Monday, February 25, 2013
Has Time Come to Rethink the 3-Year-Old Season?
On Saturday, 50 important points were up for grabs in both the 1-1/16 miles Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star, according to the new Kentucky Derby eligibiity format. Orb won the Fountain of Youth and benefited from a hot pace. He won in a time of 1:42 1/5.
Ive Struck A Nerve won the Risen Star in a time of 1:44 2/5, at 135-1 odds no less. The horses in the this field seemed to be talking down the stretch saying, ‘If you’d like to win, why don’t you just go on ahead.’
‘No, no, why don’t you win. You could use the points.’
‘Ah, the points! I stand to get a few here.’
‘Oh, and who’s that?’ Ive Struck A Nerve? Indeed!’
If we are to believe a fifth of a second equates to a length on the track, then Ive Struck A Nerve is 2 1/5 seconds slower or, depressingly, 11 lengths slower than Orb.
The Fountain of Youth had more cache, what with the Todd Pletcher-trained Violence. This colt broke his maiden at Saratoga as a heavy, heavy favorite. He had to earn it, but showed his class and his $600,000 yearling price. I was actually at the track this day, oddly enough as I try to avoid it.
Too many dark and stormies and a swisher sweets had me hugging my toilet like Hunter Thompson. I wiped my face and did a book signing, like Hunter Thompson would. That’s how you rally. Got my picture in the New York Times that day
. Good on ya!
Violence chased a wicked pace. The opening quarter was benign enough at 23 flat, though the half was blistering in 45 2/5. They sped up in the second quarter. Javier Castellano pressed the issue and got Violence into the mix earlier than prescribed, one has to think. Naturally, Orb sat there below John Velasquez, that newly-minted Hall of Famer, and swallowed up the homestretch with those big strides of Orb’s that everyone is talking about.
But, alas, Violence is off the Derby Trail with a sesamoid fracture. It’s almost comical at this point how these “brilliant” horses break down. Actually, it is comical. Not that I’m rooting for horses to get hurt—because I’m not, let's be clear here—but this just plays into the greater farce that is 3-year-old horse racing.
The Derby Season is a mockery. Year in and year out the sophomores come through and prove to be as deciduous as baby teeth. The come in, they fall out before they have a chance to bite anything harder than Gerbers.
Sometimes, Todd Pletcher 3-year-olds have a hard time making it to the fall. Two that come to mind are Flower Alley (2005) and Any Given Saturday (2007), but that's now eight and six years ago. Quality Road wasn’t his (previously Jimmy Jerkens) until after the 2009 Derby, and even then QR scratched before the Breeders' Cup Classic because of his gate issues. Algorithms was the latest example last year until misfortune struck another undefeated colt over the weekend.
Isn't it high time to change the format of the Triple Crown season--and I’m not even talking spacing the races out? I’m talking delay it a year and make it a 4-year-old competition. It’s time to evolve. The only other sport that is so married to its past is baseball. Even baseball is considering expanded replay.
These horses are proving too fragile and they’re perpetuating that fragility in retirement. In 30 years, will anyone care that the Kentucky Derby was won by a 4-year-old and not a 3-year-old? Of course not! Outside the gates of America's racetracks, do most sport fans even associate the word Derby with three-year-olds? No; they associate with a race run in Kentucky.
But Back to Orb.
His trainer Shug McGaughey is working on a dream that is 41 years in the making. So, yes, Shug watched Orb dig in, hang a bit, but cruise by Violence as he will cruise by 18 or 19 horses in a few months (continued good health permitting).
For all the trainer bashing that goes on with the Big 5, Shug avoids such criticism. Maybe it’s because he’s a loyalist and trains exclusively for the knightly Phipps Stable. It’s as if he has his own personal oil well that he sustainably rigs. The horses come up. He trains them. They go away. More horses come up. And he keeps plugging.
Could it be that Orb is his best shot at winning the Derby since Easy Goer? Violence could have been to Orb as Sunday Silence was to Easy Goer. Maybe this year he gets the Derby cuz it’s been a long, long time.
(Sunday) Violence dug in and fought on. It showed he was a contender, at least a contender through February, which, sadly, is par for the course.
Thunder Gulch was the last horse to win the Fountain of Youth and then go on to win the Derby. The way Orb ran, that 18-year drought could come to an end.
Written by Brendan O'Meara
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Jockeys and the PED question
Bill Simmons, of Grantland.com, wrote a great piece leading up to the Super Bowl. It dealt with asking the performance enhancing drug question
and why should it be taboo. After all, with high-profile athletes with ties to steroids and HGH ruining wide swaths of sport eras, why can’t the question be asked? More to the point, athletes have lost the right to be offended by the question.
How can the tiresome Ray Lewis (ugh, Ray Lewis, thankfully we haven’t heard a peep from him since the Super Bowl) come back in 10 weeks from a torn tricep, an injury that can take upwards of six months to heal? That’s 14 weeks ahead of schedule, or 98 days, or, essentially, an entire football season.
How can the fill-in-your-own-superlative Adrian Peterson come back to fall nine yards shy of breaking the NFL rushing record after his knee went through a blender?
People say, “These people are freaks!” “What a story!” “What a testament to their work ethic!” I actually find it encouraging that Derek Rose is taking such a long time to come back from his torn ACL.
Which brings us to Gary Stevens, epic Hall of Fame jockey, winner of thousands of races, actor extraordinaire, insightful TV personality. Right here
, our very own Preach, said, “Is this guy kidding? Apparently not. The first time I saw him a few weeks ago on HRTV since he returned from his Northwest Territory boot camp, he was decidedly leaner and healthier.
“I didn’t see the middle leg of his three recent stakes wins but the first and third were classics, especially the one on Slim Shady. To return after a long absence at 49 is one thing; to return at such a high level remarkable. This Hall of Famer is a true renaissance man. Somehow I don’t think his story will end when he ultimately decides to hang it up for good. Jockey as inspirational leader; who knew?”
It’s not the return that’s questionable, but the high level of said return. Forty-nine years old. Unless he’s John Nerud, he’s got many more years behind him than he does in front. He’s been out of the game since 2005. Sure, he’s galloped some horses, but he hasn’t been “game ready” for roughly seven years.
Jockeys, at least in my recollection, haven’t been tied to PEDs at all, just booze and other recreational follies. Horses have, but that incriminates the trainer. The first story I read tying jockeys to PEDs was when Frankie Dettori failed a drug test in November. ESPN reported Dettori didn’t take a PED
, though he still failed the drug test, the contents of which will not be disclosed.
What could enhance a jockey’s performance? Most likely drugs that help regulate weight, heighten awareness, stimulants. Think about their labor. Up early in the morning to gallop a small herd of horses. Physically taxing. Then, just a few hours after training closes, it’s onto the jock’s room for five, six, seven mounts. Now it’s 6 p.m. It’s time for a spinach salad and bed. Do it all over again tomorrow.
Look into the annals of history. Jockeys are as competitive as any athletes out there and when hyper-competitive uber athletes are thrown into/onto a football field, a baseball diamond, a basketball court, a hockey rink, a racetrack, you mean to tell me one jockey isn’t trying to get an edge over another? What about a guy who’s been out of the game since November of 2005 who might be jockeying for a Derby mount?
Jockeys are in a great position to fly under the radar. They play third fiddle, behind the horse and trainer. They are rigorously tested for drugs and alcohol since they have to drive in circles all afternoon, but as far as athletic performance maybe mums the word.
So, yes, it’s great Gary Stevens has come back and is competing at this high level. He’s a great advocate for racing and one of the great commentators on the air no matter the sport. But in this sports climate when humans are routinely performing super human feats, it’s fair to question. More accurately, it’s irresponsible not to.
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Written by Brendan O'Meara
Thursday, February 14, 2013
The Man, the Mentor, the Legend
At some point or another when you consider yourself a fan of a sport, you owe it to yourself to learn about its history. Or, at the very least, learn about its icons.
It pays to know who Secretariat, Man o’War, Forego, and Dr. Fager are.
It pays to know who Jim Fitzsimmons, Laz Barrera, Tom Smith, and John Nerud are.
The latter just turned 100 years old and I know very little about him. I know he trained Dr. Fager, among others. Tom Gallo, of Parting Glass Racing, told me in Jiffy Lube two years ago that somebody (wink, wink) should write a biography about him.
A wise man even said, "If John Gaines was the Father of Breeders' Cup, then John Nerud is its "Good Uncle.”
Horse racing has better days behind it than it does ahead, so it serves us well to look into the expanded panorama of the rear-view mirror.
Nerud was born before the start of World War I, the War to End All Wars. We’ve since had a few more. He was 20 years old when Seabiscuit was foaled.
There is rarely a division of horse racing Nerud hasn’t graced. When Nerud helped found the Breeders’ Cup, it was with the noblest of intentions—to help popularize horse racing for the masses, to hook people on how special the game can be. He watched it become Viktor Franketstein’s wretch. Nerud, in his own words from johnnerud.com:
“As you know John Gaines dreamed this up…When this was born he and I both agreed that the Breeders Cup is only a marketing tool for racing – nothing else. You have one big day to draw attention to racing and it’s a marketing tool…Without racing breeders don’t have a place to sell their horses, but I don’t think the breeders have ever realized that. Anyhow, we wanted to spend everything on one day.
“I think they have lost their way with the Breeders Cup. The Breeders Cup is only an event. It wasn’t put together to bring a lot of money back to the breeders. They were expected to fund it so they would have a market to sell their horses, but the people in Kentucky think it belongs to the breeders and they should make a profit off it, which is wrong.
“I haven’t been to meetings and I don’t know what their ideas are but we have never had a CEO in charge of the Breeder’s Cup that is independent. Every CEO we have ever had running the Breeders Cup has been an inside man. If the Breeders Cup is to be run right they have to get an outside person with the ability and the education – I don’t care if he has never seen a horse – he has to be a strong executive and not part of the good old boys club.
“That is what is wrong with the Breeders Cup, it is run as a good old boys club. Until we get rid of that attitude, it’s not going to work. I don’t think we will ever get it straightened out. The Kentucky breeders are a very close-knit group. They are the center of the breeding world and they know it. It is very difficult for an outsider to get in and make a very big splash. I did. I was on five committees and chairman of the marketing committee for 10 years. I had a pretty strong voice but they got rid of me.”
Nerud celebrated his 100th birthday before a crowd of 50-60 friends and colleagues in Sands Point, NY. It would appear, based on the above comment, he made many enemies in the sport, namely with the insular group of Kentucky breeders. At age 100, it could be he watched some of them die, which must have felt sweet in its own right.
At the party, as reported by Steve Haskin
of The Blood-Horse, Nerud said, “Finally, I’d like to tell you a story that best describes who I am now. There was an old avid golfer who used to come to church Sundays when it was raining and he couldn’t play. On this day he happened to be in church, and the minister said to the congregation, ‘I’m going to make you all feel good and have you forgive your enemies. All you people who will forgive your enemies raise your hand.’ Everybody raised their hand except the old golfer. The minister said to him, ‘You don’t want to forgive your enemies?’ The old golfer said to him, ‘I don’t have any enemies, I’ve outlived all the bastards.'”
May he outlive them all, every one of them.
Written by Brendan O'Meara