Archive for July, 2016

Let’s Not Forget About Harness Racing

July 29, 2016

by John Furgele (The Original 228)

As the Saratoga meet is more than underway, let’s not neglect or sleep on harness racing.  Recently, I was explaining the difference between harness and horse racing to my girlfriend’s mother.  I compared it to eating filet of sole versus mussels.  That might not be fair, but I will preface by saying that I enjoy eating mussels, particularly if they are swimming in marinara.  That said, there are some that would never eat mussels, just like there are some that will never indulge in harness racing.  My angle is try it, you might like it.

 

Harness racing is on a slight rise.  That might be because the whole VLT and casino movement began at many harness racing tracks.  Places like Buffalo Raceway, Saratoga Casino/Hotel and Batavia Downs were the first to couple racing and video gaming machines.  For every quarter dumped in to a video gaming machine, a portion went to harness racing.

 

Buffalo Raceway just concluded its 2016 meet with handle up over 3 percent.  That may not seem like much, but consider all the betting options for those with discretionary incomes?  In Buffalo alone, there are two casinos operated by the Seneca Indian Nation as well as Finger Lakes Race Track, which offers both horse racing and video gaming machines.  And, because of New York State government’s recent fascination with opening as many casinos as they can, more options are on the way.  Saratoga Casino and Hotel has always done well and this year, opened up a hotel as well as a Morton’s Steakhouse.  In 2017, Schenectady’s Rivers Casino will open on the banks of the Mohawk River, a full-scale casino that is less than 20 miles from Saratoga.  More places, more options to take your money.

 

There might not be decided advantages in harness racing over horse racing, but there are some things that harness racing has over horse racing.  One is that the animals—the pacers and trotters—are more durable.  The standardbred can simply race more than the thoroughbred.  Most standardbreds can race at least once a week, and sometimes they will race twice on one day.  Consider the plight of Mohaymen, the fourth place finisher in this year’s Kentucky Derby.  He hasn’t raced since and his entry in to this Saturday’s Jim Dandy will mark 83 days between races.  In that time, a standardbred might have raced at least 6 to 10 times.  Compare that to the Hambletonian, which requires horses to run an elimination heat and then come back a few hours later for the final.

 

Let’s give the sport of harness racing some love here.  Last Saturday, the reigning horse of the year, Wiggle It Jiggleit came to Saratoga Casino and Raceway to run in the $260,000 Jim Gerrity Memorial.  He certainly didn’t disappoint, winning in 1:51.  The 2015 Little Brown Jug winner was pressed and pushed, but in the end, he came through with flying colors.

 

Harness racing is doing a much better job of having what I deem significant races. For years, as the sport struggled, race cards were littered with 13 races and $2,500 purses.  That has changed, mainly because of VLT and casinos, but also because gambling has become much more mainstream than ever before.  In the old days, one had to sneak out to the betting parlor to wager and people who often gambled daily scorned upon.  Now, sports shows talk openly of betting lines for NFL games, and casinos seem to be within 150 miles of everybody and online wagering is easier than online grocery shopping.  As more people wager, the better the purses, plain and simple.

 

When I study racing cards, I look for big races/stakes races and races with purses that catch your attention.  In horse racing, a race with over $100,000 is an eye-catcher and in harness racing, I look for $40,000 and over and this weekend, there are a few that caught my eye.

 

On Saturday, The Meadows (Washington County, PA, near Pittsburgh) offers two races for pacers:  the $110,950 Adios Volo for three-year-old fillies and the $400,000 Adios Final for males.  In the Volo, Dismissal is the morning line favorite.  In 2016, she has nine starts, with seven firsts and a third.   In the Final, Racing Hill is the early favorite.  He has three wins, four seconds and a third in eight starts and just finished second in the $750,000 Meadowlands Pace on July 16.

 

Speaking of the Meadowlands, the $150,000 Anthony Abbatiello Classic is Saturday with Boston Red Rocks, the early 3-5 favorite.  He owns the fastest time in the field with a 1:50.35 for a mile and will face four others.

 

Yonkers Raceway has two races on its Saturday card, each with $45,000 purses, so if you’re looking to plunk down a few dollars on harness racing, there are five options here for you.  There are plenty of websites to gather information and I would suggest www.ustrotting.com as well as www.harnessracing.com.  Never go in blind before making a bet and these sites will give you enough information to make at the very least, a half-baked educated guess.

 

The big day in harness racing is Saturday, August 5; Hambletonian Day at Meadowlands Racetrack.  The Hambletonian (for trotters) is the most prestigious and well-known standardbred race in the world and it will be featured with nine other stakes races on the final Meadowlands card of the summer.  In addition to the $1 million Hambletonian, the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks will be run as well as the Cane Pace, part of the Triple Crown for pacers.  The cheapest purse of the day is $110,000, so it behooves you to get a program before heading down or making bets online.  And, like they have done in recent years, CBS Sports Network will cover the Hambletonian live next Saturday.

 

So, while we enjoy the sites and the quality thoroughbred racing that is Saratoga and Del Mar, it certainly is not a bad thing to pay some attention and throw some love to the world of harness racing.  It may not be as glamorous, but there is something for everybody.  And, if you can one watch one harness race this year, check out the Hambletonian next Saturday between 5 and 6 pm on CBS Sports Network.

 

 

 

Zika Concerns Nothing More Than a Smokescreen for Golfers

July 14, 2016

by John “The Original 228” Furgele

It happens weekly.   Each week, we read of a high profile male golfer choosing to skip the 2016 Olympics in Rio over concerns about the Zika virus. The concerns are genuine as nobody wants to expose himself or herself to the Zika virus if they don’t have to. But some of these golfers might go for a hike, a run in the woods thereby exposing themselves to Lyme disease. Yet, they probably don’t stop taking to the woods when they can.

And, if one has noticed, not one female golfer has withdrawn over fear of Zika. For golfers, the Olympics will never define a golfer’s legacy.   In golf, there are four majors and most sports followers can name them: the Masters, The U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Open Championship, aka the British Open. For Dustin Johnson, Rory McIllroy, and Justin Spieth, they will be judged on how many majors they win, not if they win Olympic gold in 2016, 2020 or beyond.   If the Olympics meant more, they would all be there. But, simply, they don’t. If you ask Jason Day if he prefers Olympic gold or a PGA Championship, he won’t even let you finish your sentence before saying “PGA.”

Money is another factor. Nobody is getting $1.8 million for winning the Olympics and even LPGA golfer Stacy Lewis says money is a factor for so many men withdrawing. For a female golfer, winning an Olympic gold medal could pay dividends, particularly if the Golden girl is American. She could be marketed as “Gold medal golfer Michelle Wie or Stacy Lewis or recently crowned U.S. Open champion Brittany Lang.”   There is little more skin in the game for the gals then there is for well-compensated men. The males have the exposure, the sponsorship and the endorsement potential.

All this said, to me, golf is tough sell in the Olympics. No mater how you slice it, the Olympics will never be the big event in golf. In golf, it’s one of the four.   Same goes for tennis. Andy Murray won Olympic gold at the 2012 London games, but before reading this, did you remember that he had won? I can see playing basketball in the Olympics and other team sports because it is world versus world; country versus country.   Of course, LeBron James would prefer NBA titles to Olympic titles, but that’s okay. Playing on a team—for your country—evokes different emotions in the American people. In 1980, 75 percent of the country knew nothing about hockey, but when USA played (and beat) USSR, they both noticed and cared.

For sports like track and field, the Olympics are the premier event. The athletes—male and female—have to go there. For swimmers, it’s the same. The Olympics made Bruce Jenner, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis household names. In addition, the Olympics made them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Golfers and tennis players don’t need the Olympics.   Kudos to Serena Williams for trumpeting the prestige and importance of representing your country in the Olympics, but deep down, we all know that she would choose another Wimbledon title over another Gold medal.

While the mainstream media outlets continue to focus on the Zika threat, we would do best to focus our attention on the sports that matter most in the Olympics. This includes, gymnastics, track and field, swimming, basketball, and the rest. As for golf, if you’re a golf fan, you’ll watch. If you’re not, you won’t. That’s the difference. The non-swimming fan watches swimming at the Olympics; the non-track and field fan watches track and field at the Olympics. Once every four years, those sports capture our attention; from 2017-2019, they won’t. Life isn’t always fair, but life is life.

When the Olympics isn’t the major event in a particularly sport, you can’t really blame the athletes for choosing rest over play.  Moreover, the financial incentive isn’t there for Olympic golf.  Believe me, if Gold medal prize money was $2 million, all the key players would be there.  Money talks, and in this case, Gold, Silver and Bronze walk.  Jason Day seems like a great guy.  Who wasn’t touched when his little boy ran to him when he won the PGA Championship last year?  Same for Dustin Johnson.  He is a father and he won the U.S. Open on Father’s Day.  Is there a better trophy to hoist than your toddler son?  Because these golfers have limited time to earn their millions, they will follow the money and they will follow it every single time.  If the Olympics offered a huge financial prize, I’m sure Paulina Gretzky would push Dustin Johnson to Rio.  The same would go for Day’s wife and many others.  As for bachelors like Spieth and McIllroy, they’d prefer some down time with their mates, probably some partying and living the good life before gearing up for the fall season.  But, $2 million?  Yes, they would being going for the Gold.  Gold and $2 million?  Nice.  Just Gold?  Not so nice.

For golfers like Spieth, Day, Johnson and McIllroy, they will enjoy their Olympic break on their yachts, vacation homes and private jets. They won’t miss the Olympics and we won’t miss them either.

Happy Summer!

For Clevelanders, Real Joy

July 1, 2016

by John Furgele

The Interception, 1981.  The Drive, 1987.  The Fumble, 1988.  The Blown Save, 1997.  In Cleveland and NE Ohio, those two word phrases/events resonate in every sports fan that was born in 1973 or before.  Cleveland is one of those towns; a town that loves its sports teams, that roots hard for its sports teams.  When they’re winning, the next day at work is a better one.  When the Browns win on Sunday, the workweek is more pleasant.  When the Indians are winning seven of ten, there is the so-called hop-in-ones-step.  Even non-sports fans follow sports in Cleveland.  They have to, because it’s part of the region’s culture.  Not every city is like this.  San Diego has never seen the Padres or Chargers win a championship.  They lost their basketball team to Los Angeles decades ago.  They have 75 degree, sunny days 345 times a year.  Simply, they don’t care as much.

In Cleveland, sports are part of the DNA.  It is woven into the fabric of society.  Most Clevelanders were born and raised there.  Cleveland isn’t Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, where young people flock to take a job.  It’s a nice place to work, raise a family and enjoy, but it isn’t sexy.  It’s Cleveland.  Sports is part of the region’s identity; when they win, there is pride, when they lose, despair.

In 1995, the Cleveland Browns left town and headed to Baltimore.  That season was a mournful one and many Clevelanders didn’t know what they would do without their football team.  There were fans who went to all the games, naturally they were despondent, but even residents who never went to games and who only monitored the plight of Browns were hurt by the team’s move.

The NBA Finals was truly a “Tale of Two Cities.”  Oakland, home of the Golden State Warriors, was the defending champion.  But, in 2019, the “Oakland” Warriors will be heading to San Francisco to play in a new arena.  It certainly isn’t a move from Cleveland to Baltimore proportions, but there is a sort of civic loss for Oakland as they move from gritty Oakland to glitzy San Francisco.  Couple that with the Raiders and A’s threatening to move unless they get new playpens and the case could be made that both cities were feeling the pressure of civic pride.

Before the Cavs win, the last time Cleveland won a major professional sports championship was 1964 when the Browns won the NFL Championship Game, punishing the Baltimore Colts 27-0.  As good as that title was it should be noted that this was before the Super Bowl and that the Buffalo Bills won the AFL Championship, so in effect, there were two football champions.  If Buffalo and Cleveland would have played, do we know that Cleveland would have won?

As Game 7 unfolded, you know what was going through the minds of the Cleveland sports fan.  Because of the history, much of the thought was negative.  When will Curry hit a big three?  When will LeBron have a key turnover?  When will Kevin Love miss a crucial layup?  It had to be agonizing as the game remained tied at 89 for seemingly 30 minutes.  Then, it happened.  Kyrie Irving hit the big three and the Cavs were on the brink of breaking a city’s 52-year old curse.  But 51 seconds remained and if you were born after 1956 (I always contend one must be at least 8 to remember sporting events), the Clevelander had to be waiting for something bad to happen.  With 10.8 seconds left and a four point lead, even the most pessimistic fan knew that the drought was over.  That Cleveland, the City of Light and Magic that Randy Newman sang about in “Burn On,” which was written for the movie “Major League,” was going to get its long awaited championship.

I’m sure Clevelanders had it all planned out.  Because they’ve never seen their team win, they likely had thought or even rehearsed how they would react when it would happen.  You’ve heard the lines.  “I’ll cry uncontrollably when it happens,” or “I’ll smile for weeks,” or I’ll hug every stranger I know in celebration.”  Then it happens and all that rehearsing goes out the window.  Being from Buffalo, I have visions of what I would do if the Sabres or Bills ever won that championship clinching game, but until it happens….

When Marreese Speights’ shot clanked off the rim and the clock read 000, it was all over and it was time for the Cleveland fan to react.  Most jumped up and down, screamed and hugged every person that they could find.  Many cried.  Many thought of their fathers and mothers who took them to games at old, crummy Cleveland Stadium to see Duane Kuiper play second base, Andre Thornton first base with Toby Harrah at third.  In the fall, they went to the same stadium to see Mike Phipps play quarterback for the Browns, and the Pruitts—Greg and Mike—run for touchdowns for the Art Modell owned team.  They might have driven out to the old Richfield Coliseum to see the usually bad Cavaliers play and if they were truly Cleveland sports fans might have been part of a small congregation that saw the NHL Cleveland Barons glide up and down the Coliseum ice from 1976 to 1978.

That’s when the tears come.  If you’re 48 like me, you think back to the mid-1970s when you were becoming a sports fan.  Instead of using baseball cards on the spokes of your bike, you were saving them, trading them and studying them.  You were asking your dad or mom to take you to a game or you were being conditioned by them to follow the local team.  You know how it goes.  It’s a Saturday, and dad or mom has the Indians game on the radio or TV, and you ask why they are Indians fans and the parent says, “I grew up here and have been a Cleveland sports fan all my life and if you’re going to live here kid, you best get on board.”  Some kids rebel and pick another team to root for, but by high school, they have been so swept up by the regionalism that they too, become Cleveland fans and someday, will pass that on to their children.

Those are the fans that cried.  Many of their parents have passed on and when they saw the Cavs bag the title, they thought of their childhood when mom and dad took them to games, watched games with them on a Sunday and they became sad because they didn’t get to see this.  Sad, yes, but many looked to the sky, smiled and said thanks.

Cities like Cleveland feel it even more.  As mentioned, most Clevelanders have been there since birth.  Their parents and grandparents grew up here and now they live here and so too, do their kids.  It is more ingrained than even Oakland and certainly cities like Miami, where LeBron James won two titles.  James certainly gets it.  He grew up in Akron and he knows the pain that Cleveland fans have suffered.  In fact, he cited The Drive, the Fumble, Jordan’s Shot and even though he was merely a baby, he knows the history.  Why?  Because he’s from there.