For Buffalo Sports, It’s Real Bad

November 20, 2017

The Sabres and Bills keep flailing

by John Furgele (The Measured 228)

How can this be possible?  The Buffalo Bills have been members of the NFL since 1970.  The Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL in 1970.  I don’t need to do that math, but that’s a lot of seasons.  There’s one common thread:  neither the Bills nor the Sabres have won an NFL or NHL title.  There are those who will point to the Bills back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, but I’m letting those go as they were won back when there were two football leagues and the consensus was that the Bills played in the weaker of the two.

How can it be?  How can one city with two professional sports teams be so title-starved?  Sure, you can point to other cities, but the Buffalo sports teams are not only bad, they’re really bad.  Both are owned by Terry Pegula and both continue to struggle.  One would think that by dumb luck one of these teams would have bagged a title by now.

The Sabres are an absolute train wreck.  Through 20 games, they’re  5-15 for 14 points.  They are boring to watch, they show very little skill and as a result, very little life.  They tanked—deliberately held back—so they could be in position to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.  Eichel is a very good player, but McDavid is special.  Naturally, the Sabres ended up with Eichel.  The Sabres do everything wrong.  When they score, they get shoddy goaltending and when they get good goaltending, they don’t score.  They seem to lack professional pride.  On Friday, they lost 3-1 in a half-empty arena in Detroit.  The next night, at home, they lost to Carolina, a team that with the win, improved to 8-10.

Many think the Sabres are two or three years away from contending.  Who really believes that?  They will have to likely blow this team up and start anew and are probably five to eight years away from being good, provided they can actually draft, find and develop players.  The Sabres made the playoffs for years in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but making the playoffs was never that hard.  There were years when 16 of 21 teams qualified.  When the Sabres played in the old Adams Division, four of the five teams made the playoffs—usually it was 80 games to eliminate the Hartford Whalers.  Those teams never made deep runs despite having talented players.  Since 1970, the Sabres have played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice—1975 and 1999.  That says very little.

The Bills might be worse off, although on paper, it says otherwise.  They are 5-5 and that .500 record has them tied with Baltimore for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC with the Baltimore Ravens.  But, this is a team that has to play New England twice and has lost three straight after starting 5-2.  In the past two games, they have surrendered 101 points!  That’s hard to do in the dink and dunk NFL that loves field goal battles.

I have watched a lot of football but I don’t ever remember a 5-4 team that was holding down a playoff spot benching their starting quarterback for a rookie that was drafted in the 5th round.  We all know Tyrod Taylor is not the answer long-term for the Bills, but the move to Nathan Peterman was more than a head-scratcher.  Now, coach Sean McDermott fears losing his team.  The players said all the right things when Taylor was benched, but deep down, there couldn’t have been a player on the team that wasn’t stunned by what transpired.  Now, he has to go back to Taylor for this Sunday’s game at Kansas City and who knows which Taylor will show up?  Will it be the, “I’m out to prove you made a mistake,” Taylor or the “They don’t care about me, why should I care,” Taylor.  In one word—ugh!

The Bills had one glorious run from 1988-1999.  In that span, they played in five AFC Championship Games, winning four.  They played in four Super Bowls, and as we all know, lost them all.  They made the playoffs in 9 of those 12 years.  Not bad.

Since 1999, they have been drier than Las Vegas on a July night, not only dry, but inept.  The NFL builds itself on parity, yet the Bills can’t even sneak into the playoffs.  A broken clock is right twice a day, but the Bills clock is missing its big hand.  In the meantime, the fans suffer.  Every city claims they have the best fans, but Bills fans (and Sabres fans) are loyal.  When the Bills are on TV, ratings hover in the 40s.  When the Sabres played in the 1999 Stanley Cup, billboards were full of good wishes and most vehicles had something Sabres attached to it.  They have passion and they are desperate to see their teams win.

I have never believed that fans or cities deserve a championship; that’s just not how things go in the real world, but it is hard to fathom just how bad the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills are.  They are owned by billionaire Pegula, who is finding out that running sports teams might be harder than running a fracking company.  Once viewed as the savior, there is now egg on his face.  Successful businesspeople aren’t used to losing. Most have won all their life and when they buy a sports team, their ego tells them that they will leave their mark and prove that what they did in the real world will carry over to the sports world, but more often than not, it doesn’t happen.

Buffalo fans can say that they don’t care, but they do.  They’ll keep watching, they’ll keep listening and they’ll keep reading.  Professional sports have always been the outlet for the people of Buffalo and Western New York.  It gets them through the short falls and the long winters.  They aren’t going anywhere, but sadly, it appears that they will continue to suffer.




These Two Are Like Clockwork

November 16, 2017

Quicksilvercandy A and Pannochio just keep churning, burning and winning.  

by John Furgele (Is there a better 228?)

They will never run in the Meadowlands Pace. They will never run in the Gerrity Memorial or any “big”race for that matter.  But, run they do.  Not only do they run, but they win, too.  We’re talking about two stalwarts of what I refer to as modern day harness racing.  Bettors love them and I’m sure those who attend and follow the respective tracks love them too.

Exhibit A is Quicksilvercandy A.  Last Saturday, she raced at Batavia Downs.  She usually hangs out at Buffalo Raceway during the winter and then heads east on the “I-90,” taking Exit 48 to Batavia Downs where she takes up residence from July-December.

Of course, she does more than just hang out.  For the most part, she runs the weekly open paces at both Buffalo and Batavia that have purses ranging from $8,000 to $10,000, but on Saturday, “The Downs” put together a special night of racing for claimers.  The Quick one was one of six entered in the $20,000 claiming championship series.  She took the lead, then let stable mate Kaitlyn Rae take over as they set fractions of 27.3, 57.1 and 1:27.1.  She then made her move to win going away in 1:57.0.  The time is never going to blow anyone away, but does it really matter?  Why is the race being singled out?  Because the win was her 20th, this season—that’s right 20 wins in 2017 and the year is not over yet.  No horse in the USA has won more this year than Quicksilvercandy A.

Those wins have only earned her a little more than $106,000 this year, which some horses can make in one start, but that takes nothing away from her.  Every week, she gets the work done and when the car moves away, she is all business

Perhaps even more remarkable is that the 12-year old mare “only” has 61 career wins.  Think about that.  For ten years, she won 41 races, an average of four per year, which is not terrible by any stretch.  But, like a fine wine, she is aging gracefully, with 20 wins as a 12-year old.  One would think that she would be back at it in 2018, staring in January at Buffalo Raceway.  And, why not 2019 before mandatory retirement age kicks in?  It’s not easy to keep a horse healthy, happy and more importantly eager and motivated to run and keep running.  Clearly, the aptly named Quicksilvercandy A is four-for-four here.

Exhibit B is the legendary Panocchio.  For starters he has the dream existence; a life that I, and most, would envy.  He spends his winters resting, training and racing at Pompano Park in Florida and then heads north to Saratoga for his summer season.  To say he trains might be understated.  He is legendary for his lack thereof, often doing training miles in 2:20 or even 2:30.  But, racing is a different story for the 7-year old gelding. When the pace car speeds off, Panocchio takes his game to a different level.  On Sunday, November 12, he won the $11,000 open pace in 1:51.4 and he did it by starting in the 9-hole on the 5/8 mile Pompano track.

There’s the old saying, “horses for courses,” and that fits Panocchio to a tee. He runs well at Saratoga, but he is the king of Pompano Park.  Of his 57 career wins, 35 have come there.  His career record is 57 wins, 27 seconds and 12 thirds in 136 career starts, an astonishing 71 percent in the money.  Like Quicksilvercandy, he isn’t reliable, he’s more so.

Some may argue that these horses should venture out and take on better horses in better races at different tracks, but why?  This is what harness racing is all about, the grinders, the workers and the horses that like to go to the post and run as often as they can.  And, why tinker with what’s working.  The “Quick One,” is 12 years old, the last thing anybody should do is alter her routine.  At 12, she could balk and decide she no longer wants a part of the race and training action, and at that advanced age, she has earned the right to be cranky, ornery and everything else in between.  Simply, there is no reason to mess with her success.

Panocchio, on the other hand, seems to like his north-south routine, especially the southern part.  I was able to see him win this summer at Saratoga and his races follow the same pattern.  He gets out, engages and tries to win.  That is something not every horse does.  Some lollygag, some are content just being in a race, while others don’t have the courage to go for it and try to win.  Drivers know this too; they know when to push the horse and they know when to try to collect an envelope with a third, fourth or fifth place finish.

People get in the game for a variety of reasons.  Some want to win the biggest races like the Hambo, the Jug, the North America Cup and the Breeders Crown.  Others just want to be part of the lucrative sire stakes programs in each state.  But, most want to own a horse that runs and a horse that they can see run.  Those horses run in all kinds of races—the opens, the preferred handicaps, the non-winners of $7,500 over their last five.  These are the horses that keep the sport alive and give back as well.  When bettors see these horses entered, it affects how and what they wager week in and week out.

We hear of horse shortages and tracks requesting fewer days to run, and this is why horses like Panocchio and Quciksilvercandy A are very important to the sport.  These horses bring a level of consistency and excellence to their respective tracks.  When I look at entries for both Batavia Downs and Pompano, when I see “open” I’m looking for Quicksilvercandy and Panocchio and truth be told, dozens of other horses, too.  I know who they are and I know when they run and I want to follow their races.

When we hear of tracks running fewer days, it hurts the industry in many ways because it could take away from horses like Panocchio, Quicksilvercandy A and hundreds of others.  Every track has horses like this; there’s Twisted Pretzel at Saratoga and Steve Said, who this week, will make his 41st start of 2017 at Monticello (he has 12 wins).  The big races are nice; they draw the crowds and help drive handle, but the sport should always pay homage to true warriors like Panocchio and Quicksilvercandy A.



Live From Monticello Raceway

October 24, 2017

by John Furgele (The On The Scene 228)

There is an aura about attending a sporting event in person.  People like to say that they saw this game live, or they were there when Bucky Dent hit the 3-run homer in the 1978 AL East tiebreaker.  When you tell somebody you were live, it elicits a reaction and in part, feeds our ego.

“You saw Frank Sinatra live,” or “You were there when Reggie Jackson hit three homers in the 1977 World Series?  When the attendee hears that, they take pride in the questions that follow, which range from “how was the atmosphere,” to “how loud was it,” and so on and so forth.  The attendee beams and that is why people want to be there live to see these events.

Most agree that being live and in person is a great thing, but today, modern conveniences have made it easier to stay inside.  Why pay $50 to park when you can watch the football game on TV? Why pay $300 for a ticket when you can see things better on your 70-inch wide HDTV?

Harness racing has fallen victim to this.  Why drive to the track when you can watch the races and wager on them from your device?  Many facilities concern themselves with getting their signal out to as many outlets as they can, hoping to get more wagering.  Today, it’s wiser to invest in a HD broadcast signal then improving the clubhouse because “nobody goes anymore.” That’s what Yonkers Raceway did.  There isn’t a prettier picture (The Meadowlands is good, too) on a computer or phone than Old Hilltop.  They spent nearly a million dollars making their TV signal pretty.  The grandstand looks a little ragged as does the clubhouse, but since live crowds are sparse, why bother with fixing the in-house amenities?

On Monday, October 16, I ventured down from Glenmont, NY to Monticello Raceway, a drive of exactly 125 miles, making for a 250 mile round trip.  It was Monday and like many racetracks, it was…….nearly empty.  The simulcast room had more people than those outside watching, but I wanted to see what the place looked like in person.  In fact, when you tell people you’re driving 125 miles to watch harness racing (when you could watch at home), they kind of look at you.

There is something about being there live.  Because the crowd was small, you could get up close to the horses, the drivers and if they were there, the connections.  It was quiet and when a bettor got angry when his horse didn’t hit the board, you could hear it.  It’s like listening to baseball game in April when it’s 40 degrees outside.  There was always that one guy right below the broadcast booth bemoaning every wrong move made by the home team.  That’s what it can sound like on a Monday afternoon at Monticello or anywhere for that matter.

Monticello does have an enclosed clubhouse, but it is no longer open.  For those who wanted to watch the races you had to stand or sit in a carport-like facility that had stadium style seats.  It was to the right of the finish line but the view of the track was decent.  On this Monday, it was 45 degrees and with wind, felt colder.  I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s 20 degrees in mid-December.

I was snapping photos on my digital camera when Gerri Schwarz, the track photographer invited me into to the winner’s circle to get some better shots.  It was very nice of her and the two of us enjoyed each other’s company as we talked about what we liked, loved, and disliked about harness racing.  Soon, racing director Shawn Wiles came over to introduce himself.  I had emailed him a few times, so I don’t think I was a total stranger when I told him my name.  I was able to get some insights from him pertaining to the future of the track.  The owners of Monticello Raceway secured a license to build a full-scale casino six miles away.  There was some talk of moving the track there, but for now, the track will stay where it’s at and so, too will the racino.  The horseman and the casino just signed a seven-year agreement keeping racing and alive and well at Monticello—at least for seven more years.  When racino licenses were first granted, the stipulation was that they had to sponsor horse and harness racing.  New York has racinos at six of its seven harness tracks and one at Finger Lakes, which conducts thoroughbred racing.  The ninth license is at Tioga Downs which recently went from a racino to a full-blown casino, meaning they now have table games.

The best part of the day was being able to talk to the winning connections.  Most were very excited to see their horse win a New York Sire Stakes race.  Each Sire Stake had a purse of $50,000, meaning the owners spilt $25,000 a variety of ways.  Fractional ownership is growing in popularity in harness racing and Marc Treffi told me that Cruising in Style earned enough on this day to pay for the rest of the horses that he has stakes in.

Fractional ownership allows more people to get in the game.  Shares vary; some can start at 1 percent and go all the way to 20 percent or even more.  Many own 2.5 percent of a horse, meaning if a horse is purchased for $40,000, a 2.5 percent share costs $1,000.  This also means that you, as a fractional owner are responsible for 2.5 percent of everything—the training bills, the medical bills, the stall rent, etc.  On this day, a 2.5 percent ownership share would get you $1,250 in earnings, which is usually more than enough to offset those above mentioned monthly training costs.

As long as your horse stays healthy, there is chance to make a few bucks.  The great thing about Standardbreds is that they race often, sometimes once a week, but if they get injured and are on the shelf, they’re not earning money for the owners.

You could see the excitement in the eyes of these owners.  They were more than eager to tell me where the next race will be and if they were going to try to get there to see it live.  That’s where the digital and technology age have helped.  Now, it doesn’t really matter where the horse races; if you can’t get there, you can watch the race live on your device or later on a replay.  Treffi was hoping to see Cruising In Style race at Hoosier Park on the Breeders Crown undercard.  Imagine that!  The biggest day of the harness racing year and you’re a part of the action.

Sure, I could have stayed home and watched these races unfold on my laptop, but there is still something to being there live.  Being live means mingling, talking and seeing the horses up close and personal, something that even the best of HD TVs don’t allow.  All in all, a terrific day at Monticello Raceway and if being live is wrong, I don’t want to be right.



International Trot Complete, Breeders Crown Looms

October 16, 2017

by John Furgele (The Sole 228)

The 39th edition of the Yonkers International Trot is in the books and for those who witnessed it live, it was breathtaking; a sublime performance by the Italian, Twister Bi, who cruised home in 2:22.1, a world record for trotters on a half-mile track.  Marion Marauder was a game second and wily veteran Oasis Bi was third.

As we know, in harness racing we have pacers and trotters.  Personally, I prefer the pacers–they run faster and break less often–but at the highest level, trotting may be best.  The Hambletonian and Yonkers International are examples of this.  The trotting gait is more pronounced, and let’s be honest, prettier and classier than the pacing gait and when horses like Twister Bi are trotting like he was on Saturday, it is something to see. In short, trotting at the highest level may be more compelling than pacing at the highest level.  So, even though I think I prefer pacers, I loved what I saw Saturday in the International Trot. I guess it’s like asking a father of two daughters which one he loves more.

It was big day for New York sired horses as Yonkers played host to the “New York Day of Champions,” as eight races were contested at the Hilltop Oval, with each race carrying a $225,000 purse.  Today, Monticello hosts the “Consolation Finals.”  There will be eight races, but the purses are a little more modest as each carry $50,000.  This is the culmination of the New York Sire Stakes seasons which began in May.

The Breeders Crown is lurking on the harness racing calendar.  The event moves to Hoosier Park in Anderson, IN for 2017 and the park has done its best to promote and hype two super days of racing.  Hoosier Park is the model for tracks that have casinos.  Unlike many, there is emphasis on both the casino games and harness racing.  In short, the casino owners both like and care about harness racing. As a result, the Indiana breeding program continues to get better and better. I still marvel when I see commercials for “racinos” and the racing is never mentioned.  I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.  I know that for every person watching harness racing there are three or four in the casino parlor, but it’s okay to sell the hamburgers AND the french fries isn’t it?

The Crown is scheduled for Friday, October 27 and Saturday, October 28, beginning at 6 pm ET.  While I certainly understand the evening post-time, I often wonder if the Breeders Crown would think about an afternoon program?  Would running in the afternoon help or hurt.  We all know that harness racing has always been the nighttime sport to complement daytime thoroughbred racing, but I wonder what the effect would be with a Friday evening/Saturday afternoon card?

The 12 races should be exciting like they always are.  The one division that is really wide open is Aged Pacing Male.  It seems like every race sees a different winner.  We saw that again at Yonkers on Saturday when All Bets Off won the Rooney Memorial Pace.  But let’s be careful before we make him the favorite for the Crown as history suggests another pacer will rise up when the gate moves away on the 28th.  Last year, we didn’t see this because the older pacing division was dominated by Always B Miki and Wiggle It Jiggleit.  As great as those two were, I’m now wondering if their greatness was due in part because of the inconsistency of the other pacers.

The other big question is which race does Hannelore Hanover run in at the Breeders Crown.  She could run against the girls in the $250,000 filly trot, or should go against the boys in the $500,000 open trot.  The owner of HH, Jerry Silva, says the decision will be made by trainer Ron Burke.  Most think it’s an easy $125,000 if she runs Friday night against the gals, but here’s hoping she takes on the boys.  Anytime the gal takes on the boys, the intrigue meter spikes up considerably.

Finally, the Sunday feature at Saratoga Harness was the $18,000 Open Trot.  Consolidator got out and cut the fractions only to get caught near the wire by Up the Alley, who prevailed in a nice 1:55.2  The gelding is the 5-year old son on Muscle Mass.

You Can Climb The Telephone Pole, But If They Catch You, You Done

September 27, 2017

We don’t mind cheaters as long as they don’t lie, too

by John Furgele (The 228 That Plays It Straight)

When I was in high school in the 1980s, it was quite easy to steal cable TV. There were de-scramblers available that allowed you to receive HBO, The Movie Channel, and yes, The Playboy Channel without paying for them.

A second way to steal it was to actually climb the telephone pole and move some things around.   That’s what one of my friend’s father did.   He climbed the pole and was moving things around, and was doing it in broad daylight. When the cops approached, they asked what he was doing, and, in complete honesty, he said with hands in the air, “You got me, I am trying to get free cable TV.” He knew what he was doing, he got caught and  did what nobody does anymore– he admitted it.   I’m not sure if he was fined, or charged with anything, but I continued to see him, so I know he didn’t go to jail. I think, by admitting what he was doing, he got a pass and probably provided the cops with a good laugh and story to tell.

We all know that college athletics are as crooked as the day is long. There is some corruption that we actually accept; if a player gets to use a car for free, do we really care? But, today, the corruption is endless, and what makes it worse, is the lack of contrition by those caught.  Nobody admits to climbing the telephone pole these days.

When 52 Baylor players were accused of sexual assault, the school did everything in its power to cover it up to keep the players eligible. We all know that Art Briles was complicit in the cover up, yet he denied he knew anything. Briles’ lack of honesty is what did him in and a reason why he couldn’t stay on for more than four hours as a coach for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

A few years ago, Louisville basketball hired some strippers to entertain and have sex with would-be recruits. Head coach Rick Pitino, known to be one who controls everything about his basketball program, claimed to know nothing. He denied and denied and kept his job. Now, he is about to fired in a nation-wide corruption scam and once again, he will claim to know nothing of the alleged wrongdoing.

We all know this is about money. The money is so out of hand it is beyond ridiculous; to the point where schools feel if they don’t cheat, they won’t win. How much longer can it go on before people who work hard to make a living tune out completely? We’re seeing it with the NFL; people want to watch football, not see guys kneeling, or even worse, hear and see the media talk about it incessantly. We saw this with the Oscars and Emmys, too. People may hate the current president, but they are sick of the daily bashing that goes with it. Most of us want to sit in front of the TV and not to have to think too much about what we’re seeing. That’s the supposed joy of TV—a few hours to escape before trotting off to bed and repeating the grind the next day.

Why couldn’t Briles admit that he turned away from what was going on at Baylor? He has enough money, and yes, he would lose millions by not coaching, but why not take the blows that are coming? Be the guy who climbed the telephone pole. You got caught, admit it and move forward.   Briles couldn’t do it, choosing to lawyer up so he could someday, get another coaching job and the money that goes with it.

Pitino failed the honesty test—twice. He knew about the strippers because he talks to his assistant coaches every single day. Yet, there he was lying, saying he was blindsided by the allegations.

Now, Pitino is out and he will lie to us again. He will use words like shock, disappointment, devastated, and so on, but nobody will believe him. This is a guy who cheated on his wife in a piano bar, and though there are various reasons why spouses cheat, it certainly stains his image. If he could do that—in a bar—of course he could secretly see that strippers have sex with potential recruits and that shoe companies pay a recruit to come to the University of Louisville. The only person surprised—-him!

We live in a world of dishonest people. Politicians, O.J. Simpson, Joe Paterno, priests, doctors, lawyers, teachers, bricklayers, truck drivers and so on and so forth. But, the thing that puzzles me about college coaches is that most are being paid millions to coach; moreover, they have huge buyouts—Pitino’s is reportedly $44 million. These people make more in one year than the truck driver makes in a lifetime. The money is guaranteed, so why cheat?

But, if cheating is what you want to do, fine, go ahead and do it. But, don’t tell me—tell us—that you’re not cheating. When you get caught, don’t be afraid to admit it. It’s okay to say that I wanted to win a championship for this school, and because of it, I broke some rules. For that, I am sorry and I hope that in time, you can forgive me.

The fans—and as a whole, we’re not very bright—will forgive you. When the stripper scandal broke, most Louisville fans were afraid that the 2013 NCAA basketball title was going to be taken away, or better, stripped. They would have been alright with being banned from the postseason for a few years so as long as the banner stays. Even Pitino was scared about that; he wants to be the two-time national champion coach, not the coach who saw his title—-stripped!

We don’t hate cheaters; what we hate is those who cheat, get caught red-handed and lie. Cheaters—yes—liars—no.

Sadly, that’s how it goes in the billion dollar industry that is athletics.  There needs to be a complete overhaul of college athletics but as long as there are 110,000 seat stadiums and boosters, it isn’t going to happen.  But, we’re to blame.  Many admire the Ivy League football model–10 games, no postseason–but we don’t watch their games.  In fact, you can’t find their games on TV and even in places like New Haven, CT and Ithaca, NY, very few attend them. To be blunt, we are hypocrites.

On paper,  the Ivy is great, but it’s the green paper that will always carry the day.  Briles and Pitino got caught; Sean Miller may get caught. You know climbing the pole is illegal, but, you do it anyway.  But when you get caught, admit it, get down and move on.

Pole climbing and cheating will continue and climbers will keep getting caught.  The only question—who’s next?



Top Flight Angel Says Toiling In Obscurity Is What We Do Best

September 14, 2017

He would have told the press that, but they weren’t there

by John Furgele (The Trusted 228)

Imagine the Preakness winner coming to Finger Lakes Racetrack to run in a $100,000 Grade III stakes race in the middle of their three-year old campaign?  It’s more than improbable, in fact, it’s impossible.  But on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 that’s kind of what you saw at Batavia as the winner of the $500,000 Yonkers Trot showed up to race at 71-year old Batavia Downs.

Before we wonder why, let it be known that Top Flight Angel was participating in the lucrative New York Sire Stakes for three-year old trotters.  Wednesday’s race had a purse of $60,200, so this wasn’t your normal $10,000 open or conditioned trot.  The Sire Stakes is a series, a buildup, contested throughout the year with each race offering good purses until the big money October 14 final at Yonkers Raceway. As a New York bred, Top Flight Angel is trying to cash in.

The Trotting Triple Crown consists of the Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot and Kentucky Futurity, and last year, Marion Marauder captured all three affairs.  With Perfect Spirit prevailing in a controversial Hambletonian and then skipping the Yonkers Trot, the chance for back-to-back crowns went away faster than hot dogs at a July 4 picnic.

Be that as it may, the fans at Batavia Downs were treated to a little bit of harness racing royalty, as Top Flight Angel was made the 4/5 favorite in a solid field of seven colts and geldings. The son of Archangel did not disappoint, cutting fractions of 29, 29.2, 28 and 28.1 en route to a 1:54.3 on the half mile track, which oh-by-the-way tied the track record that was held by his father.  Finishing second was Guardian Angel As who was sired by—you guessed it—Archangel.

In thoroughbred racing, if a Triple Crown race winner was heading to the local track, there’d be some local coverage of it, but unless you’re a harness racing diehard, you’d have a better chance of getting hit by a bus than reading about “TFA’s” invasion of the little track in Genesee County.

This is the world we live in of course.  Life is not always just or fair.  But, we could be in for a sort of sports crossroads.  Opening week in the NFL saw low ratings, boring games with lots of dead time.  Baseball does well regionally, but no longer captivates nationally.

One thing that is on the uptick in America is events.  We will rally around the big events like the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby.  When American Pharoah runs for glory, we’ll watch the Belmont.  If there’s a Game 7 in the baseball, basketball and even hockey, the casual fan will tune in. Why can’t harness racing, with plenty of big, lucrative races each year, put forth an effort to get some exposure?

It would have been nice if the media in Buffalo and Rochester pumped up the appearance of a Triple Crown race winner in its backyard, but local coverage was nowhere to be found.  The sports pages used to be about the games and the personalities that played them, but now, it’s more about drama and psychoanalysis.  On Wednesday, a Triple Crown race winner came to town, no posse in tow.

After the race, a few gathered in the Winner’s Circle to fete Top Flight Angel.  He was asked if he was disappointed at the lack of attention by the media.  The colt responded in typical fashion.

“I race for the fans who are here and those that follow at home,” the colt said.  “I wish more people were interested because we put on a good show and many are missing it.”

The colt is right, people are missing a good show, but it’s up to those in the sport to let people know what’s happening.  Thoroughbred racing is not as popular as it once was, but they do a good job of pumping up their big events. It’s time for harness racing—both nationally and locally—to do the same.


Let’s Not Dismiss Ed Cunnigham’s Actions

September 1, 2017

Cunningham’s resignation over safety concerns should be a wake-up call

by John Furgele (The Compassionate 228)

Ed Cunningham had a nice job, not a cushy job, but a nice job.  He was a college football broadcaster for ESPN.  Each week, he traveled to a school to call a game with Mike Patrick, his regular partner. But, something was eating away at Cunningham, and late Wednesday, it ate through him to the point where he quit doing something he has loved for decades.

Most of us would give up much to cover sports and make the good money that goes with it.  But the job is far from easy.  There is the travel, the time away from family and friends and lots and lots of prep work.  It looks easy, but is far from it.  Cunningham played at the University of Washington, helping the Huskies win a share of the national title in 1991.  He also played five seasons in the NFL and since, has been around football on a regular basis, mostly as a broadcaster and talker.

Like many, Cunningham was concerned about the massiveness of football.  The players are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been and because of it, injuries and attrition are a huge part of the game.  Head trauma has come to the forefront in recent years.  Yes, players have always suffered from head injuries, concussions, knees, you name it.  Football is not only a violent game; it’s a dangerous game.  If you’re old enough, you remember the gruesome injury suffered by Joe Theismann in 1985 on Monday Night Football.  If you recall, even the toughest of tough guys, Lawrence Taylor, was screaming at the gruesomeness of Theismann’s leg.  There was Willis MaGahee getting his knee bent backwards in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl and Marcus Lattimore’s brutal knee injury at South Carolina that prevented him from ever playing in the NFL.

Today, head injuries are getting lots of attention.  It’s not so much the concussions, it’s the repeated trauma that players suffer during the course of the careers.  There are only so many shots to the head some players can take.  The movie “Concussion,” showed that the effect it takes comes long after the careers end.  There was Andre Waters, who was in so much pain that he took his own life.  There was Dave Duerson, who was in so much pain, that he, too, took his own life; careful enough to shoot himself in the chest so his brain could be donated to science.  Hall of Famer Junior Seau also suffered, his life also ending by suicide.

I often wonder if people feel guilty when watching football.  In the past, I’m sure the number was minimal, but given the recent evidence that we have heard, seen and read, has the number increased?  Cunningham is certainly not the only one who feels this way, and his standing up and admitting the guilt should be commended.  Personally, I don’t know what to think.  I love watching football, especially college football, and my hope is that all the players finish their careers and walk away on their own terms.  It’s easier said than done. When I see Julian Edelman shred his ACL by just planting his foot, it makes me cringe.  When I see Vontaze Burfict drive his helmet into another player’s helmet, I cringe again.  Part of me wonders why players can’t just tackle with their arms and not their heads, but football is a reaction game.  You can try to legislate it, but because there is vicious contact on every play, there will be injuries—bad ones.

Cunningham decided that he couldn’t take it anymore, choosing to step away. It can’t be easy for him because unlike most of us, he played the game and excelled at it; it’s in his blood. Deep down, he loves the game and that 1991 Washington Huskies team that went 12-0 has to bring a smile to his face every day of his life.

As good as things can be, everybody has a breaking point.  For Cunningham, seeing players “targeted,” “concussed,” and seriously injured began eating away at his soul to the point where he had to walk away.  His decision should send some shockwaves to those who run both college and pro football.  No longer should these issues be ignored and even though it is virtually impossible to take collisions out of the game, the dialog on how to improve the game and make it safer must continue.

Football should reach out to Ed Cunningham and offer him a job as a safety consultant to see if he and a Blue Ribbon panel can make the game a little safer, a little less violent.  If this can happen, Ed Cunningham would be validated, his actions commended and a higher purpose served.

Ariana G Taking On The Boys in Zweig Memorial at Vernon Downs

August 16, 2017

Race in honor of a great friend to Harness Racing

by John Furgele (The Refreshing 228)

She could have done it.   I was there and I know she could have. I am talking about the super one, Ariana G, who opted to beat up the girls in the Hambletonian Oaks. I believe had she run against the boys in the Hambo, she would have won and won easily.

The great thing about harness racing is that the horses run frequently and this Friday, we will see if Ariana G can beat those boys when she gets behind the gate in the $320,000 Harry Zweig Memorial Trot at Vernon Downs. There, she will square off against International Moni, the Hambo favorite who broke stride in the final, and Devious Man, the second place finisher. It certainly won’t be easy for AG, but given the so-so crop of three-year-old boys and how dominant “G” has been, I like her chances.

Vernon Downs offers a good test for this batch. At 7/8 mile, we should see a very competitve race and a fast time. There will be no gun, go and hold like we see at places like Northfield, Yonkers, Saratoga and many other half-mile tracks. Don’t get me wrong, I like half-mile tracks and because there are so many of them, drivers have really mastered the art of two lap racing. But, you can’t beat a big track for a big race and Vernon Downs is more than capable of hosting this field of nine.

Ariana G did lose the only time she faced the boys; back in July in the Beal Memorial at Pocono, but she continues to improve while the boys, in my opinion, have regressed.   The two that beat her—Long Tom and Beal winner Devious Man—are in the field, but G coasted home in the Hambo Oaks in 1:51.1 while the boys struggled home in 1:52.3. The Hambo was of course was marred by the disqualification of What the Hill, but even if the race was run clean, it was far from spectacular.   Vernon Downs officials have to be thrilled to have the flying filly in the Zweig field.

It’s been an interesting year for Vernon Downs. Owner Jeffrey Gural announced that he would close the facility unless there was a reduction in monies paid to the state by the track. Gural cited that the newly opened del Lago Casino was negatively impacting Vernon’s revenues and he pushed for a lower tax percentage; if not, he planned on closing December 15. If you live in New York State, you understand the drama of state politics and the state legislature and naturally, a last minute deal was made to keep Vernon open. There were critics who believe that if a private company can’t make it on their own, then they should close, but this is a bit different.  The New York State Gaming Commission runs harness racing in New York and the state is heavily involved with breeding incentives and the like. Closing a facility like Vernon is not like closing the neighborhood hardware store. This is an industry that employs thousands, from farms to clerks to custodians. Having a harness track shuttered in the middle of New York would not be a compelling site, and more importantly, would mean less money in state coffers. Even though Vernon itself is not run by the state, it is in bed with the state much more than a company that makes saddles for horse racing is.  The bottom line–keeping the track open is expensive, but closing it–more expensive.

The race is named after Dr. Harry Zweig.  He was a veterinarian, but his passion and dedication to harness racing is what landed him a spot in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen.  He helped get revenues from gambling into harness racing and as a result, purses increased.  He made it advantageous to breed in New York and because of him, the New York Sire Stakes are alive and well. As we know, several other states now do the same thing. He was an owner and breeder and helped revive harness racing in New York with the Syracuse Mile which was built at the State Fairgrounds.  It’s people like Zweig who helped keep harness racing going as other entertainment options became available in the TV era.  He served as a director for the United States Trotting Association and has an equine foundation in his name at Cornell University.  He died from leukemia in 1977 at the age of 63 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Zweig Day at Vernon is a good one with 12 races on the card.  In addition to the Zweig Final, there is the Zweig Memorial for fillies, two Zweig consolations, five New York Excelsior races and three New York Sire Stakes races, befitting for a man who had both a passion and vision for standardbred racing in New York State. When you total it up, it adds up to $723,118 in purses.

Friday is the big night of the year at Vernon and it will be fascinating to see if Ariana G can beat the boys.  It’s a race many wanted to see at The Meadowlands, but thankfully, we’ll get to see it in upstate New York at the venerable Vernon Downs.


The Hambletonian is a Big American Event

August 4, 2017

I don’t care what people think, the Hambo should be treated like the big event that it is

by John Furgele (The Valued 228)

The first Saturday in May—the Kentucky Derby.  Any sports fan in America knows what that means but what about the first Saturday in August?  That, of course, doesn’t resonate as much with the average sports fan, but that day is the Super Bowl of Harness Racing; The Hambletonian.

The Hambletonian is the big day of the harness racing calendar.  The site is the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey and the day will be a festive one.  There are 16 races on the card and 14 of them (including the two Hambo eliminations) have purses over $100,000.

Harness racing is, well, no one is quite sure what to thoroughbred racing.  People who like the thoroughbreds don’t even pay attention to the “harnesses.” Those who follow harness racing probably, at the very least, pay attention to thoroughbred racing. It is a contentious relationship to be sure.

There will be 20,000 plus in attendance at the track affectionately known as The Big M and most will have a good time.  The Star Ledger, Bergen Record and other news outlets will send reporters to the track to cover the day’s events.  There will be the story where the reporter cruises the backyard and asks why the Jenkins family comes.  The family will say that they have been coming for 25 years and for them, the Hambo is a yearly tradition.  Matt and Ashley, the 28-year-olds who have been married for three years with no children (yet) will tell you that they came to have some fun with their friends.  The reporter will keep cruising.  She will find the 73-year-old that has been a harness racing fan since 1954. He will recite how great the 1989 race was and his recall will be spot on. He will tell the reporter that he has seen 30 Hambletonians and if the Lord is willing to let him keep coming, he will do so.

Most that come have some type of interest in the sport of harness racing.  There are hundreds of other festivals, picnics, sporting events, bars, boats, etc. to do on a Saturday in August in New Jersey, but something has drawn them to East Rutherford.  There has to be a little bit of interest in the sport, right.  Does anybody blindly see the Hambletonian online, in a paper or magazine and say, “let’s go?”  Doubt it.

That’s where I get confused.  There are many that say harness racing is a dying sport and to be sure, the media treats it as such.  ESPN won’t be there and I’m pretty sure the New York Times won’t be either.  Ditto for the new hip websites like the SB Nation, Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports.  But, 20,000 plus will be there; betting, drinking, eating and in general, having a good old American time at a good old American event.  Most won’t know any of the horses, but they will look at the program, pick out some cool names and make some wagers with the hopes of scoring the big score.

Americans like big events, in fact, they like them more and more in these, the modern times.  With instant gratification so easy to attain, events become more and more popular because most of us can take the one-off.  It’s the 162 game baseball schedule and the 82 NBA/NHL schedules that we can no longer devote our time to. The one-off is easy because you only have to do it/see it…..once.  The Super Bowl gets great ratings every year because we can handle one four-hour event.  We can handle the Oscars, too; it’s the Golden Globes and Divisional Playoff games that we struggle with. Look at golf and tennis–they have majors for a reason; because they can market them and best of all, they have made people care.  They have convinced the American that one Wimbledon is better than 10 ATP titles and that one Masters is better than 20 PGA tour wins. Bjorn Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles, but never won the United States Open.  Arnold Palmer never won the PGA Championship.  We judge athletes and teams by how many big events they have won. Borg won 64 titles, Guillermo Vilas, 62, but outslammed him, 11 to 4.  Case closed.

My hope is for harness racing to try and cash in on this big event.  Most of the 20,000 that attend will not go to a harness racing track until next August when the 2018 Hambletonian is run.  There has to be a way to get these people back to a track more than one time per year.  Unlike the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby and Game 7 of a World Series or NBA Finals, you have to find the Hambletonian; it doesn’t find you.  These people have found it, so let’s use them to recruit new people to the tracks. They go, they like it, how can the sport get THEM to spread the word?

To me, it seems like harness racing should be able to build on this.  I’m a realist, I don’t expect 5,000 fans to come out to watch harness racing on a Friday evening on October, but these 20,000 have come for a reason and there is a good chance to get them to come again, and perhaps bring some friends with them. Get their names, offer them some perks, but most importantly, get them to spread the word. People buy from people they like. If Bob loves the Hambletonian and his best buddy is Jim, why can’t get Bob get Jim to come to the event?

I could be wrong.  We only have one Independence Day, one Thanksgiving and one Christmas (one too many!) and if we had more, they would lose their luster, so maybe I should be pleased that the sport of harness racing has one day to celebrate and be happy with that and those that come. But I’m a fan of the sport and I would like to see more people enjoying it, because I feel if we can expose people to it, it can grow, not by leaps and bounds, but enough to keep going and most importantly, to get more attention and to sustain a fan base.


The Obscure Guy is Me

July 27, 2017

by John Furgele (Your Trusted 228)

I’ve been an avid sports fan since 1976.  I don’t proclaim to be great at anything, but as far as knowledge of sports goes, I would rate myself better than excellent.  I remember specific moments from specific games; often obscure games.  In fact, when I was cutting the lawn the other afternoon, I realized that I am a man of the obscure; a man that likes the obscure. Let’s check it out.

I liked the USFL.  I actually thought the quality of play was good, and to this day, I still struggle to understand why spring football can’t work in the United States. Of course, that was the problem with the USFL.  For three seasons (1983 thru 1985) they played in the spring and then, the owners, led by Donald Trump decided that it was best to move to the fall, a move that never happened as the league folded before that came to fruition.  They did sue—successfully—but received only $3.87 for their pain and suffering.  I’m not good with money, but that probably wasn’t enough to reunite.  We all know that the league had solid players with many of them going on to successful NFL careers.

I thought the XFL could have made it.  Yes, that’s right.  The league got off to a rough start.  The play was bad, the founder was loud and the product was too over the top.  But, by the end of the season, the play was better but the problem was that the fans had already checked out.  I always wonder what would have happened of the league lost their shock value and tried to cultivate both its product and its play. They told us the league would be a game-changer before they played games.  That is usually a recipe for disaster.

I like the Canadian Football League, aka the CFL.  There is a spring-summer football league up north.  It features nine teams, three downs, 12 players a side and a 110-yard field.  At first, it sounds strange to hear 3rd and 5 from the 52, but if you give the league a chance, you’ll get used to it.  I grew up in the Buffalo, NY suburbs and there, we could watch CFL games on CBC and CTV as they provided a nice summer diversion during the baseball season.  Their big game is the Grey Cup which is usually contested on the last Sunday in November.  I will likely never attend a Super Bowl, but at least I can say I saw a Grey Cup Game live and in person, back in 2001, when Calgary upset Winnipeg, 27-19.

I like MLS—Major League Soccer.  For the most part, there are two kinds of sports people:  those who like soccer and believe non-likers are not intelligent enough to appreciate it; and those who think soccer is boring, for wimps and a game for other countries to play.  I do believe that over the last 15 years, both sides have softened and MLS is gaining more and more respect across the sports landscape.

Most Americans like the World Cup; when the United States plays, it garners attention from all sports fans, not just the soccer purists.  But, that’s part of the problem, too.  For soccer to really gain a foothold, MLS needs to get more play in the USA sports landscape.  When you tune in to sports talk radio, it’s the same stuff every day to the point of boredom.  If you turn on ESPN, Fox, Sirius XM, you are bound to hear talk about the NBA, Lebron, football, Colin Kapernick and anything steamy like the recent Hugh Freeze saga.  The networks and hosts refuse to educate themselves on MLS; refuse to categorize it as the fifth major sport despite the continued growth of the league that debuted in 1996.  Do we need to spend hours talking about DC United and NYCFC?  No, but a few minutes per week?  Will that “kill” the ratings?

ESPN Radio used to be “all-sports radio,” before they spent billions on the NBA and the NFL.  They have Barry Melrose to analyze hockey and there was a time where he could be heard on their radio programs, but those days are long gone and since ESPN no longer broadcasts NHL games, it won’t be returning anytime soon.  But, they do broadcast MLS games, as does Fox, but it would be beneath Colin Cowherd to mention anything MLS.  He prefers to talk about Russell Westbrook’s fake triple-doubles. Why not bring your soccer expert for a few minutes to talk soccer both here and for that sake, around the globe.

I like harness racing.  When I tell people that, I usually get two responses.  The first is that it’s a sport for old people and even though I am nearing 50, they say I’m too young to follow a sport where horses pull chubby guys in a bike or sulky.  The second is that they tell me the sport is rigged because they see guys pulling back in the stretch, allowing them to get passed at the wire.  They fail to realize that when a driver pulls back, he is lightening the load that the horse has to carry; in essence, making it things easier for the trotter/pacer to run.  For some reason, harness racing gets mocked even though the horses race much more frequently than their thoroughbred counterparts.  Don’t get me wrong, I like thoroughbred racing too, but that sport is not as obscure as harness racing and this list is centered on the obscure.

There was a time where harness racing drew crowds of 40,000 and up to their tracks, but things like off track betting, cable TV and now the Smartphone took them away with the sport now relying heavily on casinos and slots to help it move forward.  There was also a time where ESPN—The Worldwide Leader—showed harness racing on its airwaves, back when ESPN only cared about sports. Those were the good old days of ESPN before Stephen A. Smith, before covering politics and before not only covering O.J. Simpson’s Nevada parole hearing, but bringing in a panel of experts to analyze what’s next for the man acquitted of double murder back in 1995.  I honestly wonder if sports fans would watch harness racing over stuff like O.J, Kapernick and Stephen A. Smith.  I believe they would and if you go to You Tube and search under Harness racing, you’ll see ESPN covering the big events and covering them well. ESPN certainly knows how to cover sports/games—it’s the non-sports stuff that makes many pause.

I like AAA baseball and even independent league baseball games.  I would love to see a Buffalo Bisons-Rochester Red Wings game on TV as well as seeing the Omaha Storm Chasers take on the New Orleans Baby Cakes.  I would also like to watch the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League; the Rockland Boulders of the Can-Am League and the Sioux Falls Canaries of the American Association.  I often wonder why the MSG Network can’t strike a deal with the Ducks and Boulders to show some of their games.  Instead, we get “The Best of the NY Islanders, the Devils and the Knicks;” three teams that didn’t sniff the playoffs in 2016-17.  We also get movies, old-timers tennis and replays from tennis exhibitions from 2014.  That’s what happens when you have all your hands in the winter sports basket.  I know it’s expensive to produce games, but why show “Rudy,” when Boulders-Ottawa Champions is available?

I like FCS football.  It can be very tough explaining college football divisions (ask my girlfriend) to people.  In basketball and other sports, it’s easy.  We have Division I, II and III, but in football, we have four divisions; the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Football Championship Subdivision, Division II and Division III.  In the old days, it was 1-A, 1-AA, II and III, a classification system that I still believe is easier. That said, why are there four football divisions and only three basketball divisions even though there are three times the basketball teams as there are football teams?  Villanova plays FCS football in a stadium that seats 10,000 people while Michigan plays FBS football in an 113,000 seat stadium.  In basketball, they are equals, but in football, it’s not even close and when a FCS team beats a FBS like Appalachian State did to Michigan in 2007, it is big, big news.

But FCS football has a grassroots feel to it; the way football used to be before superconferences, outrageous TV fees and corruption took over.  When football went big time, the Ohio States moved forward while schools like Colgate, Holy Cross, Delaware, Villanova and a Youngstown State decided to stay where they were at.  Did they miss out?  Perhaps, but to me, if you don’t watch a few FCS games in the fall, you’re missing out because, like AAA baseball, it’s simply good.

Is this list too obscure or not obscure enough?  That’s for you to decide.  But, I know who I am, a man that prefers a Marist-Stetson football game over Syracuse-Boston College, so don’t even bother telling me I need help; I already know.  I don’t think I’m alone here, but then again, I’m not sure either.