Archive for July, 2015

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.

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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.