Baseball Playoffs: Johnny Furgele Is The Dumb One

October 9, 2015

by John Furgele

Change is hard and most people resist it. But, there is another saying, “change or die.” And, that is the operable word for baseball as they move forward. Baseball will enjoy some attention now that the playoffs are here, something that doesn’t happen much during the season. Football has taken over in America. It dominates the talk 365 days per year. From arrests, deflate gate and poor officiating; it rules the sports landscape with an iron fist despite the fact that the games are boring, poorly played and nondescript.

The Wild Card games just concluded with the road teams—Chicago and Houston—prevailing over Pittsburgh and New York. The results were not surprising because both road teams had the dominant pitcher and in baseball, it’s all about pitching. That is the underlying problem with the one game playoff to see who gets into Division Series play.

Baseball is sport comprised of series. During its 162 game season, teams play two, three or four game series. Then, the season ends and the four and five seeds engage in a one game playoff. That just doesn’t make sense. A team plays 162 games, qualifies for the playoffs and then has a one game showdown to see who advances? The worst team can beat the best team in a one game playoff, yet the 98 win Pirates had to take on the 97 win Cubs to advance to Division Series play against the Cardinals. Does that really makes sense? Sure, the drama of a winner-take-all is exciting, but that’s not how baseball is built. Never has been. What can be done to make the playoff experience more compelling?

Expand. Baseball needs to have an even number of teams in each league, so there doesn’t have to be interleague play each day of the regular season. By condensing interleague play, teams can make accommodations when they play in the other league’s park. American League teams can call up the extra pitcher for NL park games while National League teams can add the extra bat when they play in an AL park.

Eliminate Divisions. This is not a misprint. It’s 2015, divisions are so passé it’s no longer funny. Does winning a division really mean anything anymore? In today’s sports, it’s all about winning or at least playing for the championship. The San Francisco Giants didn’t win their division in 2014, but they won the World Series; in 20 years, are people going to remember that they didn’t win their division? The Florida Marlins have two World Series championships and zero division titles. Divisional play is no longer an essential ingredient of sports today.

Once divisions are eliminated, baseball can establish the table format. Line the teams up 1-16 with teams playing each other 10 times. That equals 150 games with 12 interleague games. There are some that want MLB to reduce the schedule to 154 games, but that isn’t going to happen. Why would a team play 77 home games, when they can play 81? Every time I hear talk of reducing the schedule, I cringe because it’s nothing more than reactionary thinking.

Four or Six: Right now, five teams from each league make the playoffs and that just isn’t right. Baseball needs to decide whether to take four teams from each league or six? With six, the top two seeds would get a bye while 3 plays 6 and 4 plays 5 in a best-of-3 series. After that the four remaining teams in each league would play best-of-7s in both the Division Series and League Championship Series. There really is no place for a best-of-5 series. The NHL and NBA got rid of these a long time ago and it’s time for baseball to do the same. My personal choice is to take the top four, but the playoffs are where the attention—and money—is so one couldn’t blame baseball for taking more teams. It does keep more cities interested in baseball and that’s never a bad thing.

Having a table it makes things fair. When the New York Yankees and Houston Astros are competing for a playoff spot, it makes no sense for the Yankees to play the Red Sox 19 times and the Astros only 6. Give each team 10 cracks at each other. If the Cubs and Mets are competing for seeding, it needs to be fair. Think about it, the Pirates and Cubs won 98 and 97 games respectively and had to play a one game playoff while the 92 win Dodgers and 90 win Mets had a “bye” into the Division Series. The NFL does this too and believes there is integrity when the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers get to host the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals in a Wild Card game. There is no merit or integrity in this at all. The NFL should also rid itself of divisions, but that’s another column.

Divisional play didn’t enter the landscape in baseball until 1969. Back then, there were east and west divisions in each league. Prior to 1969, there were eight or 10 teams in each league and only the league winners were rewarded with a direct trip to the World Series. Take the best teams, play an even schedule and make sure the best teams get the chance to win a championship. Why is this so hard?

In 1980, the Yankees were the AL East champion with a 103-59 record. The Baltimore Orioles finished second to New York with a 100-62 record while the Kansas City Royals won the West with a record of 97-65. Sure, the Royals were an excellent team, but the Orioles had nothing to show for winning 100 games.

In 1993, the Atlanta Braves won the NL West at 104-58, edging out the 103-59 Giants. The Braves played the 97-65 Phillies in the NLCS. Had there been a table with the top four teams making the playoffs, the seeds would have looked like this:

Atlanta 104-58
San Francisco 103-59
Philadelphia 97-65
Montreal 94-68

The Braves reward would be to play the worst qualifying team, the Expos, while the Giants and Phillies would have squared off in the 2-3 series. But, for some reason, winning the division was more important than winning more games. I’ve never considered myself a bright man, but I don’t think I’m stupid either. It’s 2015 and it is time for all of us to get new parts for our head. The time is right for sports to make some radical changes. Remember when the microwave came out? There were those who refused to use it, but eventually they came around. Remember the flip-phone? The problem with sports leagues is that they often cater to the oven and flip-phone people, while the young, tech-savvy people ignore their product.

The one game Wild Card started in 2012 and many are calling for it to be a best-of-3 series. Of course, baseball trots out excuse after excuse to not change it, citing things like letting it breathe, the drama, exciting television and so on and so forth. This is an example of being behind the times. The time to move was yesterday, yet baseball—and other sports—prefer to be stuck in the mud.

Yes, I’m crazy, sometimes, when I’m alone I plot out college football realignment, as well as creating a third Triple A baseball league, but I do believe there are others like me who don’t understand why the 90 win Mets haven’t started the playoffs while the 98 win Pirates are already home for the winter. But, as long as it makes sense to MLB officials, I guess I’m wrong.

Frosted Wins Pennsylvania Derby; Classic Next

September 20, 2015

by John Furgele

Sham was a nice horse, a very nice horse.  The problem for Sham was that he was born in 1970, the same year as Secretariat.  The same can be said for the 1975 birth year for Alydar, who had to contend with Affirmed in 1978.

Frosted was born in 2012 and he, too, is a nice horse, but 2015 has been the year of American Pharoah, who of course, won the Triple Crown as well as three other stakes races this year.  Frosted’s resume is a good one.  A win in the $1 million Wood Memorial, fourth in the Kentucky Derby, second in the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy and then third in the Travers.  In the Travers, he pressed the pace and American Pharoah resulting in Keen Ice’s come-from-behind victory.

In yesterday’s Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, Frosted got the top billing.  He was the favorite and even though there were some very good horses entered, on paper he was the best.  The question was what kind of race would the son of Tapit run?  Would he go back to being a stalker and closer or would he employ the Travers strategy of staying near the front and pressing?

Ohio Derby winner Mr. Z set the pace, but the pace was tepid as Z cut fractions of 24.1, 48.2 and 1:12.2. Frosted moved into contention at the top of the stretch and when the leaders hit the mile in 1:38, Frosted was ready to go and that he did, covering the last furlong in a very quick 11.97 seconds.  The Pennsylvania Derby, timing-wise, is the perfect prep race for the Breeder’s Cup Classic.  Last year, Bayern won it en route to a Classic win and perhaps Frosted can do the same.  The Travers was just three weeks ago and Frosted showed no signs of being worn out, adding to the fallacy that horses need more rest time.  They don’t.

Frosted has been a contender in every race he has run.  He got a poor trip in the Kentucky Derby, but never gave up and was doing his best running at the end to finish fourth.  On Belmont Stakes day, while nobody was going to deny American Pharoah, Frosted did scare for the briefest of seconds when he came up on the Triple Crown winner at the top of the stretch.  Pharoah dismissed him easily, but Frosted kept running and was clearly second best in the race.  The Breeder’s Cup Classic will be fully loaded, but Frosted cannot be counted out.

The other big race at Parx was the 46th running of the Cotillion for 3-year fillies.  Parx has a reputation for being speed favoring, but that wasn’t the case in the Derby or Cotillion.  Calamity Kate was the pace setter, setting honest fractions of 23.2, 47.2 and 1:12.1.  She fought gamely but when it was time to run, I’m a Chatterbox, the runner-up to Embellish the Lace in the Alabama, surged to win impressively in 1:44.2 for 1 1/16 miles.  The daughter of Munnings pushed her career earnings to $1.3 million and picked up her fourth win of the year.  Unlike the male 3-year-old division, there is no dominant filly, so the Breeder’s Cup Distaff should be a wide-open affair.  I’m a Chatterbox should be a contender.

Trouble Kid took the $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes.  The gelding, the son of Harlan’s Holiday set blazing fractions of 21.1, 44.1 and then fought off Limousine Liberal to win in 1:10.56.  The win was the first stakes win for Trouble Kid and his third straight.  The gelding continues to improve and it will be interesting to see where his next race will be.

Encryption won the $150,000 Bayern Stakes in impressive fashion, roaring down the stretch in 1:44.1 for 1 1/16 miles.   Uncle Dave took the lead from the gate, and then fought bravely, holding on to win the $100,000 Alphabet Soup Handicap in 1:44 for 1 1/16 miles.

In the end, American Pharoah did not grace Bensalem with his presence, but the crowd was solid and overall handle was $5.8 million.  That’s a good number, but down from 2014 when California Chrome showed up to push handle over $10 million.  In horse racing, it is about star power.

Parx may lack the charm of Saratoga, Keeneland and other tracks, but Pennsylvania Derby day has solidified itself on the calendar for horses that want to run in the Breeder’s Cup.  Could Frosted be the next to pull off the Pennsylvania Derby-Breeder’s Cup Classic double?  We’ll have to wait and see.

Dana Holgorsen Has Never Been More Right

September 10, 2015

by John Furgele

Dana Holgorsen has broken free. The West Virginia coach, in his weekly presser before their game against Liberty has come out and said that FBS schools shouldn’t be playing FCS schools.  Is he right?  Will others listen?

The coach stated that the game against Liberty and its 2016 contest against Youngstown State were scheduled before he arrived on the scene and as long as he is coach, he will no longer entertain FCS foes.  In fact, Holgorsen said that in the future, West Virginia will schedule two Power 5 schools and only one Group of 5 school for its nonconference games.

Holgorsen didn’t call anybody out, but clearly was taking a shot at TCU and Baylor.  Last year, Baylor coach Art Briles cried about his Bears being left out of the College Football Playoff, but his Bears played NOBODY, beating up SMU, Rice and FCS Northwestern State in nonconference action.

Competition is intense for a coveted spot in the CFP.  There are five Power 5 conferences and only four spots and even if there were more teams involved, there is no guarantee that each conference would get an automatic bid.  One could easily see two SEC schools making the field, and if Ohio State were to go 13-0 and Michigan State finished 11-1 with its only loss to the Buckeyes, could the Spartans leapfrog a Baylor or TCU?  The answer is a resounding yes, because MSU would have a win over Oregon on its resume, while Baylor can tout Rice and SMU of the old Southwest Conference on its victim list.

As a fan and more importantly, a booster or season ticket holder, why would you want to see Baylor play Lamar?  Think about it?  You work all week, spend money on tickets, tailgating and driving to and from to see your Baylor Bears cruise to a 63-10 win.  Is that exciting?  Is that riveting?  Isn’t it a waste of time?  Wouldn’t it be better to see Baylor host Vanderbilt, or Temple or dare we say, a Georgia Tech?  I’d rather watch Oklahoma play Tennessee than Oklahoma play McNeese State.

We know why Lamar wants the game—money.  And, we know Baylor can pay Lamar less than they would have to pay a Temple or Cincinnati, but the game needs to have quality matchups each week, not mismatches.  And, what benefit is there for Baylor?  They’re supposed to win and win easily; if they struggle to win, they get knocked and if they lose, they’re laughingstocks.  Didn’t anybody learn that Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech actually resonated more than Baylor going 3-0 in their nonconference slate?

Holgorsen is right, but Baylor and TCU are not the only culprits.  SEC teams litter their schedule with FCS teams and often use them as buffers before they play a huge conference game.  Alabama takes on Charleston Southern the week before the Iron Bowl versus Auburn, but “because the SEC it just too tough to navigate,” these breathers go unnoticed.  The exception is Mike North of Fox Sports Radio who has indeed, taken the SEC to task for their scheduling faux paus.  If Baylor is 12-0 and Alabama is 12-1, let’s remind everybody that the Tide played FCS Charleston Southern because everybody will know about Baylor’s game against Lamar.

There are always going to be biases toward the conferences.  The SEC has gotten top billing the last decade, but in the big bowl games last year, the SEC fell flat as Alabama, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Auburn all lost, and for good measure, LSU lost to a Notre Dame team that was reeling.  On the contrast, the Big Ten did very well, with Ohio State winning the College Football Playoff with Wisconsin and Michigan State winning the Capital One and Cotton Bowls.  The time has come for teams to schedule tough, competitive nonconference games.  And, as fans doesn’t Oregon-Michigan State and Oklahoma-Tennessee excite more than Buffalo-Penn State?

The Michigan Wolverines are a good example of scheduling quality.  Last week, they went to Utah and lost and this week, they are hosting Oregon State.  On paper, it doesn’t come across as a marquee game, but Oregon State is a Power 5 team from the Pac 12 and this game is much more enchanting than if the Wolverines and Beavers played Western Michigan and Idaho respectively.

The Wolverines certainly scheduled tough for Jim Harbaugh’s first season.  After Oregon State, it’s UNLV, a home game against Brigham Young, and then on to the Big Ten.  Should the Wolverines finish 10-2, they will certainly earn more CFP votes than a 10-2 or even an 11-1 Baylor.

It certainly sounds like I’m down on Baylor and that’s because I am.  After last year’s parade of cupcakes, the Bears had plenty of time to drop Lamar and find somebody willing to play a home-and-home, but they stayed arrogant, going as far to say that they will continue to play games against creampuffs.

College football is the best of all regular seasons.  Each season there are 12 “auditions” and if those 12 go well, there may be a 13th in the form of a conference championship game.  The margin for error is small, quite small.  People believe that there is more parity than ever in the game and if that’s the case, then teams should knock each other off in conference play.  There will come a time where a 9-3, regular season team finds its way into the CFP.  In reality, if an Alabama or Florida State goes undefeated in conference play, what does that say about the conference?  Of course, it’s always been that way, but with parity, shouldn’t the SEC West winner be 7-1 or even 6-2?

What Holgorsen did was a good thing for college football.  It should lead to serious discussion about the future of scheduling among Power 5 schools.  If you’re a fan of FCS football, you might not like what he or I say, but P5 schools should stop scheduling FCS schools.  If Furman can’t play Virginia Tech, perhaps they will schedule a Delaware or an Illinois State in what would promise to be a competitive contest.  FCS schools should do their part and stop scheduling Division II schools. If it’s good for the goose, it has to be good for the gander, and FCS schools often stray away from their kind, too.

The game is too good right now and like I said, there are only 12 to 13 chances to see teams play.  Wasting one week for FBS-FCS blowouts takes away a precious week and the time has come for it to stop.

Football, The King is Back

September 5, 2015

by John Furgele

If you live in the Northeast or the Midwest, Labor Day can be a sad time. The warm summer days are fading fast. If you have a swimming pool, you will be closing it shortly after September 7. Soon, the cooler temps arrive and before too long, winter is here. And, even though there is the same amount of days in winter as there is summer, winter seems to take twice as long.

But with the arrival of fall comes perhaps the best time of the sports year. Baseball heads to the playoffs and for most of the nation, their favorite sport, football, returns. I’m still not really sure when football moved ahead of the others and I’m less sure when football began to dominate. Ratings for football continue to rise, in fact, as other sports see their rating decline, football ratings continue to climb.

For the NFL, the regular season cannot come soon enough. The league decided to make a mountain our of a mole hill with Deflategate (a word I despise). The act calls for a team fine of $25,000, yet Roger Goodell and the shield decided to fine the Pats a million dollars, steal some draft picks, and suspend Tom Brady for four games. Judge Berman decided that Goodell went above and beyond and vacated the suspension. Most organizations would accept the court decision, but Goodell has vowed that the league will appeal. He works for the owners and let’s hope that they call Goodell and tell him to simmer down, drop the appeal and get back to the…

The NFL for years has gotten a pass from the media. The networks were always afraid to criticize the league for fear of reprisal. There was always the notion that the arrogant NFL would take a TV contract back, or move them to another network if criticism was too harsh. ESPN paid billions for games, but their Monday night package was second tier compared to NBC’s Sunday night slate of games. They also went a few years without having a playoff game. And, that’s despite the fact that ESPN generally kisses the ring of the NFL. Eventually, the issues became too big to ignore. The Ray Rice saga, as well as those of Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy were simply too tough to ignore. The concussion problems aren’t going away either so the networks in gingerly fashion have decided to confront the NFL on some of these important topics.

The NFL has been criticized for threats and dictation. The soon-to- be- released movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith details the story of the doctor that discovered CTE, and there are rumors suggesting that the NFL told the producers to tone down the story, and though the producers denied that this happened, where there’s smoke, there is usually fire.

The NFL has seen its share of domestic abuse, fast drivers (Sheldon Richardson) and its normal under-the-radar substance abuse suspensions and to complicate matters, has seen way too many players go down with serious season-ending injuries. The league will continue to focus on concussions, but they also need to look into why a Jordy Nelson rips up his ACL by planting and running. NFL players work out hard all year and some say because they practice less in training camp, that injuries have increased. I tend to believe that the players spend too much time practicing and working out. Because they are so tight, ligaments and tendons are snapping at an alarming rate.

Will this stop players from working out so hard in the offseason? Of course not, but it is something that the league should look in to. I’m not sure four pre-season games are necessary, but unless the league gets an agreement to have 20 total games, the status quo will remain. The CFL plays 2 pre-season games and then 18 regular season games. The NFL would like to go to 18, but the players will have to be given something for that to happen. The logical compromise is 3 pre-season games and 16 in the regular season, but logic seldom prevails in professional sports. And, don’t expect the players to give in on anything in future negotiations. After the Brady fiasco, you can bet your bippy that the players association is going to want new rules with regards to the personal conduct policy. They gave Goodell the right to be judge, jury and to hear appeals, but that won’t happen in the next collective bargaining agreement. Nobody would be surprised if there was a work stoppage or a lockout. The players are the game, something that other sports recognize but not the NFL. The league believes that “The Shield,” trumps the players and they will find out soon that they’re wrong.

The perception is that the players association has been weak; that in the end, because an NFL career is short, that they will sacrifice long term for short term. That may be changing in the future. Judge Berman exposed the league. I’m not sure I’d call what happened to Brady a victory, but it had to give the NFLPA something to hang their hat on for the future. And, the owners are already thinking about changing Goodell’s role as the dean of discipline. Goodell remains the ultimate enigma. Yes, he makes the owners, the people that employ him billions, but truth-to-be-told, he hasn’t been a great commissioner. Calling for his job is not appropriate because nobody knows how he interacts with his employers. The owners may like him, in fact, before the Brady fiasco, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Goodell were regular old pals.

The NFL is the undisputed King of Professional Sports, but they have relied on greed, arrogance, an adoring public and a forgiving media for far too long. But, they are the King and when the Thursday night opener between Pittsburgh and New England takes place, the ratings will destroy every other program on television. So, there has always been a reason for this arrogance. One can only hope that wisdom going forward will prevail.

College football, which begins this week is the clear number two sport in the land. Baseball and basketball and even hockey are doing alright, but we have become England. That country loves soccer so much; they can’t get enough of it and now, with our passion for football, we have become one-sport centric. The College Football Playoff semifinals and title game almost doubled in viewership Game 7 of the World Series. Think about that? The former national pastime getting trounced by amateur football.

The bad part of our love for football is what it has done for sports shows. Rather than talk about baseball games, they talk about air pressure in footballs. Rather than talk about basketball games, they talk about how long it will take before Jim Harbaugh rules college football Is this wrong? No, but every show discusses the same topics. It gets old and sure, the simple thing is to turn it off, but if you like sports, you want to listen to and talk about sports.

That will happen now because football is here. Rather than predict Harbaugh’s success, we will dissect how his Wolverines played against the Utah Utes. Rather than predict greatness for newly anointed Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, we will see him play and summarize from that.

Like many old-schoolers, I hate to give football its ultimate due. I still cling to the hope that all sports deserve attention; that hockey is just as relevant as football, but I have conceded. Football is the king and despite its many wrongdoings, can’t be topped. I still don’t think it’s the best game out there, but Americans feel that it is. I don’t believe in fantasy football. I find it silly that grown adults spend so much time pouring over stats to decide “who to play,” on a particular Sunday. But, I have softened there, too. I don’t want to hear whom you’re playing, but no longer will I make fun of you.

I’ll take college football over NFL football, so I guess there is some rebel left in me. I find the college atmosphere intoxicating and I prefer Saturday over Sunday. But, it’s still football and for the next six months it will dominate, drowning other sports in its wake.

The King has indeed, returned to the throne.

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.


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