the NFL season begins.  We know the NFL will not start before Labor Day, so it gives baseball a chance to wrap things up before that Thursday night opener takes place.  That means the baseball playoffs would start the Wednesday after Labor Day.

The model is there.  In Triple A (and most full-season minor leagues), they start their season on the first Thursday in April and end it on Labor Day.  They used to play 144 games, but concessions were made and now, it’s a 140-game schedule.  The majors can stick with a 144-game season and start the season a few days earlier.

The purists are already cringing, yelling and screaming, but guess what?  There are not enough of you left and many purists do not like the direction of today’s game anyways.

What about the hallowed records?  What about measurement?  How can we compare the 94-50 Cincinnati Reds to the 108-54 Reds of 1975? That’s what the analytics people are for and trust me, they’ll figure it out.

An immediate benefit would be better weather.  September might be the best weather month nationwide with warm days and cool nights.  In October, the reality for the northern part of the country is cool days and cold nights.

Baseball is a summer sport; the only summer sport (until MLS debuted in 1996) so why play games when there is the possibility of snowflakes which if the Minnesota Twins make it to the World Series could certainly happen.

The next thing to do is to expand the playoffs.  Let’s be real here–with the exception of football, all the regular seasons are too long.  There is no reason for both the NHL and NBA to play 82 games and there’s no reason for MLB to play 162 games, especially when your season runs right into the storm that is the beginning of the NFL season.

Americans love playoffs and they also like it when their team is in contention for a coveted playoff berth.  You know who else likes playoffs?  The networks.

Shortening the regular season means you expand the playoffs, creating more meaningful games, more eyeballs watching and more importantly, more media covering the games.  The media can’t ignore baseball playoffs; they can ignore that last month of the regular season, but playoffs?  No way.

Baseball also needs to figure out if they should expand.  I don’t think anybody likes having 15 teams (an odd number) in each league.  That can work in hockey, soccer and basketball, but baseball teams play just about every day and the odd number means constant interleague action.

That said, they don’t have to expand, but they should eliminate divisions and line the teams up 1-15.  The top 6 teams in each league would make the playoffs and since there are no more divisions, teams would play a balanced schedule.  As much as ESPN tells us to love Yankees-Red Sox, we don’t need them playing each other 19 times.

Under this format, each team could play the other teams 9 or 10 teams per season with a few interleague games.  Personally, I would add two teams.  In 16-team leagues, teams would play 9 games against each other; that would bring the total number of games to 135, leaving room for nine interleague games.

In the 6-team playoff, the top two teams get byes in the Opening Round. The 3 seed would face the 6 seed with the 4 taking on the 5 in a Best-of-5 series.  Again, there would be complainers with some saying that it would be too much time off for the two best teams.  If I’m one of the top two seeds, I would enjoy watching the others drain their bullpens and tire themselves out in that first round.

The next round would be a Best-of-7 affair as would both League Championship Series and the World Series.  That does make the playoffs a battle of attrition, but remember, you’ve taken 18 games off the regular season.  Teams seeded 3-6 would have to win 15 games to be crowned World Champions, which is still one less win that is required by the NHL and NBA champions.  The high seeds (1 and 2) would only need to win 12 games, one more than the current requirement of 11.

Let’s recap in bullet form.

-144 game regular season

-6-teams in each league make playoffs

-Seeds 1 and 2 get byes

-Opening round pits 3 versus 6 and 4 versus 5 in Best-of-5 series

-Division Series is Best of 7

-Championship Series is Best of 7

-World Series is Best of 7

It would take about 35 days to get all the playoff action in, which is nothing compared to the two month affairs that are basketball and hockey.  Even football with its three conference rounds, a bye and the Super Bowl takes five weeks—35 days.

September regular season baseball serves no real purpose.  Unless your team is in contention, attendance on weeknights is minuscule.  The kids are back in school, Mom and Dad have used up their vacation time and life is too busy each evening to consider trekking to the ballpark to see two teams that are a combined 30 games under .500 play on a Tuesday evening.

Having the playoffs in September gives sports fans a reason to tune in.  It’s a reason to take a personal day, a reason for your kid to miss a day of school because the games mean something and memories will be created.

I use the words sports fans, not baseball fans and that is by design.  Baseball fans love the game; they are going to watch no matter when the games are played, but sports fans have become more selective in the last 20 years.  They have more options, they have their phones and they tend to specialize more than the older generations.

What’s happening is simple.  The sports fan pays attention to baseball in the summer because they have more time and options are limited.  By Father’s Day, the NHL, NBA and for that matter, European soccer are over.  Many Americans work less in the summer.  They take time off to travel or to stay home and relax.  The kids are off from school.   No schools are in session in July, so there is less reliance on the clock on a daily basis.

But once September arrives, everything changes and it changes dramatically and suddenly.  For those in the Northeast, Labor Day comes and jolts you back to a different, new reality.  Two weeks ago, you were still relishing in the summer and then, boom, it’s back to school, back to work and you’re left wondering “what happened to summer?”

Baseball wastes its summer by waiting until fall to get its playoffs going.  Why not start your playoffs on the unofficial end of summer—Labor Day—catching the fans before they start their September routines.  You might not catch all of them, but I guarantee you’ll lose less of them.

Marketing is the buzz word of the 21st century.  Today, it’s easy to track what people do, what they like and what they prefer.  Those—and that includes sports—who are progressive, have a vision and can set the trends will be ones that survive.  Baseball is not going anywhere, but it needs to be relevant again.

It’s something that can be done, but it needs some boldness and more importantly, some freshness.


There Are Far Greater Tragedies In The World

August 27, 2019

Let’s find perspective.  Andrew Luck stopped playing football.

by John Furgele (The Wise 228)

Here we go.  Now that Andrew Luck has retired, let the games begin.  There are two camps here.  One camp is Camp Admire; these are the people that realize that football is a game and even though there are immense riches—especially at the quarterback position—health has to number one.

The other camp is Camp Astonished; these are the ones that think Andrew Luck is foolish for retiring, or in their words, quitting.  How can he let his teammates down, especially with the season about to start?  In fact, Fox Sports’ Doug Gottlieb called out Luck, saying quitting rather than do rehab is a millennial thing.

We all know that guys like Gottlieb and fellow Luck basher Dan Dakich have to say things to get noticed and often, taking the so-called contrarian approach does just that.  But before we assume we know what Luck is thinking, let’s try to be somewhat objective.

Luck has been in the NFL since the 2012.  He has played six of seven seasons, missing the entire 2017 campaign.  He has been hurt—often.  Last year, he played 18 games—16 regular season contests and two in the playoffs.  He had a good year, throwing for 4,593 yards in the 16 regular season games and 425 in the two playoff contests.  But this year, he was hurt again, with what team officials called a strained calf/high ankle sprain.

Those are the listed injuries, but how much pain is he really in?  How long does it take him to get up in the morning?  What about the rehab?  Is it working?  For those who believe he is giving up football because he is tired of doing rehab, ask yourself this question—if you did eight to ten hours of rehab and still didn’t feel better, would you want to continue?

We look at football as the gladiator sport, but there has to be some sort of guilty pleasure in watching, following and enjoying it.  I’ll admit I love football, especially the college game.  I’m beyond giddy about this Thursday, when many college teams open their 2019 seasons.

But there is part of me that sees the gruesomeness of it and makes me question why I enjoy it so much.  I don’t like UFC because I see it as barbaric, but I like football, so please, call me a hypocrite if you desire.

We have seen our football heroes deteriorate before our eyes.  Earl Campbell played only eight seasons, yet needs a walker to make the rounds.  He carried the ball often, took on all the tacklers and by 28, he was done.  He played two more seasons and now struggles to make those aforementioned rounds.

Jim Plunkett played 15 NFL seasons and he too, complains of pain and finds difficulty making the rounds.  When we see these guys, we all often say the same thing—-“those guys should have gotten out of the game sooner.”

If Andrew Luck is using a cane at age 41, those calling him a quitter today would say the same thing—“why did he keep playing knowing that he was doing permanent damage to his body?”

We have seen the concussion epidemic in football and many of us wonder why guys keep playing after suffering their third, fourth and fifth? We are more sensitive and more concerned, but we keep watching the games.  Even though most outside New England dislike Tom Brady, most admire the fact that at age 42, he can still play.  We think his body will be fine after he stops playing, but do we really know that for sure?

There are those that believe Luck is leaving so he can run around, pain free, with his kids someday.  Some may find that thinking corny, but every ache, pain and hit leaves a mark.  Perhaps Luck got to the point where he really believed that rehab was no longer going to heal his tattered and beaten up body.

The NFL is a young man’s game; it’s easier to take the pounding in your 20s than in your 30s.  Some people get out before most think they should.  Look at Cris Collingsworth.  Most know him as the color man for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, but CC played eight NFL seasons.  In those eight seasons, the WR had three 1,000 yard seasons, a 989 season and in 1982, had 700 yards in the nine game strike shortened season.

By 1987, lingering injuries began taking their toll, limiting his effectiveness.  The 1988 season would be his last; that year, he caught just 13 passes for 227 yards, but in his last game, Super Bowl 23, he snatched 3 for 40 yards in the Bengals’ 23-20 loss to the Joe Montana led 49ers.  At age 29, after “just” eight seasons, Collinsworth was done playing professional football.

We all know Jim Brown walked away at the height of his talents.  Considered by many to be the best running back—if not football player—of all time, Brown left the NFL after “just” 9 seasons.  His last year, 1965, saw him run for 1,544 yards on 289 carries, and catch 34 passes for 328 more.  His final game was the 1965 NFL Championship Game; in it he had 12 rushes for a respectable 50 yards in a 23-12 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

There are many that still can’t believe that Barry Sanders walked away after “just” 10 NFL seasons.  Most say he quit because he was frustrated with the Lions inability to surround him with championship talent, but did he?  After all, who quits after a season where you run for 1,491 yards on 343 carries to go along with 37 catches for 289 yards?  One year prior, he rushed for 2,053 yards.  How could he deprive us?

Another one some think left too early was Tiki Barber.  We might not put Barber in the class with Brown and Sanders, but Tiki left after “just” 10 seasons.  His final season was 2006 and it was a good one.  That year, Barber rushed for 1,662 yards on 327 carries and caught 58 passes for 465 additional yards.  In fact, Barber’s last five years saw him rush for 7,643 yards, an average of 1,529 per season.  In 10 seasons, Barber rushed for 10,449 yards and had 5,183 yards receiving more than good enough for strong Hall of Fame consideration.  If I had a vote, he’s in.

These four men have all gone on to good things after their playing careers ended. Brown starred in movies and has been an activist; Sanders has been relatively quiet, but both Barber and Collinsworth are making money by talking for a living.

There is something to be said for leaving the game when you want to.  We all know that Sanders, Barber and Brown could have kept playing, but guess what?  They didn’t want to.

Andrew Luck is tired of being in pain each and every day.  You and I don’t know how much pain he is in and it shouldn’t matter.  Something tells me that Luck, with an architectural design degree from Stanford University will do just fine if he has indeed, played his last football game.

His dad, Oliver Luck played QB at West Virginia, spent four years in the NFL, is a lawyer and now the top executive for the second coming of Vince McMahon’s XFL.  Before the XFL, he was the athletic director at West Virginia.

I can see Andrew Luck becoming an athletic director, a college administrator or working in the executive offices for the NCAA.  His services could certainly be put to good use there or many other places.

He may decide after a year or two to play football again.  Nobody really knows at this point, but it’s his life and he can choose to do whatever he wants.  Many cannot believe that he is walking away from millions and millions of dollars.  Even Colts owner Jim Irsay fired a quiet shot by saying that Luck, by retiring, is leaving potentially $450 million on the table.

We take sports way too seriously.  I just finished reading Dan Epstein’s book about baseball in the 1970s.  We took the games seriously back then as well, but not as seriously.  We didn’t have the internet, social media, ESPN and sports talk radio.  Back then, you could enjoy a game, read about it the next day and move on.

It’s different today because of technology and marketing.  We see grown men in #12 Andrew Luck jerseys running their fingers through their hair in disbelief that their guy has retired.  After the hair pulling ends, the fan goes on a tirade on Facebook and Twitter claiming that Luck has ruined his fall by quitting football, quitting on the team I have rooted for “my whole life.”

I do believe that it will come back someday—maybe when all of us older people die off, today’s so-called millennials will treat sports like it should be treated—a diversion from, not a way of life.

A Great Day For Canada

August 4, 2019

Canadian-bred Forbidden Trade pulls upset in $1 million Hambletonian

by John Furgele (The Sun-Baked 228)

EAST RUTHERFORD—That’s why they race.  When you go to the Meadowlands for Hambletonian Day, one of the great things about being there is the race day analysis that is provided and piped over the loudspeakers.  The Meadowlands produces its own coverage and on Hambo Day, they used Gabe Prewitt and the recently inducted Hall of Famer Dave Little to provide the commentary.  Track announcer Ken Warkentin gets into the mix as does sideline reporter, Bob “Hollywood,” Heyward. All of them came to the same conclusion—that Greenshoe could not be beaten in the $1 million Hambletonian final.  They were not alone of course as those in attendance made the 3-year old trotter the overwhelming fave in the biggest harness race of the year.

After he barely broke a sweat on a sweltering 87 degree day in his elimination race, it appeared that the real race would be for second place.  But, in harness racing, strange things can happen.  Last year, Atlanta faltered badly down the stretch in her elimination heat and finished second.  In the final—she romped to victory.

Bob McClure is a horsemen’s horseman.  He has spent most of his career toiling on the backtracks of Canada, but in recent years, has elevated his game.  He now races primarily at Woodbine Mohawk Park; Canada’s premier harness track and the site for this October’s Breeders’ Crown races.  Today, he was on the bike for the Canadian bred, Forbidden Trade.  Dismissed at odds of 18-1, he finished third in his elimination behind Don’t Let ‘Em and everybody’s choice, Greenshoe.  Remember, those are win odds and because “The Shoe,” was such a heavy favorite, the numbers are going to be skewed just a tad as they say.

In the final, McClure drove a superb race.  He stalked nicely and when they turned for home, he took to the center of the track was able to slide by the leading Green Manalishi.  Greenshoe made his move late, but despite track announcer Ken Warkentin stating that he took the lead, he never did.  Forbidden Trade was able to surge past the fading Green Manalishi and held off the hard-charging Greenshoe to win in 1:51.  And, at 15-1, he rewarded supporters with $33.80 for a $2 bet.

There were American flags at the track and both God Bless America and the Star Spangled Banner were played.  One song that they didn’t play was O Canada, but no matter—the Hambo gave Forbidden Trade, driver McClure and trainer Luc Blais some good old “Northern Exposure.”

As good as the Hambo final was—and it was a dandy—the two stars of the day were the veterans.  In the $230,300 Sam McKee Memorial Pace, Lather Up decimated a very good field.  He tripped the wire in a mind boggling 1:59.2 for 1 1/8 miles.  He cut the mile in 1:46.3, just three-fifths of a second off the world record of 1:46 he shares with Always B Miki.  For the third time this season, This Is The Plan finished second behind this superhorse and reigning Horse of the Year McWicked ran beautifully only to finish third.  In fact, both McWicked and This Is The Plan were clocked in 2:00.1, but if you saw the race, it wasn’t close; that’s how good the Clyde Francis trained colt is right now.

The other star was the tiny lady, Shartin N.  She will never be intimidating in the paddock, but once she gets racing, the others run scared.  She won for 12th time in 13 starts, capturing the $183,000 Lady Liberty Mare Pace.  Her time of 1:46.4 set a world record for older pacing mares.  They say that female pacers can’t run with the boys, but I tend to disagree here.  Other than Lather Up, I wouldn’t bet against the New Zealand bred Shartin N in any race against anybody.  She simply glides over the track. Last week, she whipped the field in the $100,000 Clara Barton Pace at Plainridge Park and Saturday, it was more of the same at The Big M.

I should add another star and that would be When Doves Cry, the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks winner.  She made it look very easy as she took the lead on the backstretch, cut the half in 54.4 and then glided home from there.  The favorite, Millies Possesion ran very well to finish second; sometimes we forget how good the runner-ups do in the big races, but like This Is The Plan, Millies Possesion had to settle for a strong second as When Doves Cry was much the best.

A good crowd was on hand and like the previous two years, I met some great people from all over the place on harness racing’s big day.  I spent most of the day sitting in Section 105 with John and Debbie who own and train three pacers that race in Maryland at both Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.  To my left was Will, a northern New Jersey native who used to frequent the track while a student at Rutgers-Newark.  Now, 62, he decided to come back to the Meadowlands and take in this fine day of racing.  When he left, like most bettors, he “was about even.”

After the Hambo, I headed up to the rooftop; there I was able to meet the Canadian Comet, Garnet Barnsdale who was doing some work for the United States Trotting Association.  I also ran into Jim and Diane Dunn, who came in from The Pine Tree State, aka Maine.  Jim trains seven horses and wife Diane, helps out as well.  Last week, they were at Plainridge Park and for the second straight week, Diane was happy to see Shartin N win another big stakes race.

Harness racing fans are good people indeed.  In my three years of attending the Hambletonian, I have sat next to and met fans from New Jersey, Ohio, Sweden, England, Finland, Queens (NY), Maryland and Maine.  The racing was great, the experience—second to none.

The Meadowlands now takes a break until October 11, but harness racing marches on.  Next week features two big races; the $300,000 Dan Patch Pace at Hoosier Park on Friday and the $400,000 Carl Milstein Pace at Northfield Park on Saturday.  There is no rest for the weary, the fans, the drivers, the trainers and of course, the pacers and trotters.



LSU Has Priorities in Place

July 27, 2019

Plans to replace card catalog system with computers put on hold

by John Furgele (The Not Surprised 228)

How good is the new LSU weight room?  It’s so good that every college president should be calling one another to put an end to the sham of both the student athlete and college athletics.  With training tables, places to sleep, eat, study and just hang out, there is no longer a need for a football player to interact with the rest of the student body.  In fact, instead of LSU football players going to class, the professors will come to the facility to teach.  And, if you think these facilities will end assaults and cover-ups, please think again.

Am I being facetious here?  A bit, and yes, the facility was paid for with private donations to the athletic department, so what’s the big deal? I just wonder if that money—those donations—are misplaced.  Louisiana is one of the poorest, if not the poorest state in the country.  When the rankings come out, the battle for 50th usually pits Louisiana against Alabama and Mississippi.  And, when you call on the public school parishes (as they’re called in the Bayou State), they will complain always that they are underfunded.

Everybody knows that in order to be competitive, the football facility has to be beyond state-of-the-art.  If LSU’s doesn’t measure up to Alabama and Tennessee, they will be stuck at 8-4 while 12-1 Alabama gets to play in the College Football Playoff. We all know in the SEC, 8-4 gets coaches fired; if you don’t go 10-2 and 11-1 every year, you’re in trouble.  Again, misplaced priorities; we know winning is important, but we forget that this is college athletics.

I’m no dummy.  We know that at least half the college football players aren’t qualified to be college students.  We hear that when they talk; if they can’t speak well, how are they writing term and research papers? How are they reading 50 to 100 pages of material between the Monday and Wednesday class?    How many times have you heard a college football player—black, white, purple or green—give a post-game interview and shutter with how they struggle with the English language?  “We was down early but we know we gonna come back in the second half.” You and I have heard that and we have shaken our collective heads with disbelief.

A lot of us talk “slang,” but when it’s time to use the “Queen’s English,” we turn it on.  In addition to job interviews, I would think talking in front of millions of people would be one of those times.

That said, I’m all for giving young people an opportunity to obtain a college education, but sadly, many athletes leave college after four and five years not even close to that Bachelor’s degree.  Vinny Testaverde was at Miami for five years and was reportedly 30  credits short of one.  That’s hard to do; to go to school for five years and only have 90 to 95 credits.  It took me five years to get my Bachelor’s degree, but when I graduated, I had 142 credits and trust me, I was no scholar.

We know that football is a multi-billion dollar operation.  We know that the networks pay billions to air college football games, yet most athletic departments say that they lose money, and at LSU, one student took a picture of leaking water in the LSU library.  They have money to build new football palaces—and again, the money was obtained via fundraising—but the state always claims they’re broke and can’t pay their teachers. Why can’t they do some fundraising to get the library fixed?

A Caddo Parish Schools, the starting pay for a teacher with a Bachelor’s degree in the 2017-2018 school year was 44K (link below).  A teacher entering their 30th year was making $59,008.  Think about that?  Rookie Jenny Smith, an LSU grad is making 44K while Molly Evans, now 54 years old enters her 30th year making just $15k more.

For Jenny, that’s not a bad starting salary.  In this hypothetical, she is 22 years old and lives in the parish with a roommate, maybe two.  But for Molly, with three kids and husband who also teaches, that’s not great.  Think about it—in 30 years, the difference in pay is just under $15k.

Yes, you can make the argument that both Molly and Jenny knew what they were getting into when they took teaching jobs in Louisiana, but the state is always crying poverty.  The state never has enough money for schools, yet they have enough to pay their football coach millions of dollars and they have enough to endorse the building of this elaborate, Taj-Mahal of a football facility.

Fundraising and boosters have always been an integral part of college sports, especially football and especially football in the south.  Boosters are doing well, they have successful careers and they have money to spare.  Most boosters don’t care about public schools because most of them send their kids to private schools.  While some wealthy people buy real estate, boats, second and third homes, others want to see the old alma mater do well athletically and thus, donate their monies so LSU, Alabama and others win conference and national titles.

A few years ago, the Yale football team traveled to San Diego to take on the University of San Diego.  That trip was financed by a former alum; the chartered plane, the hotel, the sightseeing, everything, so this stuff is not solely taking place in the South, but the reality is that college sports are way out of hand.

In recent years, the talk of compensating college athletes—specifically football and basketball players—has intensified.  Athletes at Northwestern tried to form a union, but that was shot down in the courts.  This was mentioned in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, but it has intensified because there is too much money.  I don’t believe college athletes should be paid but college administrators are embarrassed by it to the point where it is discussed.  Deep down, they wish they could shut the water off, but they like that money much too much.

When LSU fired former coach Les Miles, they owed him $12.9 million, but were able to agree on a $1.5 million lump-sum settlement.  Still, that $1.5 million can pay for lots of teachers.  And, remember, LSU was paying that for Miles not to coach; let’s not forget the $3.5 million they’re paying annually to the current coach, Ed Orgeron.  So, here is LSU, paying over $5 million to football coaches, while water leaks in the library, the one building that supposedly gets used the most by college students.

There is no turning back of course, in fact, the fans clamor for more college football.  There was a time when teams played 11 regular season and one bowl game; a total of 12 games.  Now, they play 12 and for some a conference title game and then two playoff games.  Last year, Clemson ran off with the title with a 15-0 record.  Both the fans and the schools want the CFP to be expanded to at least eight teams. That means if things stay the same, the two teams that meet for the CFP title would play 16 games, the same amount as a non-playoff NFL team.

It is trickled down, too.  At the FCS level, teams play 11 in the regular season before embarking on a 24-team playoff.  At minimum, the FCS champ has to play four playoff games, 15 in total.  Division II plays 11 and then has a 28-team playoff format, while Division III (the non-scholarship level) has a 32-team playoff format.  The one difference is that Division III schools can only play 10 regular seasons games, but in the end, the D3 champ also plays 15 total games.

The one holdout to all this remains the Ivy League schools.  The eight members play ten regular season games—that’s it.  There are no FCS playoffs, no conference title game, no bowl games.  And guess what?  This upsets many.  There are those who want Ivy schools to participate in the FCS playoffs and there are those who get mad that Ivy schools get ranked in FCS polls because they don’t play in the playoffs.

The Ivy schools can hide behind this and say that they care about their students and they want them home for Thanksgiving; those are certainly noble thoughts, but let’s remember; they allow every other sport (including basketball) to participate in the NCAA playoffs.

This again, is another example of our hypocrisy.  We get mad when athletes can’t speak English, we get mad when $28 million facilities are built and the library’s plumbing is bad; we get mad because schools make billions on TV contracts and athletes get none of that, but we want more and more of it.  I’m guilty as charged.  If I have free time on Saturday in the fall, you know where I’ll be—either in front of the TV watching or at a college football game.

That said, I could live with the Ivy League model across the board.  I would be fine with 12 regular season games and no bowl games and playoffs for FBS and FCS.  But that will never happen; they’ll play 16 before they ever go back to just 12.

Now that LSU has beefed up its football facility, others will do the same.  Let’s just hope that the cards in the card catalog system don’t get wet. For another year, LSU students will find a way to make due using that system.

Caddo Parish Teacher Salary Schedules.










Hugh Hefner Wins Big at Tioga Downs

July 21, 2019

The grinders run through the heat for pocket change

by John Furgele (The Iconic 228)

Hugh Hefner lived quite the life before passing at age 91.  Not only was it a long life, but colorful, too.  I’ll let you interpret from there.

In Harness Racing, we also have a Hugh Hefner, and at age 11, he is alive, kicking and racing.  On Sunday, he took to the track at venerable Tioga Downs in Race 13, a nondescript claiming race that offered a $6,000 purse.  He was joined by seven other of his good friends and competitors on the 5/8 mile track with the temperature a steamy 86 degrees.

The race featured eight horses with a combined 108 starts on the year, once again, proving the mettle of the Standardbred.  For Hugh Hefner, it was start number 21 and more importantly, he was looking for his first win.  In his previous 20 starts, he had five seconds and four thirds and just over $16,000 in earnings.

Tymal Vortex came into the race with 21 starts, the most raced of the pack and was looking for his second victory of the year.  “Hef” came into the race with the most earnings, much of that done internationally.  His official name is Hugh Hefner N; the N means that he was bred in New Zealand.  You will also see horses with As after their name and you can probably surmise that the A stands for Australia.  Harness racing does well in several European countries with France and Sweden leading the way, but it’s quite popular “Down Under,” too.

Horses like Hefner can enjoy summer 12 months of the year.  When winter comes to the states, summer does so in New Zealand, so why not let Hugh race here in the summer and there in winter.  Makes perfect sense.

RM Blackhawk came into the race with four wins in 15 starts to go along $10,802 in earnings and he immediately went to the lead, cutting the quarter in 27.1, the half in 56.3 and three-quarters in 1:24.4.  In the stretch, Hugh Hefner was boxed in by the hard charging Rockin Away whose surge allowed Hefner to find room in the center of the track to prevail in a solid 1:53.3 with Rockin Away settling for second.

Because it was a claiming race, the horses are there for the taking.  In this particular race, the claiming price was set between $8,000 and $10,000 and prior to the start, the eventual third place finisher, RM Blackhawk was claimed for $9,000.  There is always someone who sees something in a horse and the claiming game is what keeps both harness and horse racing alive and well.

Let’s hope RM Blackhawk thrives in his new home.  We all think of the star horses and how good they are, but most of the racing is done by claimers and those who work with them.

Tioga Downs is owned by Jeffrey Gural, who also owns Vernon Downs and the track that you’ve all heard of—The Meadowlands.  In two weeks, The Big M will play host to the Hambletonian, the biggest day on the harness racing calendar.  But, today, it was a former and present icon, Hugh Hefner, who stole the spotlight.

Tioga Downs races 58 times in 2019.  The big day is Sunday, Aug. 18 when the finals of the Empire Breeders Classic and the Roll With Joe Open Pace will be contested. The racing season concludes on Saturday, Sept. 21.


Time for Horse Racing to Get Serious

July 4, 2019

Reforms are needed, issues must be addressed.

by John Furgele (The Concerned 228)

As horse racing heads into its summer season, there are many questions.  We all know that the winter at Santa Anita was not a good one.  The national media took note of the 30 equine fatalities and forced the sport to take a good, hard look at itself.  The goal is simple—make the sport safer.

Opinions ranged from banning race day medications, suspending the trainers who get caught drugging horses, and limiting whip use but real reform will be hard to achieve.  Here’s why.

As the Santa Anita season concluded,  racing officials there banned trainer Jerry Hollendorfer because four of his horses died during the meet along with two more to the north at Golden Gate Fields. But a few days later, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) welcomed him with open arms, inviting him to bring his horses to Belmont and Saratoga. That didn’t play well with those who want to see changes made to better protect the safety and welfare of thoroughbreds and a few days later, NYRA reversed course and said the Hall of Fame trainer would not be allowed to train/race horses at the NYRA tracks.

There is a loophole.  Holledorfer may not be allowed to train in New York, but his horses will be allowed to come to New York.  The trainer is transferring them to Don Chatlos, his longtime assistant who does have the necessary credentials—license, insurance—to train and race horses.  Mind you, this is legal, but there is a bit of stench, don’t you think?  No matter your opinion on this, for those who think uniformity and national regulation is imminent, think again.

Some believe that a national governing body with a commissioner will help to cure ills such as these, but that won’t be happening anytime soon.  And if this was a normal year, with fewer fatalities at Santa Anita, NYRA would have certainly allowed Hollendorfer to train and race.  In the end, NYRA reversed course because they had to show some sensitivity.

Why does this happen?  Why wouldn’t New York automatically honor California’s ban on Hollendorfer?  The reason is simple—money.  In this case, California’s loss would be New York’s gain.  If Hollendorfer brings his horses to New York, it helps fill fields, adds value for bettors and hopefully increases handle.  This isn’t baseball; where money is made through ticket sales, hot dog sales, merchandise sales and TV money.  Horse racing relies on having healthy horses and bettors, plain and simple.  And, New York will still benefit if Hollendorfer’s horses make it to Saratoga one week from now.

In horse racing, the states compete against each other; they want to collect as much money as they can, so when a trainer can’t train in one state, he looks for another.  NYRA can justify it too.  They can blame the rains that plagued Southern California this winter and they can say that the Santa Anita track wasn’t equipped to handle it and thus grant permission for a banned trainer to come to their tracks and work.

The disturbing part is the lack of transparency.  Hollendorfer is not the first to suffer equine fatalities and this requires a thorough investigation.  Will we ever find out if the trainer was the victim of bad luck; or, was he pushing unsound horses into training and the starting gate?  We know this happens, but where does it come from?  Are the tracks pushing trainers to make sure fields are full?  Is it the owner, the person paying the training bills, or is it the trainer who thinks that the chances of fatal injury are not severe enough?  There is the old school thought of “when in doubt, send them out” when we need more “when in doubt, keep them out.”

There are reforms coming and there is talk of making changes to help the sport get safer, but there hasn’t been a lot of discourse.  Where are the leaders; Bob Baffert?  Bill Mott?  Doug O’Neill?  Mark Casse?  Where is Javier Castellano?  John Velazquez?  The Oritz brother and  Flavien Prat?  We need to hear from these guys more not less; because these are the leaders that can help the sport survive and thrive.

The sport has never made things easy for itself.  In the early 2000s, many tracks switched to synthetics and equine fatalities decreased significantly.  Many applauded the reform, but it never fully caught on.  The New York tracks, Churchill Downs and Gulfstream never switched and after a few years, most of the big-time tracks went back to dirt. There were tons of reasons for not going all-in on the fake dirt:  bettors didn’t like it, trainers didn’t like it, there were too many soft tissue injuries, and the list goes on and on.

Soft tissue injures are no joke; they often end the racing career of a horse, but when a horse suffers one and quietly retires, the sporting world doesn’t read about it like they did this winter and spring at Santa Anita.

The last thing the industry needs is hearings on Capitol Hill.  Do you remember when they called on baseball to come and testify about the use of PEDs?  Do you recall the circus it was led by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and of course Rafael Palmiero, who defiantly wagged that finger, denying PED use only to fail a test weeks later.

If the Horse Racing industry doesn’t do more, the odds are great that Congress will get involved.  We will see members of the House of Representatives who know nothing about the sport, speak into microphones and lecture those that supposedly care about Thoroughbreds and thoroughbred racing.

The Santa Anita meet has mercifully ended and while the industry let out a collective sigh of relief, it is now time to roll up the sleeves and come up with real reforms to make the sport better and safer for all.