Archive for May, 2008

Maybe Mets Just Aren’t That Good

May 27, 2008

by John Furgele

Willie Randolph is still the Mets manager—for now—but something tells me that he won’t last the season unless the Mets go on an incredible 14-6 run or something of that nature.  You can’t gather much from watching games on TV, but the Mets just don’t look interested.  But, perhaps even more important, they mayjusy not be very good. 

The 2006 season was their year and Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals ruined that.  After a strong 32-17 start in 2007, the Mets have been an under .500 team.  Throw in the monumental collapse that ended the 2007 season and one has to question just how good this team really is.  And, would a new manager, a new voice really help?  And, if you do fire Randolph, you need a Jack McKeon/Larry Bowa type to replace him, not a Jerry Manuel. 

Let’s look at the Mets

1B:  Carlos Delgado:  He’s old and looks old at the plate, swinging and missing with alarming regularity, and hitting .220

2B:  Luis Castillo:  a complimentary player at best, but always a good average hitter.  When the team is going well, he’s one of those “intagible” players that you have to have.  When the team is going poorly, he “never hits homers, drives in runs,” and fans want him replaced.  Put Castillo on the Red Sox, the superlatives reign, but on the underachieving Mets, not so much.

SS:  Jose Reyes:  Has regressed and nobody really knows why.  Still too early to give up on him, because when he’s going right, he is perhaps the most exciting player in the game.  That said, something is bothering this kid and the Mets have to figure it out—SOON.

3B:  David Wright:  The best player on the team and his numbers will be there in the end.  But, like many of the Mets has had instances of not running hard and as a third baseman, he can’t make the throws.  How he won a Gold Glove last year is a mystery.  Once Delgado leaves, he should be moved to first base.

LF:  Moises Alou:  Always hurt, never plays.  The fact that the Mets are playing Nick Evans, a AA call-up says it all.

CF:  Carlos Beltran:  A very good player, but the Mets overpaid to get him.  Fans mistake his long strides and easy going manner as not putting out effort.  Simply put, Beltran is a guy who thinks of baseball as a job, a way to make a living.  There are a lot of Beltrans in baseball, so to fault him exclusively is not fair.  To me, just doesn’t have the passion that New York baseball fans want in a player.  Would like to win a championship, but won’t be sad if his teams never do so.  Once again, he is not alone here.

RF:  Ryan Church:  Has been a pleasant surprise, but he was ready to break out.  When he was acquired by the Mets, most of the “experts,” didn’t think he could play full-time.  Of course, they (and the Expos/Nationals) never gave him a chance.  Remember, it was Davey Johnson who thought Lenny Dykstra couldn’t hit lefties, so he traded him to the Phillies for Juan Samuel.  How did that work out?

C:  Brian Schneider:  A good defesnsive player, but nothing more than a .235 to .255 hitter.  If you’re relying on him for big hits, good luck.

P:  Johan Santana:  Thus far, he has not been the stopper, the dominant losing streak-ender the Mets needed.  At $26 million per season, they need more than 6 plus innings, 12 hits and four runs.  The fact that he has trouble putting hitters away has to be a concern.

P:  Oliver Perez:  Great stuff, but up-and-down.  If the Mets give him big money, it will be a mistake.  Somebody will give him the dough, though.

P:  John Maine:  An average to slightly above average strting pitcher.

P:  Mike Pelfrey:  Pitches scared.  Because the Mets show no confidence in him, he takes the mound thinking one more bad start and he’s off to New Orleans—or the bullpen.

P: Claudio Vargas:  Who? 

P:  Pedro Martinez:  Always hurt.  The Red Sox certainly knew what they were doing when they let him walk as a free agent.  Reenergized the Mets after the “Art Howe Era,” but was MIA in 2006 and 2007, and thus far, 2008.  The fact that the Mets have no sense of urgency to get him back is disturbing.

RP:  Aaron Heilman:  He’s having one of those up-and-down relief pitcher years.  One year, they’re great, the next year, they’re bad.  Remember Chad Bradford?  In 2006, he was super, but the Mets wisely let him go and he has been ordinary since.  Heilman wants to start, and probably would be better off doing that, where giving up a home run or two during the course of the game doesn’t always cripple you.  Ask Johan Santana

RP:  Billy Wagner:  A top five closer who will save 19 of every 21 chances, nothing to worry about here,  In sum, the least of the Met worries. 

The rest of the bullpen is average—at best.  The bench is below average.  For some reason the Mets love Marlon Anderson, but every other team he plays for winds up releasing him.  Fernando Tatis?  Raul Castro is a decent backup catcher, but breaks down in that role, and Damion Easley is a useful backup infielder, but there is hardly a threat, or more importantly somebody to push a starter.  Delgado has to play everyday, because there is no Tony Clark on the bench to threaten him.

There you have it.  The 2008 Mets.  Omar Minaya says they have championship talent.  Do you believe him?

I don’t.

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May Day

May 24, 2008

by John Furgele

If there’s a better sports month than May, please tell me.  The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola (formerly World) 600, the NBA playoffs, the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs (the finals begin tonight), Major League Baseball, Soccer (both U.S. and Europe), and so on and so on.

Except for February, which except for the Super Bowl is devoid of big events, May separates itself because there are so many big events or one time only affairs.  And, the sports of hockey and basketball finally play meaningful games after a too long and drawn out regular season.  Memorial Day is where baseball fans can take the temperatures of their teams for the first time.  For Met fans, it may be time to worry; for Seattle Mariner fans, it may be time to think that your season is lost; for Marlin and Rays fans, it may be time to think about watching some games. 

Say, hey, for May.

 

Soccer, Soccer, Soccer

May 24, 2008

by John Furgele

Americans cringe at the thought, but soccer remains a global hit, and one of the reasons is that the soccer year is virtually nonstop.  On Wednesday, May 21, Manchester United beat Chelsea in penalty kicks to win the 2007-2008 Champions League Final.  The game was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time, and thus was decided in the dreaded—and heartbreaking—penalty kicks.

The European soccer leagues begin their seasons in mid-August and the Champions League final ends the third week of May.  Unlike other sports, the offseason is very brief.  On June 7, the 2008 Eurpoean Championships begin, a 16 nation tournament that will crown its champion on June 29.  Only July sees no big games, although several European teams will play friendlies (exhibitions). 

The U.S. based Major League Soccer begins in season on the last Saturday in March and ends it the third Sunday in November.  So, when you think about it, every week of the year has an important, count-in-the-standings game.  When Eurpoean soccer ends, there is United States soccer, when United States soccer ends, there is European soccer with overlap, too.  In addition to the regular seasons, there is the U.S. Open Cup, the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup, and UEFA Champions League.  It’s no wonder the fans are passionate and sometimes go over the top—they get no break, no offseason, no time to recoup.

But, that’s what makes the sport great.

The Triple Crown Hype is On

May 20, 2008

by John Furgele

Two are out of the way.  Just one more to go, one more to immortality for Big Brown, jockey Kent Desormeaux and trainer Rick Dutrow.  That’s it.  One more race and a horse racing legend will be crowned. 

We’ve been down here before.  We have seen three year old colts win the Kentucky Derby, then take the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, only to see them come up short at horse racing’s graveyard—Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes.  Some came agonizingly close, some were routed. 

After seeing Big Brown win the Kentucky Derby with ease, he simply toyed with the field at the Preakness Stakes.  Because of that, most feel that he saved plenty for the Belmont and will be relatively fresh come June 7.

If only it were that easy.

The Belmont Stakes, held in Elmont, NY just over the Queens/ Long Island border in Nassau County is called “The Test of the Champion,” and that moniker is appropriate.  The Derby is 1 1/4 miles; the Preakness, 1 3/16.  Come June 7, if Big Brown wants to stamp/cement his legacy he will have to go 1 1/2 miles, a distance that, unless he starts racing on turf, will never contest again. 

There are several obstacles that could prevent Big Brown from winning this race.  First, is the track.  Unlike most race courses, where horses start and pass the home stretch/finish line twice, they only do that once at Belmont Park, which is 1 1/2 miles around.  It’s a big track, an enormous track and if the horse isn’t used to it, it could cause problems.  For Big Brown, that shouldn’t be a problem, because it is trainer Rick Dutrow’s home base, but training on the track and racing on it are vastly different.  When horses turn for home, both the jockey and horse can see the finish line and they can gauge accordingly.  At Belmont Park, they turn for home and the finish line is nowhere in sight.  As a result, sometimes the jockey makes his move too early and disaster awaits.

Next, the distance.  This is the only time a horse will be asked to run 1 1/2 miles on dirt.  The richest race in North America, the $5 million Breeder’s Cup Classic is 1 1/4 miles.  It took Big Brown 2:01 and change to win the Derby; 1:55 and change to win the Preakness.  If he is to win the Belmont, he will have to run at least 25 seconds more than the Derby, roughly 2:26 to 2:28.  The Belmont Stakes (and world record for 1 1/2 miles) is 2:24.00 and that was run by the legend:  Secretariat, in 1973. 

Up next is the grueling schedule.  In order to win the Triple Crown, Big Brown is being asked to run three races in five weeks, and at some point, he will hit the wall.  The horse racing industry and their fans are hoping Big Brown hits the wall on June 8, but in recent years, the wall usually comes with about a furlong to go.  Brown will face some horses that ran in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness to get rest and to get ready.  Denis of Cork rallied from 20th (last) to finish third at Louisville, and Take of Ekati rallied to fourth.  If they both run, they will be fresh and both have styles suited to make a late charge and ruin everybody’s hope for immortality.

Currently, the horse players are raving about Japan’s Casino Drive.  He has only raced twice, but like Big Brown, he won an allowance race with ease, then, toyed with the field in the $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes, a 1 1/8 mile race that was won by 5 1/4 lengths.  And, just for nice the race was contested at Belmont Park.  Whether the Peter Pan is comparable to the Derby and the Preakness remains to be seen, but Casino Drive will be fresher than Big Brown.

Finally, is the competition.  The other trainers want to play the game and playing the game means being the trainer who trains the horse that ruins a Triple Crown bid.  They will strategize and they may even band together to make sure things don’t go easy for Big Brown. 

In 2004, we saw that happen to Smarty Jones.  Everybody had already written the Smarty Jones story, but the field all took runs at Smarty and forced the horse to cover every move.  Jockey Stewart Elliott panicked and simply couldn’t take the game of cat-and-mouse anymore.  After covering the moves, he pushed Smarty to the lead while Birdstone sat back and waited.  Down the stretch, Smarty Jones ran out of gas and was passed by Birdstone.  “It’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong to go, but Birdstone is an upset threat…..Birdstone surges past….Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”  The words came from track announcer Tom Durkin and with them, a collective groan from the 119,000 who were there in person.

This will be the 11th time since 1978 that a horse comes to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to grab the Triple Crown, and since Affirmed in 1978, the record is 0-10.  It started in 1979, when Spectacular Bid moved too soon, tired and finished third.  In 1981, Pleasant Colony could only muster third.  In 1987, the son of 1978 Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes runner up Alydar, Alysheba tired badly and finished fourth. 

The 1989 series saw two classic duals between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.  After winning the Derby, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer hooked up in a classic stretch drive dual in the Preakness with Sunday Silence winning by a nose.  Easy Goer came to the Belmont and with five furlongs to go, buried Sunday Silence to spoil the dream. 

After eight uneventful years, the end of the 1990s saw three consecutive dreams die at the Belmont.  In 1997, Silver Charm was passed right near the finish and finished second.  The next year, the same trainer (Bob Baffert), tried to win with Real Quiet and this would be the closest we would come, as Victory Gallop edged Real Quiet at the tape.  The next year (1999), Charismatic would fade, injure himself and finish third.  Are you feeling the pain yet?

This will be the fourth time in the 2000s that a Triple Crown can be won on the dirt at Belmont Park.  War Emblem would finish third in 2002.  In 2003, America’s favorite gelding, Funny Cide, a $75,000 purchase would be gunned down by Empire Maker and finish a well-beaten third.  And, of course, the one that got away, the Smarty Jones saga of 2004.

So, we all need to take it easy and slow down a bit.  Right now, Big Brown looks like he can’t be beaten.  His trainer certainly thinks so, but “The Test of the Champion” awaits.

And, it is quite the test.

Come On Back

May 15, 2008

by John Furgele

In two days, women’s athletics have been hit hard by the retirement announcements of Justine Henin and Annika Sorenstam.  Between the two, they have 17 major titles and have been ranked number one in tennis and golf for many, many weeks.

Sorenstam is 37 and her retirement is less of a surprise than the 25 year Henin.  Both married young and both went through divorces.  Sorenstam is engaged and she spoke of moving on and starting a family, something that is very hard to do when you playing golf on a full-time basis.  Sorenstam will finish the season before retiring, while Henin’s retirement is immediate and very surprising.

The French Open begins May 25, in Paris, a place where the Belgian Henin has dominated, winning the last three titles.  She is a gritty player with a tremendous one handed backhand, one of the few to use the one hander from the backhand side.  She was never a warm and fuzzy person and in most matches, the crowd usually rooted for her opponent.  That only added to her persona.  Not only was she tough on opponents, she usually had to battle them and the crowds.  You have to like those who can win in those conditions.

She was also controversial, criticized for not replaying a fault after she stuck her hand out for time against Serena Williams in a French Open semifinal.  Williams claims she saw the hand and became distracted, but both Henin and the chair umpire refused to replay the point.  Whether or not that helped Henin beat Williams is not for me to judge.

She also was criticized for defaulting against Amelie Mauresmo in the Australian Open in final in 2006.  Mauresmo was on her way to a rout when Henin, down a set and 0-2, claimed that her stomach was too ill to continue.  Mauresmo claimed her first major, but did not get to win it “on the court.”  The good thing was that the two matched up in the Wimbledon final later that year and Mauresmo prevailed and won it in traditional style.

I will miss Henin and I will hope that after taking some time off to reflect, the 25 year old will realize that she misses the game and will make a comeback.  But, she could be like her countrywoman, Kim Clisjsters, who also retired young and has not been heard from since. 

Sorenstam referenced Brett Favre in her retirement speech, claiming she loves competing, but the grind of practicing and traveling has worn thin on her.  And, there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to get married and start a family.  Sorenstam is 37 and unlike Henin, has had a long and productive career (Henin was productive, just not long).  She owes us nothing.  And, even though Lorena Ochoa has replaced as the number one player on the LPGA tour, the Swede is far from washed up.  Last week she beat Ochoa by seven strokes to win an LPGA event, and something tells me she is going to win at least one major this year before calling it quits. 

These retirements may be short lived.  Both may be back playing in six months, 12 months or some other time period.  My gut tells me that Sorenstam’s retirement may be for good, and that would be fine.  We have enjoyed watching her play—and dominate—on the LPGA tour.  Heck, we even enjoyed watching her play against the men at the Colonial several years ago. 

As for Henin, my gut tells me that she will come back, but will realize that it was a mistake and after a few tournaments will retire again.  It’s tough to quit and come back in tennis and there is proof to this.  Martina Hingis came back but never threatened to win a major.  John McEnroe took time off, came back and never made another final of a grand slam event.  Bjorn Borg retired at age 26, came back using a his wooden racket and never did much of anything.  Jennifer Capriati was the only person to take significant time off, come back and win some big events.  It is not an easy thing to do.

The word burnout was used or hinted at by both ladies and it has to be a reason.  Unlike team sports where one’s mood can be perked up by teammates, individual sport athletes have the toughest grind.  They practice alone, with their coach and travel alone.  They can’t be too friendly with their opponents because it may take their edge off, something they need to be successful.  It is a lonely existence.  And, unlike athletes in team sports, they are paid on performance.  There are no guaranteed contracts and while it’s true that players like Henin and Sorenstam will not starve because of their enormous talents, there still is stress that is related to performance.

I wish both Annika and Justine nothing but the best in retirement and can only hope that there are at total peace with their decisions.  That’s all we can ask for.

 

 

NBA Playoffs a Pure Bore

May 12, 2008

by John Furgele

The NBA playoffs may be the worst sporting event in modern times.  The games are too long, too predictable, too noisy and frankly, too much to take.  Many have said that the NBA is in the midst of a revival, but count me as a skeptic.

First, the games are too long.  Baseball will never be challenged when it comes to length, but the NBA is not far behind.  An average playoff game takes three hours to play with all the stoppages, commercials, delays and other distractions.  And, with some of the games tipping off well after 10:30 PM on the east coast, is anybody willing to make the three hour committment?

The games are also too predictable.  Only in the NBA can the home team win their games by 15 to 20 points, then go on the road and lose by the same 15 to 20 points.  The Boston Celtics are 5-0 at home this playoff season and 0-4 on the road.  The good thing for the Celtics is that because they have the best record in the league, they don’t have to win a road game to win the championship.  If they run the table at home, they’d finish the playoffs 16-12 and as NBA champions.  In their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, after winning Game 1, they beat the Cavs 89-73 in Game 2, then hit the road for Game 3 and were drubbed 108-84.  Home court advantage is important, and most of the time, a win at home is expected, but how come the games aren’t closer?  It’s almost hard to call the Celtics a good team when they play so badly on the road.

I had to laugh when everybody wrote the San Antonio Spurs off after they were blown out twice at New Orleans in the Western semis.  Sure, they didn’t look good, didn’t play well, and had to win four of the remaining five games to move on, but they hadn’t played at their home crib, the noisy AT&T Center.  And, as expected, once the Spurs came home, they won Games 3 and 4 to knot the series at 2-2.

The Los Angeles Lakers cruised past the Utah Jazz in their home games, but to no one’s surprise, the Jazz evened the series up at home.  At least the Lakers were competitive, taking both games in Salt Lake City down to the wire, including an overtime loss in Game 4.

The only team that has had road success is the Detroit Pistons.  The Pistons won two road games verus Philadelphia in the opening round, and after losing Game 3 at Orlando, took Game 4 to take a three games to one lead in their series.  One more win puts the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth straight season.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons they have made five Eastern Conference finals; they can a road game. 

The games are too noisy.  Every arena pumps in artificial noise to the point of distraction, with the NBA the only sport that allows music to play while the game is in action.  Why they can’t just let the noise be natural is beyond comprehension, but obviously, the league feels that they need this over-the-top-noise to get fans to come to the building.  Even the PA announcer yells and screams “Detroit basetball” when the ball goes out-of-bounds.  If you notive, college basketball does not do this and the tournament games are much more exciting, and most importantly, more natural.

Look at the other sports.  Just about every hockey game is a nip-and-tuck affair, and even though the home teams win most of the time, you feel as if the road team has a legitimate chance to win the game.  Both the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh have held serve at home, but each game was tied or was a one goal affair late into the third period.  Last night, while the Penguins and Flyers were tied 2-2 in the third period, San Antonio was leading New Orleans 100-74.  Is that compelling? 

The NFL, which used to be considered the best home field advantage in all of sports, has seen a change.  Last season, the New York Giants won games at Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay en route to winning the Super Bowl.  In 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers won at Cincinnati, at Indianapolis and at Denver before beating Seattle in the Super Bowl.  The Jacksonville Jaguars won an AFC Wild Card Game at Pittsburgh last season as well. 

The NBA playoffs soldier on and on and on.  It is May 12, yet the playoffs are only in round two, meaning that there are not even halfway done.  So, there will be three more series of home team wins and road team losses.  NBA ratings have taken a great fall, and frankly, will never reach the Bird-Magic or the Jordan Era marks again.  It’s not that the game of basketball is not a good game, but there are reasons not to watch these games.  It is just as easy to click on Yahoo, MSN, ESPN.com and get updates while doing other things.  The NBA suffers from the old “all you have to do is watch the last four minutes,” adage as well. 

I have found that even that isn’t necessary.  All I do is check out to see who the home team is and make my conclusions from there.  Chances are, the home team will win and the three hours can be spent doing something else—-like sleeping.

 

Marlins Ready for Another Title

May 11, 2008

by John Furgele

The Florida Marlins are in their 16th season of Major League Baseball.  They have never won a division title, but they have made the playoffs twice, won two National League pennants and two World Series championships.  In fact, they have never lost a postseason series, going 6-0 in the best of five and best of seven formats that are the baseball playoffs.

The Marlins won their first world championship in 1997, then six years later, won again in 2003.  In between, they went 54-108 (1998) and overhauled the roster several times.  They are lucky to draw 10,000 fans on a weeknight, but every five to six years, they seem to win a world title.

Many fans of other teams laugh at the Marlins, blast the Marlins, say the Marlins are bad for baseball.  Some of these fans root for Philadelphia, New York (Mets), Cleveland and San Francisco  I see and hear sportscasters critize the Marlins all the time, saying that they are a Mickey Mouse organization.

But, let’s think about it Met fans.  The Mets have been playing National League baseball since 1962 and like the Marlins, have won two world championships.  The Mets have not won a title since the famous and overblown 1986 season, just a mere 22 years ago.  The Mets; two titles in 47 seasons, the Marlins two in 15.  Advantage:  Marlins.

Let’s now go to Philadelphia:  The Phillies are the second oldest team in baseball behind Cincinnati.  They have one world championship—in 1980–and last year was the first year they made the playoffs since 1993, the first year of the Marlins.  Advantage:  Marlins.

To Cleveland we go:  The Tribe has not won a title since before rock and roll took off—1948.  And, just for nice, the Marlins beat them for their 1997 title.  Big advantage:  Marlins

San Francisco may be a world class city, but in baseball circles, they are sorry.  The last time the Giants won a World Series was in 1954, when they were called the New York Giants, had Willie Mays and played in the Polo Grounds.  And, just for nice, the Marlins beat the Giants in both the 1997 and 2003 Division Series en route to their world titles.  Advantage:  Marlins, in a cakewalk.

Today, the Marlins are 22-14 and sitting in first place in the National League East.  It’s been five years since they last made the playoffs and won a World Series, so it’s about time they make another run.  And, just for nice, they just signed Hanley Ramirez to a six year, $70 million contract and in 2011 will move to a new stadium and change their name to the Miami Marlins.

You might want to book hotel reservations in Miami this October because the Marlins (certainly not the Dolphins) just might have some important games to play during that time.

 

They Don’t Make’Em Like This Anymore

May 7, 2008

In the wake of the filly Eight Belles collapse and passing at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, some are faulting the way horses are trained for the reasons that these magnificient athletes break down.  Today, horses run very infrequently.  Derby winner Big Brown only had three starts before the Derby and most of the others had less than 10. 

But, that was not the case in 1982.  Because of a minor leg injury, Conquisator Cielo was kept out of the Kentucky Derby, then won the Preakness Prep.  Despite that win, trainer Woody Stephens kept the colt out of the 1982 Preakness Stakes. 

Stephens decided to enter “Cielo” in the Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the “Met Mile” and in this race, the colt would be facing older horses on a wet track.  Cielo demolished the field, winning in an impressive 1:33.  To the shock of many, Stephens announced that his colt was fit and he entered him in the Belmont Stakes, just six days later.

How did Conquistador Cielo do?  He demolished the field, winning by 14 lenghts.  In second, was Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol, who was well rested, having skipped the Preakness Stakes. 

Maybe these horses should race more.  Maybe the Woody Stephens method is the best method afterall.  One thing is for certain and that is you’ll never see another “Conquistador Cielo,” double ever again.

John Furgele

Concessions?

May 6, 2008

Horse racing’s Triple Crown is very hard to win.  In 1948, Citation won it, but it did not happen again until 1973, whern the legendary Secretariat turned the trick.  The 1970s, saw a mini run on the Triple Crown as Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 also won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

After Eight Belles was tragically put down after breaking both her front ankles, there are now calls for major changes to the sport of horse racing.  For the most part, none of them make much sense, but there has been talk of extending the length between the Triple Crown races.  Currently, there is a two week gap between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, then a three week gap between the Preakness and 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes.  Some have suggested that given today’s horse, which is used to taking big gaps of time off between races, would not it make sense to run the Derby, then, three weeks later, the Preakness, then after a month, run the Belmont?  Running three races in eight weeks has to be easier than three in five weeks, doesn’t it? 

Of course, the purists—if there are any left—will oppose this because it would throw off over 125 years of tradition, but there was a time when the gap between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness was only one week.  It would draw out the Triple Crown season perhaps too long, especially if the Kentucky Derby champ does not win the Preakness or gets injured and does not even run the Preakness.  Ratings for the Belmont where there is no chance for a Triple Crown winner would be very low, and that is a genuine fear of the horse racing establishment. 

Horse racing is the one sport where despite all the advances in training, the horses have not gotten faster.  In 1975, John Walker of New Zealand set the world record for the one mile run at 3:49.4.  Today, the world record stands at 3:43.13.  Secretariat set the course record for the Kentucky Derby in 1973 at 1:59 2/5.  Monarchos has the second fastest time from 2001 and for third, we have to go back to 1964 when Northern Dancer broke 2 minutes for the 1 1/4 mile race.  Swimming times have come down drastically as well.  Mark Spitz won four individual gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics.  His times today wouldn’t even win a high school state meet. 

Why aren’t horses running faster?  One reason might be the changes in training.  In the past, horses ran at least two times per month, now they go months without racing.  In 1982, thinking his horse needed a race, trainer Woody Stephens entered Conquistador Cielo in the Memorial Day Met Mile at Belmont Park. After winning the Met Mile,  six days later, Conquistador Cielo won the Belmont Stakes.  Think that will ever happen again?

It does make sense to tailor the racing schedule to the training schedule.  If horses are going to run every eight weeks, does it make sense to ask Big Brown to race three times in five weeks in an effort to win the Triple Crown?  Increasing the gap between races may placate everybody who cares about the safety of the animal without ruining the integrity of the sport. 

There have been seven Triple Crown races since 2006 and in two of them, Barbaro and Eight Belles suffered catastrophic injuries in front of large audiences both in person and on television.  The horse racing industry does not want that rate to continue.

Perhaps making this concession can quell everybody’s feelings. 

John Furgele

 

The Hacks Are In

May 6, 2008

The saddest event of the weekend was seeing the filly Eight Belles run a gallant second at the Kentucky Derby only to collapse while galloping out, and thus, being euthanized.  Her death marred what was a sensational perfomance by Big Brown, who despite starting from the 20 hole, dominated this race much like Smarty Jones did in 2004 and Barbaro in 2006.

As usual, those who watch three to four horse races per year are calling for drastic changes to how horse racing conducts its affairs.  PETA sounded off, calling for ending three year old racing, and eliminating the use of whips by jockeys in races.  But, that’s what PETA does and I will tip my hat to them for theit consistency.  They love animals and I would have been disappointed had they said nothing in the wake of Eight Belles death at the racetrack.

Horse racing is in peril and has been for quite some time.  It’s popularity has decreased dramatically over the years thanks to cable TV, regional sports TV, and OTB among others.  Going to the track is not what it used to be as times have changed.  But, unlike other sports, horse racing still has at least one day when America watches, a mini Super Bowl if you will.  The Kentucky Derby is that day. Saturday’s coverage on NBC drew a 9.5 rating, meaning that almost 10 percent of the country watched the event from Louisville’s Churchill Downs.  That rating was more than three times better than the Kobe Bryant Lakers win over the Utah Jazz.   And, when a horse goes down, it leaves a sick feeling for those who tuned in.   In the last seven Triple Crown races from 2006 on, we have seen two catastrophic injuries.  Barbaro, after winning the Kentucky Derby in 2006, pulled up with a broken leg at the Preakness and despite a gallant fight, finally succumbed to his injury.  Now, five races later, the filly Eight Belles has to be put down on the track after the sport’s biggest event.  That is not good for an industry that is trying to stay afloat in America’s consciousness.

What bothers me and those who like horse racing is the response of the average hack, the one who only watches the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and if there is a chance for a Triple Crown, the Belmont.  Then, after taking the summer off, they may tune in for some of the Breeder’s Cup in Ocotber.  These casual horse racing watchers and full-time hacks are calling for horse racing to prevent this from happening again.  That will not happen.  Horse racing is a dangerous sport.  Often, horses break down, and moreover, sometimes jockeys get injured with several winding up paralyzed as a result of a nasty spill. 

There are things that can be done to try and prevent this, but nothing will eliminate it from happening in the future.  PETA can cry and cry, but politically, horse racing is here to stay.  It is a billion dollar business and states rely on taxes from racetracks for their budgets and revenues.  Take New York for example.  They have year round racing.  How many people go to Aqueduct Racetrack in early February to watch cheap claiming and allowance races?  Very few, but New York State insists that racing take place because it provides much needed for revenues for the state.  States have spent years wrestling with casino gambling, but just about every state has a racetrack or two. 

Horse racing will press on.  Eight Belles death might speed up the case for converting more dirt tracks to the new synthetic or PolyTrack surfaces, which thus far, have proven to reduce the number of breakdowns.  Trainer Nick ZIto is not a fan of the synthetic surface, saying that he doesn’t want his horses “running on something that is found in an attic,” but if the surface proves to safer, Zito and his brethern may not have a choice.

The biggest test for PolyTrack will come this October, when the Breeder’s Cup races are run at Santa Anita Park, which installed PolyTrack in 2007.  If the best horses win, then we may see the Kentucky Derby run on the stuff from the attic. 

The more I think of Eight Belles, the sadder I get.  She ran a very game race and deserved another day in the sun.  My hope is that she was greeted in horse heaven by the great filly Ruffian, who simply told her, “atta girl.” 

Horse racing will never be clean from these injuries, but it needs to be clean three times per year, so American can celebrate the triumphs, not lament the tragedies. 

John Furgele