Archive for October, 2016

Time for the American Athletic Conference to Rise Up

October 22, 2016

A call to BYU for a scheduling arrangement makes sense, too

by John Furgele (The Real 228, accept no substitutes)

The Big 12 got what it wanted and probably needed and that was attention.  You know the history.  In 2014, both Baylor and TCU were 11-1 and both were left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.  While many screamed that it was unfair, was it?  Most pundits said that had the Big 12 conducted a conference championship game like the SEC, Pac 12, ACC and Big Ten, the winner would have advanced.  But, often, truth is stranger than fiction.  That year, Oregon was 12-1, Ohio State was 12-1, Alabama was 12-1 and Florida State—the defending champion—was 13-0.  With a human committee in place, it came down to good old subjectivity and both Baylor and TCU were left on the outside.

The conference then decided to petition the NCAA so they could play a conference title game as a 10-member outfit, a wish that was granted.  Now, the league could decide to expand to 12, 14 or even 16 members, or they could stay at 10 and have a title game, something that the SWAC does with its 10 members at the FCS level.

The league decided that any publicity was better than none, so they invited prospective universities to apply for Big 12 membership, and as usual, all the shafted schools who wanted Power 5 association applied.   Cincinnati, Connecticut, BYU, Houston, Memphis, Central and South Florida all decided that preparing PowerPoints and interactive presentations were a must in the hopes of landing a Power 5 slot and the money that goes with it.  How could Cincinnati not be playing in a Power 5 conference when Kansas, Iowa State and even West Virginia were?

What was the result?  For all the attention they received, they received it for doing nothing.  The show lasted for what—17 months—and in the end, the conference decided to do nothing, so the Big 12 will remain like the Big Ten, poorly named with its 10 members.

The conference that felt the pressure was the fledging American Athletic Conference.  When the seven Catholic members left the old Big East for the new Big East, the AAC was formed.  In the league’s first year, their champion was allowed to play in a BCS bowl, in this case the Fiesta and in that game, Central Florida (with Blake Bortles at QB) throttled Baylor.  The next year, they lost that slot and their teams were scrambling, playing in games like the Poinsettia Bowl, Bahamas Bowl and Cure Bowl.

The American offered plenty to the Big 12.  The conference has schools in big cities like Houston, Philadelphia, Orlando, Tampa, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Annapolis/Baltimore/Washington, D.C and New Orleans.  Good-sized cities, cities that could help the Big 12 make some inroads in the eastern part of the United States. The American put on its best face and said that they have a great conference with great schools in great cities, but deep down they knew that they couldn’t hold back a Cincinnati or Houston should the Big 12 come calling.

In this way, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) reminded me of the Articles of Confederation, which was in essence, the United States Constitution before the Constitution.  The A of C served from 1781-1787 and was a loosely configured alignment of the United States.  It had some rules and regulations, but for the most part it allowed the states to do their own thing.  South Carolina could have slaves, but if France attacked it, the other 12 states would come to her defense.  The AAC was the same way.  It was an organization, sure, but when a third of the organization is looking to leave, how strong can it be?  If your girlfriend is still dating others on Fridays, how serious of a girlfriend is she?

As most fifth graders have learned, the Articles of Confederation failed.  The Founding Fathers knew that the “conference” of states had to be strengthened and the result was the creation of the U.S. Constitution, which despite some struggles along the way has lasted for 229 years, which all in all is a nice, little run.

Now, that the Big 12 expansion charade is over, it is time for the AAC to ditch the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution.  The conference has to believe it’s good and moreover, sell that it’s good to the rest of the college football world.  We know that Cincinnati, Houston and Connecticut were devastated that they didn’t secure Big 12 membership, but I hope that the first three phone calls—or in today’s world, text messages— AAC commissioner Mike Aresco received were from these three schools.  The message is simple:  “Let’s go forward and make the AAC the best it can be.  Let’s market our cities, our great universities, our great mix of urban, private and religious schools and present the AAC as a united and close-knit group.”  If the AAC can stay unified, they could negotiate a better TV deal and perhaps become what Aresco calls a Power 6 conference.

The Big 12 is really the Big 2; if Texas and Oklahoma ever explore moving, the Big 12 becomes a combination of the Mountain West and the American.  We know that can’t happen until 2024 or 2025 when the grant of rights runs out, but if you don’t think there will be another seismic shift in the college athletics landscape, you are only kidding yourself.

The AAC has to have everybody on the same page.  They can’t have Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston continue to flirt with other conferences and even though it looks like things are stable, they can’t get caught up in the nonsense.  They have to swallow their pride and make the AAC work, something that they can do.  They have 12 football members (Navy is football only), they play in good sized stadiums and they have the opportunity to beat Power 5 schools.  For schools like Cincinnati, they can now look a recruit in the eye and sell them on the AAC.  No longer do they have to say that the AAC is nice, but we expect to play in the Big 12 very soon.

With no expansion imminent, the AAC schools need to call the big boys and say, “let’s play.”  Why can’t Cincinnati play at Alabama and why can’t Alabama play at Cincinnati?  Memphis needs to look Tennessee in the eye and say, “look, you’re the big boy, we’ll play you three times, but one of those games is going to be at the Liberty Bowl.”  Connecticut should do the same with Notre Dame.  It makes sense for the Huskies to visit South Bend, but in return, the Irish have to come to East Hartford, not Yankee Stadium or Met Life Stadium in the Meadowlands.  The AAC is not the MAC, nor the Sun Belt, and they have to think and act like a big boy if they want to get treated as one.

In one scenario, the AAC would add BYU, Boise State, Colorado State and perhaps one more school to get to 16.  They could play eight conference games, have a conference championship game and send their champ to a major bowl game.  That scenario is unlikely for two reasons.  One, it makes the league too big geographically.  If we remember the WAC tried to make a go of it with 16 schools and it just didn’t work.  Two, it would move the AAC back to an Articles of Confederation feel, something that they need to get off of right now.  But, the AAC could do what the ACC did for Notre Dame and that is provide four to five games per year for BYU, which will continue to play as an independent.  If BYU could play four to five AAC schools per year, it would be a win-win for them and the AAC.  Conference schools like to play BYU early in the year, but when October and November get here, most schools want to play in their conference, not outside of it, leaving BYU with games against Wagner and Southern Utah instead of Temple and Houston.  The exception is the SEC, which likes to schedule an FCS or Sun Belt team the week before Thanksgiving as their “prep game” before playing their finale.

It is time for the AAC to rise up and be heard.  They are still intact and they have plenty to offer college football and college athletics.  This is not the time for Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston to hang their head in shame; it is time for them to be the leaders of a “new” and re-energized conference.






Resolve Sets World Record in Yonkers International Trot and Wins it for America

October 16, 2016

by John Furgele (The Best 228)

Yonkers Raceway did it right.  On Saturday, October 15, the International Trot was contested along with the Yonkers Invitational Trot and Yonkers Invitational Pace.  And, kudos are in order for the raceway to start the festivities at 1:10 pm so those in Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland could see the action live.

Harness racing continues to get better and better with showcase races and Saturday’s card at Yonkers Raceway was no exception.  Along with the $1 million trot and the two $250,000 invitationals, the card featured a $45,000 race and no race had a purse of less than $21,600.  That’s the way to do it if you want to get fans out to the track.  Simulcasting will always be there, but the best way to attract fans to your venue is to give them something to get excited about and that comes in the way of high stakes races with good purses.

The International Trot did not disappoint. Resolve was one of three U.S.entrants, and the 6-year did the job in spectacular fashion.  Leading the entire way, he set a world record for 1 ¼ miles on a half-mile track in 2:23.4.  The field behind him was solid, but simply put, nobody could catch Resolve.  He cut fractions of 28.1, 57.1, 1:26 before hitting the mile in 1:54.4.  His driver and trainer, Ake Svanstedt said the colt did it all by himself and could have gone faster.

In the $250,000 Yonkers Invitational Pace, Wiggle It Jiggleit won and won easily.  Usually a horse that comes from behind, WIJI went to the front and was never headed, winning in 1:50.2. Some thought that Yonkers might see its first sub 1:50 mile, but with no pressure, WIJI cruised home to win for the 15th time in 23 starts this year.  For his career, he has 38 wins in 50 starts.  The gelding is owned by George Teague, driven by his son, Montrell and trained by Clyde Francis.  The sport would love to see WIJI in the Breeders Crown on October 28 at The Meadowlands, but the connections would have to supplement his entry.  When asked about the Breeders Crown, driver Teague said that he doesn’t want to tip his hat.  As we know, Marion Marauder had to be supplemented into last week’s Kentucky Futurity and all he did was win the race—and the trotting Triple Crown—in the process.  I hope and expect to see WIJI at the Big M in a couple weeks.

The Yonkers Invitational Trot saw Bee a Magician come back from a five month layoff to win impressively in 2:25.1 for 1 ¼ miles.  The 6-year old filly is four-for- four this season and for her career is 45 for 69 with earnings just shy of $4 million.  Known for being ornery, the filly handled the track—and the distance—easily for driver Brian Sears.  In harness racing, the winner gets 50 percent of the purse, so both Bee a Magician pocketed $125,000 each with Resolve adding $500,000 to his career earnings.

In the $45,000 Open Handicap Trot Svanstedt steered Bourbon Bay to victory in 1:54.1 returning $11.00.  The $35,000 Open Handicap Pace saw Rock N’ Roll World take the lead at the half mile to win in 1:51.3 for driver George Brennan.  He returned $6.20.

Yonkers Raceway will be dark on Sunday but will be back at it Monday with a 12-race card beginning at 7:10 pm.

Harness Racing Keeps Churning

October 15, 2016

by John Furgele (The Best 228)

Last year, American Pharoah captured America’s fancy when he rolled to the Triple Crown.  Later, he capped a brilliant three-year campaign by romping in the Breeder’s Cup Classic and then, like most dominant thoroughbreds, was sent off to stud.

Last Sunday, another Triple Crown was won, when three-year old trotter Marion Marauder captured the Kentucky Futurity at the Lexington race course known as The Red Mile.  In thoroughbred racing, we have sprinters, distance horses, dirt and turf horses, while in Harness racing, there are two types—trotters and pacers.

The Trotting Triple Crown consists of the Hambletonian, the Yonkers Trot and the aforementioned Kentucky Futurity.  The Hambletonian is the most well-known and prestigious of the three.  Raced at the famed Big M (Meadowlands) before a national TV audience (CBS Sports Network), the Hambletonian is the Kentucky Derby for trotters.  Driven by Canadian Scott Zeron, Marion Marauder won the Hambo by the slimmest of margins.  He then cruised in the Yonkers Trot before needing a photo finish for his win in the Kentucky Futurity.

Triple Crowns in Harness racing are not as revered as they are in thoroughbred racing.  Because Standardbreds race much more frequently, winning a triple crown is not always planned for.  In fact, because Marion Marauder was not nominated for the trotting crown, his connections had to come up with $47,000 just to get him into the Futurity field.  Nevertheless, with the win, Marion Marauder becomes only the ninth horse—and first since Glidemaster in 2006—to capture the Trotting Triple Crown.

On the pacing side, there have been 10 horses to win their Triple Crown, the last being No Pan Intended in 2003.  Pacers, because of the running style can run faster than their trotting counterparts, but trotting, because of the Hambletonian is probably the more well-known of the two “sports-within-a-sport.”

Is Marion Marauder going to capture the attention of one, American Pharoah?  Of course not, but his win puts him in the history books forever.

Harness racing continues to make positive inroads.  The sport has been buoyed by the installation of casinos at most of its parks, meaning fans can do more than just watch pacers and trotters run.  In fact, at most racetracks, most of the people are playing the casino games, but every time they play, the sport of harness racing gets a cut. And, the sport has always had its loyalists.

This November New Jersey residents will vote to see if two casinos will be built outside of Atlantic City.  If the referendum passes, it will bolster the sport of Harness racing immensely. As of today, the polls indicate that the referendum will fail, but optimists claim there is still time.  Those in favor claim that most of the opposition comes by way of neighboring states that have casinos.  The casino owners in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware want those in New Jersey to keep making the drive rather than keep their monies in-state.   We know there is a more significant election on the cards in November, but as a harness racing fan, this is an important one.  And, it’s not only about racing.  Two casinos will greatly aid the breeding farms in the Garden State.

In racing, the International Trot takes place at Yonkers Raceway this afternoon.  This is truly an international affair with trotters from the United States, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Italy.  The American contingent consists of Resolve, Obrigado and Hannelore Hanover and the $1 million race will be run at 1 ¼ miles, longer than the classic distance of 1 mile.  In countries like Sweden, where Harness racing is revered, this is a big deal, hence the afternoon post time at Yonkers.

In two weeks, the best pacers and trotters will head to the Meadowlands for the Breeders Crown, where they will compete for $5.8 million in prize monies.  Like thoroughbred’s Breeder’s Cup, the meet will be contested over two days, with the older colts, gelding and mares competing on Friday and the two and three year olds on Saturday.  The four races for the older horses will begin Friday at 7:15, while the eight races for two and three-year olds will begin at 6:35 on Saturday.  Sportsnet NY (SNY) will have live coverage both nights from 9 to 10 pm, giving Harness racing a nice little boost.

Locally, Saratoga Harness (aka, Saratoga Casino Hotel) continues to churn, providing live racing through Sunday, December 18.  For most weeks, there is live racing Sunday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  By racing on Sunday, Saratoga Harness is trying to do what many tracks won’t—compete with NFL football-certainly not an easy task.

Like its thoroughbred counterpart, breeding and selling remains a vital part of the sport.  Morrisville State College, which offers both Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree programs in equine breeding and management, recently had its 2016 Morrisville sale.  There were 81 yearlings sold with the average price being $13,656.  The lowest purchase price was $1,700 with $55,000 being the highest, making Harness racing a sport that many more can get involved with.

Harness racing never sleeps and the month of October has been a good one.