Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2021

For Money And Fame, But Also For Something More Personal

Maybe it was the time change.  Or perhaps it was the markedly cooler temperatures in at least some parts of the country these past few days.  Both, after all, are reminders that winter is coming, which can create a sense of urgency to get things done before the onset of the months of darkness and deep freeze.  Whatever the reason, from one coast to the other, the sports world spent the weekend in one big hurry.  From west to east and back again, there was all kinds of racing.

On Friday and Saturday Del Mar Racetrack, the horse racing facility built 85 years ago by a celebrity partnership that was chaired by Bing Crosby and counted Gary Cooper and Oliver Hardy among its members, was the site of the 38th edition of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.  Del Mar sits just north of San Diego and only a few furlongs from the Pacific Ocean, all but guaranteeing pleasant conditions for the fourteen races that mark the culmination of the North American thoroughbred season.  In what has become the standard calendar for the Breeders’ Cup meet, Friday was dedicated to five events for 2-year-olds while Saturday’s nine races were for older horses.

With $29 million in purses at stake, the Breeders’ Cup always attracts international fields, with owners and trainers from Europe and Asia happily incurring the considerable expense, and in 2021, the pandemic restrictions, to ship their qualifying mounts to the U.S. in hopes of pocketing a big reward.  The gamble worked out well for Irish-bred Modern Games, the 2-year-old favorite in Friday’s last race, the Juvenile Turf.  English trainer Charlie Appleby saddled two horses in the race, but moments before the scheduled start, Albahr reared in the starting stall and got both front legs over the top of the gate before sitting down on its haunches.  While the horse was unharmed except for some minor cuts, the incident led to an automatic scratch. 

To minimize the risk to Modern Games in the adjoining stall, the starter had opened that horse’s gate so it could walk out.  In the confusion that followed, Appleby spent several minutes thinking he had lost both his entries, as the track veterinarian initially scratched Modern Games as well.  When it became clear that the horse hadn’t broken through the front of the gate but rather had been let out on purpose, it was reinstated.  By that time however, the parimutuel betting pools had all been recalibrated, meaning no bets could be placed on Modern Games.    Naturally, with thousands of unhappy would-be backers watching from the stands, Modern Games put on a furious charge over the final furlong to win going away.

Saturday proved just as profitable for foreign entrants, with trainer Yoshito Yahagi saddling the Japanese-owned winners of both the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf and the equally rich Distaff.  Loves Only You at least went off as one of the favorites in the turf race, but Marche Lorraine prevailed in the Distaff by a nose – more like a nostril – after being sent from the gate at odds of just under 50-1.  But the winner’s share of the event’s biggest purse, the $6 million Classic, stayed stateside when 5-year-old Knicks Go led gate to wire, easily handling a trio of better known 3-year-olds, Medina Spirit, Essential Quality, and Hot Rod Charlie.

Less than 24 hours after Knicks Go won within sight of the Pacific surf, Kyle Larson captured his first NASCAR Cup Series championship in the Arizona desert.  This is the second year Phoenix Raceway has been the venue for the final race of NASCAR’s season, after nearly two decades in south Florida at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  While there is no single reason NASCAR made the switch, the fact that capacity at Phoenix is about ten percent less than at Homestead surely doesn’t hurt, as empty seats for the race that decides the year’s title are surely not desirable.  The stock car circuit is introducing a new car next year, and fans hope the updated design and engineering rules will make for more passing and overall better (and more entertaining) racing.  Even on Sunday, the decisive moment came not on the track, but along pit road.  During a late caution, Larson, who had been running fourth, combined quick work by his crew with his prime position in pit number one, at the very head of the lane, to beat everyone else back on the track and seize first just before the race’s final restart. 

In between all those speeding animals and machines out west, thousands of humans were racing through Gotham’s five boroughs Sunday morning in the New York City Marathon – actually, it’s entirely likely that some earnest but plodding stragglers are still finding their way to the finish line in Central Park West even as this is being written many hours later.  Runners from East African countries have dominated distance racing for years, and New York was no exception.  Albert Korir and Peres Jepchirchir, both Kenyans, topped the men’s and women’s fields.  It was Korir’s first major marathon win, while Jepchirchir’s victory cemented her place as distance running royalty as she became the first runner, male or female, to put both a win in New York and an Olympic gold medal on their resume.  As if that weren’t enough, she scored the double just three months apart.

Still, the unsurprising wins by the Kenyans had to share space with compelling stories involving local names.  One was Shalane Flanagan, the 40-year-old retired professional who’s upset win in 2017 was punctuated by her screaming profanities over the final yards of the race.  Flanagan has always been audacious, but when she announced she would attempt to complete six major marathons in as many weeks, the idea seemed preposterous.  It couldn’t even be attempted most years, but with so many schedules scrambled by the pandemic, the 2021 calendar aligned.  So Flanagan flew off to Europe to run in Berlin and London, then came home to compete in Chicago and Boston on consecutive days.  The Tokyo marathon was ultimately cancelled, so she ran the equivalent distance in Oregon two weeks ago.  Which brought her to New York, and late Sunday morning, Flanagan was again running through Central Park, ultimately finishing with her fastest time of all six races.

Another was Molly Seidel, who first shocked the American racing establishment by securing a place on the Olympic team with a second-place finish at the U.S. Trials in her very first marathon last year, then stunned the racing world by taking bronze in Japan this summer.  No longer an unknown, Seidel was cheered every step of the way though Gotham and finished fourth in a personal best, which was also the fastest New York Marathon time ever by an American woman.  More remarkably, as she revealed only after the race, she did so after suffering two broken ribs within the past month, during her prerace training.  In a recent interview, Seidel’s coach Jon Green praised her ability to tolerate pain, saying that “her ‘3” on the pain scale is like a ‘9’ for everybody else.”  Now fans everywhere know Green wasn’t exaggerating.

From the Pacific coast to the Sonoran desert to wave upon wave of runners crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, everywhere one looked this weekend, sports was about the quest for speed, even at the risk of pain, and injury – or worse.  Those we watched did it for prizes of course, for money and glory.  But also, as Molly Seidel told her Instagram followers, “simply to accomplish something we’ve never done before,” to which she added “Once the training is done all we can do is put out our best effort on the day and accept the results.”

Winning matters.  Our games are always about winning.  But at their best, they are never about just that.


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