Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2019

For Boston, A Very Rude Awakening

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be on Monday, one day later than usual, in order to report on the Sunday night finish, east coast time, of the men’s U.S. Open golf tournament, now underway at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. Thanks for reading!

Call it the surfeit from conceit. This week saw a massive overabundance of expectation among fans in greater Boston who believed that the actual playing of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals was a mere formality. The rank hubris that produced such a misbegotten attitude was produced by the remarkable run of championships in multiple sports by the city’s four major franchises. After six Super Bowl wins, four World Series titles, and individual NBA and NHL championships since 2002, Wednesday night’s game could have only one possible outcome. That the first of the Patriots championships and two of the Red Sox titles came at the expense of teams from St. Louis was further proof of the inevitable. Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston Globe columnist who has been taking the temperature of area sports fans for many years, read the prevailing attitude just right when he wrote “No one around here was ready for this. A Boston team losing a championship game? Impossible.”

Such a result was of course anything but impossible, as demonstrated by plenty of evidence in the first six games of the NHL’s championship series. The Bruins entered the Finals as the favorite, in part because the very presence of the St. Louis Blues seemed so unlikely. In the first week of January the Blues were in dead last place in the entire league, with the fewest points of any team in either conference, and not surprisingly, a negative goal differential.  A new coach, a decision to give a rookie goaltender a shot between the pipes on a regular basis, and some timely moves at the trade deadline changed all that. From that nadir in deep winter, St. Louis went 30-10-5 over its last forty-five games, with a plus-45 difference in goals scored versus allowed. During the same period, Boston was similar but no better, with a record of 27-10-5 and a plus-35 differential in scoring.

If those numbers from the season’s second half weren’t enough to give New England fans pause, the first six games of the Finals should have been. Despite a significant advantage in goals scored, the Bruins had been unable to put the Blues away. Instead, not only was the series tied at three games apiece, it was St. Louis that had first crack at seizing the Cup, skating on home ice last Sunday with a three games to two lead. Boston, which alternated between looking very, very good and appearing to be asleep throughout the series, responded by playing perhaps its most dominant and complete game of the Finals, winning 5-1 and setting up Game 7 on home ice at TD Garden.

But this series was not one that proved the value of playing in front of a supportive crowd. Through those first six contests both squads went just 1-2 on their home ice. Perhaps that too should have sent a shiver down the spines of the Bruins faithful, who instead made their way past the Bobby Orr statue outside the Garden, certain that they would be celebrating a title in a few hours, with some no doubt planning to keep right on partying until the traditional duck boat parade on Friday.

That statue of Orr recalls one of the most iconic photographs in all of sports. It was taken almost half a century ago, on the night of May 10, 1970. Game 4 of that year’s Stanly Cup Finals, also between Boston and St. Louis, was in overtime when Orr took a pass from teammate Derek Sanderson and buried the puck in the St. Louis net. Even as he took the shot Orr was tripped by Noel Picard of the Blues, and the famous photo, like the statue, shows Boston’s hero flying through the air like a hockey superman, his stick raised high in triumph.

Plenty of Boston fans recalled the night Bobby Orr flew when they learned that St. Louis would be the Bruins opponent in the Finals. But 1970 was the third year of the NHL’s expansion era, when all six new teams were grouped together in the West Division while the Original Six franchises comprised the East. The Blues went to the Finals three years in a row as the best of the expansion squads, and not surprisingly were swept each time, the last of their twelve straight Finals defeats coming on Orr’s goal. All these years later this was a very different St. Louis team, one that specialized in smash mouth hockey, a tough and aggressive style of play that was in sharp contrast to Boston’s defensive skills and effective power play.

Throughout the series the Blues aggressiveness appeared to wear down the Bruins from time to time. Especially in Games 2 and 5, the Boston lineup was listless for long stretches, with top line forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand notably ineffective. All season long Bruins fans knew they could count on those two along with linemate David Pastrnak to lead the team’s offense. Instead, by the time the final horn sounded and a jubilant St. Louis squad got ready to hoist the Cup, Bergeron and Marchand had combined for zero five-on-five goals in the series, with Pastrnak netting just one.

It would be unfair however to blame the Bruins dismal performance in Game 7 on any one or two players. If Game 6 in St. Louis was Boston’s most complete effort, Wednesday night was its mirror image. With everything on the line, the Bruins carried the action for much of the first period but were unable to put the puck past Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. Then late in the period a couple of Boston breakdowns gave St. Louis openings that resulted in a pair of goals, and Bruins shoulders slumped. While forty minutes of game time remained, the battle for the Stanley Cup was effectively over.

After the 4-1 thrashing, as chastened Bruins fans quietly made their way out of the Garden, and as their neighbors across the region turned off their television sets, one couldn’t help but think back to the playoffs one year after Orr’s famous goal. In 1971, in the first round, the top-ranked Bruins faced off against Montreal. The Canadiens relied on a 23-year-old rookie goaltender named Ken Dryden. He proved to be magnificent in the net, presaging his Hall of Fame career, and the defending Stanley Cup champions were sent packing in seven games. Nearly half a century later, the 25-year-old rookie Binnington reprised Dryden’s role, this time in the Finals. As he did so in Game 7, allowing his teammates time to score and score and score and score, the Bruins and their fans learned the hard but eternal lesson that victory is never a given.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2019

No Triple Crown, Just Troubled Times

The headline over Joe Drape’s story in the New York Times the day before this year’s running of the Belmont Stakes read “For War of Will, the Belmont Is About What Might Have Been.” The piece by the veteran writer, whose reporting has graced the sports pages of the Times for two decades, focused on the winner of the Preakness who along with Tacitus was one of the favorites going into the mile and one-half race known as the Test of the Champion. Had War of Will been first under the wire on Saturday, he would have joined just twelve other horses to win the Preakness and Belmont after coming up short in the Kentucky Derby.

That list includes some legendary steeds, including Man ‘O War in 1920 and Native Dancer in 1953. The last colt to capture the Triple Crown’s final two jewels was Afleet Alex in 2005. But Drape’s story was not just about the elite company that War of Will stood to join. The horse’s saga was truly a case of potential both lost and regained multiple times. An early favorite for the Derby, War of Will appeared out of the race after straining a ligament in his right hind leg during a race in just six weeks before the Run for the Roses. But trainer Mark Casse rested his charge and then trained him lightly, and War of Will not only made the starting gate at the Derby but by Saturday was the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races this year. Yet on that fateful day at Churchill Downs, it was War of Will and jockey Tyler Gaffalione who were very nearly upended when Maximum Security veered out on the final turn and interfered with multiple horses. The result was the first disqualification of a horse first across the finish line in Derby history, and the unanswerable question of where War of Will would have finished had he been allowed to continue his stretch run.

As fans already know, the swinging pendulum of potential went against War of Will at the Belmont. When Gaffalione called on his mount to run at the top of the stretch, the horse failed to fire and instead faded to ninth place in the ten-horse field. Meanwhile it was his stablemate, the lightly regarded Sir Winston, who took the inside lane and made the most of the shortest possible trip around the sprawling Long Island oval, winning by a length over the hard charging Tacitus.

Sir Winston’s upset win gave Casse a rare Triple Crown double for a trainer – wins in two of the races by two different horses – but between the thoroughly mixed results, the controversy at the Kentucky Derby and the persistent issue of safety in horse racing, the Times’ headline might well apply to the entirety of this year’s Triple Crown, and not just for one horse but for the struggling industry in general.

It’s worth noting that fans, especially those with only a casual interest in racing who tune in to these three races in the spring and then not again until the two days of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in the fall, have grown spoiled in recent years, and many possess the selective memory that comes with that experience. First, I’ll Have Another in 2012 then California Chrome two years later came to the Belmont with wins in the first two Triple Crown races on their resumes, only to come up short at their shot at history. Then American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify just last year swept to victory in all three, delighting fans and giving horse racing a badly needed boost.

What’s forgotten in that run of close calls and history made is that in every other recent year there have been three different winners of the three Triple Crown races, just like in 2019. The vagaries of thoroughbred racing are such that winning any single race is extremely difficult. Winning multiple starts over a span of just five weeks, a workload that no modern horse bears either before or after the Triple Crown, is surpassingly hard, all the more so when both of the races after the Kentucky Derby always feature a number of fresh shooters, horses that have avoided the scheduling grind and go to the post well rested. Despite his favorable odds, history suggests that as the only horse running all three races this year, War of Will’s poor finish at the Belmont was hardly surprising.

Still the image of racing won’t be helped by the sense that this year’s Triple Crown was anticlimactic and ultimately disappointing, after starting with the controversial Derby finish that horse players understood, but casual fans almost certainly did not.

The lack of a compelling Triple Crown story also means there has been nothing to take the spotlight off the mounting death toll of horses at Santa Anita, one of the country’s premier tracks. Three days before the Belmont a two-year-old named Derby River had to be euthanized after suffering an injury during a training workout. That brought to twenty-seven the number of fatalities at Santa Anita since its current meet started the day after Christmas.

That awful toll has led to one suspension of racing at the track, and growing calls for a referendum to ban the sport in California. Apart from the appalling numbers at Santa Anita, across the country the sport has a death toll that is far greater than in other countries – from two and a half to five times so in 2018.

The glaring difference is that medicating horses is a tightly controlled process around the rest of the globe, while in the United States what is allowed varies from state to state. But efforts to enact similar national standards in this country are going nowhere. While many in the industry are supportive, including the Stronach Group which owns both Santa Anita and Pimlico, home of the Preakness, Churchill Downs, Inc., the operator of the country’s best-known track and host of our most famous race, is steadfastly opposed. That means Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, also the Senate Majority Leader, is also against any regulatory legislation, which in turn means nothing will be coming to a vote anytime soon.

That opposition is breathtakingly short-sighted. It’s as if the management of Churchill Downs, along with others in the industry who think the current free for all model is just fine, are locked in a gauzy past when horse racing was the sport of kings, rather than an industry on the brink. They would do well to remember that since the ancient days of Ozymandias, the fate of most kingdoms has been decline, decay, and defeat.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 6, 2019

Just Shut Up, Hank

Winning one of our national golf championships requires a player to overcome adversity, demonstrate both patience and skill under enormous pressure, and ultimately persevere over a course typically made as tough as it can possibly be by the United States Golf Association. The USGA annually sponsors thirteen separate individual championships, and whether it is an open or an amateur contest, for men or women or seniors, any golfer who lays claim to the title of “national champion” is deservedly worthy of the highest praise. But those usual challenges were but prelude for the competitors at last weekend’s US Women’s Open. Thanks to the racist and misogynistic comments of well-known teaching pro Hank Haney, the 156 women who teed it up at the Country Club of Charleston also had to overcome bigoted stereotypes and outright disdain.

As most readers surely know, one day before the Women’s Open got underway last Thursday, Haney went on his self-named radio show, broadcast over the PGA Tour’s Sirius XM channel, to declare that he had neither knowledge of nor interest in women’s golf, and that he couldn’t name six members of the LPGA Tour. Apparently not content with this public disparagement, he then plunged into the old racist trope of being unable to distinguish members of some other group by suggesting that a Korean golfer would win and that she would undoubtedly be named “Lee,” apparently because in Haney’s world that’s the only name a Korean golfer could have. Both Haney and his co-host Steve Johnson found this repartee amusing, which is perhaps why they felt comfortable as Haney went on to disparage the second US Women’s Senior Open, played two weeks earlier at Pine Needles.

The PGA Tour and Sirius radio responded by suspending Haney, even as a tidal wave of negative reaction poured in from golfers of both sexes and various races. Foremost among them was Michelle Wie, the 29-year-old Korean American star who won the Open at Pinehurst five years ago. On Twitter Wie wrote, “As a Korean American woman golfer, these comments that (Haney) made disappoint and anger me on so many different levels. Racism and sexism are no laughing matter Hank…shame on you. I don’t ever do this, but you must be called out.” Wie later added, “Too many of these (golfers), Korean or note, have worked countless hours and sacrificed so much to play in the US Open this week. There are so many amazing players in the field. Let’s celebrate them…not mock them.”

Within a few hours Haney responded with an apology, which at least in the moment sounded slightly more sincere than the typical “if I’ve offended anyone” nonsense that we have all heard far too often in such situations. But the depth of Haney’s true feelings became clear four days later, when he responded both to the outcome of the Open, a victory by Korea’s Jeongeun Lee6, and to comments by Tiger Woods that Haney deserved his suspension, by attempting to take a victory lap for predicting the result and by slamming his former star pupil, who also happens to be the most recognizable and popular player in the game (good luck with that).

Neither Haney nor anyone else who follows golf is under any obligation to have an interest in the women’s game or the LPGA. But if that is the case and one has a radio show about golf, perhaps a good plan would be to simply not bring up the subject of the Women’s Open. By instead choosing to talk about it only to heap derision on women players, Haney joined a long line of defenders of the sexism that has longed plagued the sport, from private club restrictions on when women members can play to the country’s most famous club, Augusta National, only reluctantly agreeing to admit women as members just seven years ago.

As bad as that is, Haney’s jingoistic characterization of Korean players is even worse. It is true that the LPGA of Korea Tour started assigning numerals to players named Lee because of the number participating on that tour. Most Korean women drop the numeral when they transition to the US Tour, but Jeongeun Lee6 chose to keep it as a marketing tool, going by the nickname “Six.” She also died her hair platinum blonde, which doesn’t exactly sound like a player intent on being part of a faceless monolith of like-named and like-looking golfers.

Far more important, Haney’s supposed concern that players from one foreign country have overrun the LPGA Tour is inaccurate. Of the 32 tournaments played during the Tour’s 2018 season, an equal number – nine – were won by Americans and Koreans. But an even greater number, fourteen in all, were captured by golfers from a total of eight other countries, marking the LPGA Tour as what is truly is, the dominant place to play in all of women’s golf. That fact was reinforced at the Women’s Open, where the top ten finishers on the final leader board included six Americans but also representatives of five different countries.  That Haney should have a problem with such diversity, especially because some of those players don’t look like “us,” speaks loudly to an issue for Haney rather than one for the Tour. It’s also worth noting, not that facts ever stand in the way of racist views, that Lee6’s victory in Charleston was the first LPGA Tour win by a Korean named Lee since July 2017.

For both its members and fans of the LPGA Tour it would be great if women’s golf, whether it’s the national championship or this week’s tour stop outside of Atlantic City, drew more interest and, along with that, bigger purses. That economic battle is one that is being fought in many women’s sports, from tennis to ice hockey to even the highly visible and popular national women’s soccer team, about to defend its World Cup title. But whether financial parity is ever achieved, the one thing all women athletes deserve is respect. For the likes of Hank Haney, even something that simple was too much to ask.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2019

Cantlay Smiles, And Wins

It has been seven years since Patrick Cantlay, then just 20 years old, gave up his amateur standing to join the ranks of professional golfers. When he did so, a little more than two months after finishing as the low amateur at the 2012 Masters, expectations for Cantlay’s success on the PGA Tour were huge. Those hopes were not based solely on his performance at Augusta National, but on the totality of his amateur career, in which Cantlay first gained notice when he won the California State High School Championship as a senior at Servite High, a Catholic prep school in Anaheim.

Cantlay moved from the cloistered halls of Servite, with a total enrollment of less than 1,000 students, to the considerably more cosmopolitan campus of UCLA, where he was but one of more than 45,000 enrollees. But he quickly proved that his high school success was about much more than being the proverbial big fish in a tiny pond. In his first year as a member of the Bruins golf team, Cantlay won four tournaments and was honored with the Haskins Award, given annually to the outstanding male collegiate golfer in the United States. Winners of the Haskins, which was first presented in 1971, include Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar and, one year after Cantlay, Justin Thomas. In all Haskins’ honorees have won more than 250 PGA Tour titles.

Still a teenager, Cantlay qualified for the 2011 U.S. Open through sectional qualifying, where he won low amateur honors at Congressional while Rory McIlroy was running away from the field for the main trophy. One week later he competed at the Tour stop in greater Hartford, where a course record 60 at TPC River Highlands set the mark for lowest score ever posted by an amateur at a PGA Tour event. That same summer he finished as the low amateur at two other Tour tournaments.

Throughout that remarkable run Cantlay was ranked as the top male amateur in the world. The World Amateur Golf Ranking was introduced by the R&A in 2007 and is based on results from more than 2,600 amateur events all around the globe. In the dozen years plus that the ranking has been in existence, only Spain’s Jon Rahm has spent more time at number one – 60 weeks – than Cantlay’s total of 55, and no player has matched his 54 consecutive weeks at the top of the amateur list.

So expectations were high indeed when Cantlay turned pro, with more than a few pundits anointing him the latest in a steady stream of young golfers sure to be the “next Tiger.” But like others burdened with that unwelcome weight over the last two decades, Cantlay quickly found that success on the weekly grind of the PGA Tour does not come easily.

In his first Tour event he returned to Connecticut for the Travelers Championship, where just the previous summer he had torched the layout with his record-setting 60. This time he missed the cut. While the results every week were not that inauspicious, Cantlay struggled in search of a top-10 or even a top-25 finish.

By the following season he was relegated to the developmental Tour. He finally earned his first professional victory many miles from home, at that Tour’s Colombia Open, an event staged in Bogotá with the goal of increasing interest in golf in Latin America. Still Cantlay did well enough in events to regain his Tour card, but then his career was waylaid by health and personal issues.

A back injury kept him out of all but a handful of tournaments for the better part of three seasons, and during that absence Cantlay’s good friend and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while the two were together in southern California.

It wasn’t until the start of the 2016-17 season that Cantlay returned to the PGA Tour full time in both decent health and a positive state of mind. Using his medical exemption and invitations from tournament sponsors, he managed high enough finishes at several events to regain his Tour card. Some top-10 finishes finally started to come his way, and in November 2017 Cantlay bested two other golfers in a playoff to claim his first PGA Tour title, the Shriners Hospital for Children Open.

Yet until this week that victory remained the sole one on his PGA Tour resume. Known for his intensity on the course, Cantlay often seemed to get in his own way, particularly late in tournaments. The legendary Jack Nicklaus noticed and reached out to Cantlay, encouraging him to have more fun on the golf course and to let a tournament unfold instead of trying to force the outcome.

Given that relationship, it’s only appropriate that Cantlay’s second trip to the PGA Tour’s winner’s circle came this weekend, at Nicklaus’s own Memorial Tournament. At Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Cantlay began the final round four shots adrift of 54-hole leader Martin Kaymer and two behind runner-up Adam Scott. But while Scott turned in a respectable 4-under par 68 on Sunday, Kaymer was hampered by a blister on his right hand during the second half of the round and struggled to shoot even par. That opened the door for Cantlay, who recorded eight birdies on an otherwise clean scorecard for a 64 that was easily the best round of the day. The result was a two-shot victory over Scott, a win that gives Cantlay a two-year Tour exemption and moves him up to sixth place in both the FedEx Cup standings and the race for the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Cantlay is still just 27, and while he won’t come close to matching the golfing resume of Woods, he has plenty of time to build an impressive one of this own. Just two weeks ago he finished in a tie for third at the PGA Championship, his best showing in a major, and now he’s taken home a title on a difficult golf course against a very strong field. On Sunday, after taking the lead on the back nine, he even managed to smile. As Nicklaus, who certainly knows, had counseled him, in a game that is every bit as much about one’s mental state as one’s swing, sometimes that can make all the difference.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 30, 2019

Legacies Shortchanged By Too Many

We were reminded twice this week, for the identical and worst possible reason, of how callous and how cruel we fans can be. We swear our devotion to a game, a team, a player, and there are those among our number who evidence that faith by the ability to spout verbatim all the relevant and not-so numbers of a hero’s time in the spotlight, reciting career statistics as if they were the product of athletic multiplication tables, data to be learned by rote and called forth on command.

But those sporting savants are the exceptions. For most fans, years and even decades on the field are shortened into a handful of highlights; sometimes at the extreme, almost always unfairly, into a single moment that gains acceptance as the embodiment of the long arc from fresh-faced rookie to worn veteran. The commonality of that conceit, and the extent to which it shortchanges a life’s work, was brought home first by the passing of Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, and then by news of the death of Bill Buckner, one of the finest pure hitters ever to play the Great Game.

The football general’s story is the easier one to tell. As a sophomore at his home state University of Alabama Starr led the Crimson Tide to the Cotton Bowl. But an injury cost him is junior season and as a senior he was relegated to backup duty. Green Bay took a very modest risk on the quarterback, making him the 199th pick in the 1956 NFL Draft. In northern Wisconsin football history began to be written when Starr was joined by new head coach Vince Lombardi prior to the 1959 season. The two complemented each other perfectly, much like another lightly regarded college QB who was also the 199th draft pick more than four decades later, and his head coach.

The history of the NFL is defined by the advent of the Super Bowl in January 1967, and Tom Brady calling signals with Bill Belichick on the sidelines are the model pairing of the game’s modern era. Starr’s misfortune was to have a career that extended from the old era to the new, from 1956 to 1971. As such he is remembered and praised for being the winning quarterback and MVP in the first two Super Bowls, though the game wasn’t officially known as such until its third edition. But his career prior to the day when he directed the Packers offense in a 35-10 dismantling of Kansas City before 61,000 fans who left plenty of empty seats in the 93,000-plus capacity Los Angeles Coliseum is largely ignored.

Two years ago, when Brady won his fifth Super Bowl, surpassing Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most titles in the modern era, the feat was widely hailed. But at that point (Brady’s sixth championship came earlier this year) had merely matched the total of NFL championships won by Starr, who also collected titles in 1960, 1961 and 1962. And for all his undeniable greatness, even Brady has not been able to claim five titles in just seven seasons, or win three years in a row, as did Starr. As counterintuitive as it seems to call a Hall of Fame quarterback underrated, for fans whose view of the NFL is divided into periods before and after the Super Bowl, with the latter looked upon as the football equivalent of the Jurassic Period, that’s exactly what Bart Starr is. It will no doubt come as a surprise to many in New England that the all-time leader in postseason passer rating is not Brady, but the quiet and unassuming Starr.

If Starr’s legacy is unfairly diminished by timing, Buckner’s is quite possibly the preeminent example of a career wrongly defined by a single moment. That instant came on a cold October night in 1986 at Shea Stadium. In the 10th inning of World Series Game 6, the Boston Red Sox had plated a pair of runs in the top of the frame to seize a 5-3 lead over the Mets and were now just three outs away from their first championship since 1918.

It is unnecessary and would be unfair to recount in detail what happened next. But it is worth remembering that in assigning responsibility for allowing the Mets rally that started after two fly ball outs and continued even after Ray Knight was down to his final strike against Calvin Schiraldi, that a fair assessment finds plenty of claimants to a piece of Boston’s downfall. There is Schiraldi, who surrendered three straight singles after recording those two outs, the last by Knight on that two-strike count that brought home New York’s first run. There is Bob Stanley, who relieved Schiraldi and promptly threw a wild pitch that plated the tying run. There is Red Sox manager John McNamara, who asked Schiraldi to go out for a third inning and left Buckner in at first base rather than send in a defensive replacement as usual. And there are all the Red Sox who failed to perform two nights later, when the Mets won the seventh and deciding game.

But for far too long in Red Sox lore there was only one villain, and that was Buckner, after Mookie Wilson’s ground ball bounced between his legs as the winning run raced home. That a couple of championships later Boston fans gave Buckner a prolonged standing ovation on Opening Day 2008 does not undue the vilification that was heaped on him at the time. More important, defining Buckner’s career by endless replays of the misplayed grounder obscures his incredible record. Over twenty-two seasons, playing for the Dodgers, Cubs, Angels and Royals in addition to the Red Sox, Buckner recorded 2,715 hits and won the National League batting title in 1980. He posted a solid lifetime batting average of .289, but that number doesn’t fully reveal just how tough an out Buckner was. To fully appreciate that one must consider how the Great Game has changed since Buckner played.

Last Sunday, the day before Buckner died, across a full slate of contests sixteen major leaguers struck out at least three times in a single game. Over more than two decades pf play and more than 2,500 games, Bill Buckner didn’t strike out three times even once, and in twelve seasons he walked more often than he fanned. Like Bart Starr’s five championships, that is a record that will stand the test of time, worthy of remembering in full. To the extent we fans fail to do so, it is we, not they, who are diminished.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2019

Racing For More Than Just First Place

Two words were top of mind as the final laps of this year’s Indianapolis 500 wound down Sunday afternoon at venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the long tactical chase among open-wheeled race cars capable of speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour transforming, as it so often does, into a mad dash of speed and adrenaline over its final miles.

Whether Indy remains the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” as organizers have long since styled it, is perhaps open to debate. In this country NASCAR dwarfs IndyCar in popularity, and on a global scale Formula One is far and away the most recognizable open-wheeled racing series. While the crowd at the Brickyard was huge as always, certainly far greater than NASCAR commands for any single race, it failed to fill all the seats surrounding the two and one-half mile oval. But if the spectacle is not quite as grand as in the glory days of this sport, the race can still cause the pulse to quicken, and even as it does so can remind fans that our games often provide lessons that are equally applicable to life.

The first of those words, echoing in one’s head as the 500 became a two-car sprint to the finish, was perseverance. That might seem strange, given that the drivers in those two cars were Simon Pagenaud of France, who was the IndyCar Series champion just three years ago and who had won both the IndyCar Grand Prix over the Speedway’s road course earlier in the month and the pole for the 500, and Alexander Rossi, an American who had already taken the traditional milk bath in victory lane at the Speedway, having claimed the 2016 Indy 500 as his first IndyCar Series win.

But open-wheeled racing is no different than our other sports. No matter what our heroes have accomplished in the past there are those who are always willing to second-guess or question the lack of more recent results. Such was the case with both drivers who traded the lead five times over the race’s final dozen laps, with another four passing attempts blocked by the car then in the lead.

For the 27-year-old Rossi, that has meant questions about whether he was a legitimate Indy 500 winner. Driving for Andretti Autosport in his rookie IndyCar Series campaign, Rossi missed most preseason testing and his best finish by far was a distant 10th place at the Brickyard’s Grand Prix event two weeks before the 500. In his only start on an oval Rossi had run a credible race at Phoenix but showed his inexperience by brushing the wall late and ending up 14th.

Rather than ending with a mad dash the 2016 Indy 500 turned into a tactical race, all about fuel. With the last caution flag coming during lap 166, all the cars in the field were running on fumes as the checkered flag neared. One by one the leaders dove into pit row for a precious splash of super high-octane fuel. With nothing to lose, Rossi’s pit told him to stay out and drive as conservatively as possible. He finally took the lead on lap 197 and literally coasted across the Brickyard’s finish line, even as far more experienced drivers were rapidly closing in. Rossi became the first 500 winner who had to be towed to victory lane. It was a result guaranteed to provide ammunition to skeptics.

For Pagenaud, the questions have been of the “what have you done for me lately” variety. The same year Rossi became the improbable rookie winner of the 500, Pagenaud took home seven poles and five wins in 2016’s sixteen-race IndyCar series, giving a championship to Team Penske. As impressive as that season was, the now 35-year-old native of Poitiers, a city two hundred miles southwest of Paris, had been unable to approach that level of performance since. In 2017 he won at Phoenix early in the season and Sonoma late, but hadn’t tasted victory since. When Pagenaud arrived in Indianapolis for the Grand Prix and 500, the Sonoma win was his sole triumph in thirty-four IndyCar Series events. It was a drought that invited rampant speculation about his future with Penske.

Then he won the road race on May 11th and followed that by giving Roger Penske his record 18th Indy 500 pole last Sunday. Meanwhile Rossi wasn’t doing badly either, qualifying on the outside of row three, higher than all but one former 500 winner, just two events after winning the Grand Prix of Long Beach for his first IndyCar Series victory of 2019 and sixth overall.

Both drivers had plenty to prove as they pulled away from the pack after the final restart of the race, coming several laps after a major pileup robbed this year’s Indy 500 of the distinction of having the most entrants to ever actually finish the race. Rossi was overheard on the radio telling his spotters that he knew there were lots of angry drivers still running, “but I’m angrier.” He took the green on that final restart only to be quickly passed by Pagenaud. Back and forth they went, trading places time and again over the final miles.

In the end, as noted above, there were two words suggested by this year’s 500. If perseverance was one, as two determined race car drivers fought not just for victory, but to restore and enhance their reputations, then the other was horsepower. For Simon Pagenaud parlayed his pole position into a dominant role at this year’s race, leading for more than half of its two hundred laps. Rossi was in contention for much of the going and especially late, but when Pagenaud passed him on turn three in lap 197, the American could do little more than watch the better car pull away.

In a post-race interview Rossi acknowledged the runner-up finish would sting for some time, but he was also the first to use the term that ultimately made the difference in this 500’s order of finish. Some fans will argue that’s the only result that matters. But in sports, as in life, the race for respect is always important. In that one, it was a very good day for both Pagenaud and Rossi.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2019

This Round Goes To The Players

Is a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher for a Florida community college about to upend the Great Game’s collective bargaining agreement? The short answer to that question is “no,” but the news this week, first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that Carter Stewart’s agent Scott Boras had negotiated a six-year, $7 million contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s equivalent of MLB, at the very least served as a warning shot across the bow of commissioner Rob Manfred’s four-masted management flagship that players and their agents are finally finding ways to strike back against the terms of the current CBA that have swung heavily in management’s favor over the past few seasons.

As a senior in high school Stewart was rated one of the top prospects in last June’s amateur draft and was eventually chosen with the eighth pick by Atlanta. However, Atlanta sharply reduced its signing bonus offer to him, citing evidence of a wrist injury. Draft bonuses are tightly regulated by slot, and Stewart ultimately chose to pass on an offer that was less than half the $4.98 million allocated to a number eight pick. Instead he enrolled at Eastern Florida State College, where he made thirteen starts, compiling a 2-2 record with a 1.70 ERA and 108 strikeouts. That made Stewart a likely second round pick next month on the boards of most draft analysts, meaning he was probably in line to receive even less than the $2 million he was offered by Atlanta twelve months ago.

Had he gone through the draft and been awarded something close to $2 million, Stewart would have been smart to bank it against future needs. Like virtually every other draftee in the second round or later, he would have probably started at his new team’s short-season Class A affiliate. Assuming he did well and followed a typical progression, one year later Stewart would likely be wearing the uniform of a AA team, with Class AAA following in 2021, and perhaps a callup to the big leagues sometime after enough games of the 2022 season had been played to prevent him from accruing a full year of service time during his first major league season. That calendar in turn would tie Stewart to the team that picked him until after the 2028 season. He’d earn at best perhaps $10,000 per year while in the minors and would almost certainly start at the major league minimum, currently $555,000, once he finally became a big league ballplayer.

That’s the structure of the current CBA, which of course the Players Association agreed to. But that agreement was always based on a tacit understanding that the reward for players toiling in the minors for less than the minimum wage and enduring years of team control in the majors was free agency, when that same player could entertain bids for multi-year contracts from multiple teams in an open and competitive market. It’s of course that back end of a player’s salary arc that front offices, armed with reams of data pointing to steady decline in performance after age thirty, have largely shut down in recent years, especially for those who are not superstars.

Now Stewart and Boras have found a way to improve his earnings in the near term and short-circuit the current heavily team-favorable negotiating calendar. In the best of worlds and assuming a significant bump in the minimum salary, Stewart might earn $4 million including that theoretical $2 million signing bonus over the next six years. His deal with the Hawks promises him $3 million more over the same time period. More important, Stewart would still not be eligible for free agency at the end of that time. But under MLB’s rules, at the end of his contract in Japan, Stewart should qualify as a “foreign professional” since he will have spent “all or part of six seasons” playing in an “MLB-recognized foreign professional league.” That means that at age 25, three years sooner than under the typical scenario outlined about, Stewart would be eligible to participate in the posting system between MLB and NPB and come back to America as a free agent, as players have done from Ichiro Suzuki to Shohei Ohtani.

It is merely stating the obvious to note that in May 2019 all that is little more than fantasy and wild-eyed speculation. Of every position on the field, none is so difficult to predict as the future of young pitchers. Stewart could get hurt. He could lose his command, or just generally regress. He could find after a few months as a stranger in a strange land that a foreign culture is simply not worth a fat bank account. Only with the passage of time will fans learn how the Carter Stewart story turns out. But it is worth noting that he signed only after an extended visit to Japan with his family, where he got both a taste of the culture and a look at the Hawks’ facilities. So while the logistics of moving 7,500 miles from home in order to play ball mean that there will be no flood of young would-be draftees decamping for Japan, neither should the deal Boras has struck be dismissed as a publicity stunt.

Rather it should be seen for the welcome news that it is: a rare blow from the players’ side against a monolithic management that has increasingly subverted the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement to its favor. The 19-year-old and his agent haven’t upended the CBA, but they have reminded owners that the players can also find ways to move the system, at least a little bit, back into balance. For that every member of the Major League Baseball Players Association owes Carter Stewart thanks.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2019

A Worthy Champion, A Spirited Challenge, And A Winning Course

With its third turn at hosting a major championship, Bethpage Black finally caught a break. The USGA won well-deserved praise when it named the sprawling Long Island layout as host of the 2002 US Open, finally staging our national championship at a public course. The announcement would not have been news in Great Britain, where over the decades many of the links in the Open rota have been public courses. Most notably, the Old Course at St. Andrews, home of golf, is open to one and all (as are the six adjoining courses operated by the local Links Trust), though it’s best to plan one’s tee time months in advance.

But for the majors played in this country the story had always been very different. Augusta National, the Masters venue, is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and both the US Open and PGA Championship had for years generally been rotated among only slightly less privileged private country clubs. Even when one of those events was staged on a publicly accessible course, it was a high-end resort like Pinehurst or Pebble Beach – accessible to anyone willing to shell out $500 or more for a round of golf. Bethpage is an entirely different animal, one that weekend hackers everywhere know very well. The Black is one of five courses in a state park in Farmingdale, twenty-five miles east of Gotham. Golfers change their shoes in the parking lot and there is no men’s grill. New York state residents can play the courses for $38 to $65 dollars during the week, with just a modest $5 to $10 weekend surcharge.

While the 2002 US Open and a return engagement seven years later were successful events, played before massive crowds of boisterous fans that fully justified the USGA’s egalitarian site selection, both events were plagued by rain. Delays at the 2009 tournament were so bad that the final round wasn’t played until Monday, and many spectator areas were closed because of mud and slippery conditions. It was thus very welcome news when the early weather forecast for this weekend’s PGA Championship proved overly pessimistic. While rain did fall during the practice rounds, the competition was mostly played in mild spring weather, with an increasing wind for Sunday’s final round that allowed Bethpage Black to show just why those signs warning that it’s “an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers” are posted near the first tee.

For the first three days of this year’s PGA the most highly skilled golfer in the field was unquestionably Brooks Koepka, the impossibly long-hitting player who avoids the spotlight and thrives at majors. Koepka opened by setting a new course record with a 7-under par 63, matching his score from the second round at last year’s PGA at Bellerive. There Koepka held off Tiger Woods on Sunday to win his third major. With the PGA Tour’s shift in schedule that moved the PGA Championship from August to May, Koepka came to Bethpage not just as the defending champion but as the winner of two of the last four major tournaments and two-time defending champion of the US Open.

He was very nearly as good on Friday, when he backed up his opening record-setter with a 5-under par 65, putting him 12-under at the midpoint of the tournament, seven shots clear of his nearest challenger. His two-day total of 128 broke the record for the lowest 36-hole score at a major by two shots. It was also seventeen shots better than the score of Tiger Woods, one of his playing partners on Thursday and Friday. If Koepka’s third round tally of even par 70 seemed pedestrian, it was only in relation to his first two rounds, not the rest of the field. His lead remained seven shots heading into Sunday, a margin that no previous 54-hole leader had ever squandered.

Yet what many presumed would be a coronation proved to be anything but once the wind freshened Sunday afternoon, with gusts approaching thirty miles per hour. For much of the final day the best player on the course was Koepka’s close friend and workout partner, Dustin Johnson. While the leader opened with a loosely played bogey and didn’t get back to level for the round until a birdie at the 4th, Johnson rolled in three birdies on the front nine to cut the overnight lead down to four shots. As the final pairings began the long walk in from the furthest reaches of the Black, Koepka appeared to restore order by sending a soaring gap wedge from 160 yards to little more than a foot for a birdie at the difficult par-4 10th hole, even as Johnson was unable to get up and down from the sand to save par at the 11th. Just like that the lead was back up to six.

That was when the seemingly unperturbable Koepka got decidedly perturbed. He followed one poor shot with another on the 11th, finally escaping with a bogey when he holed a putt from eight feet. That dropped shot was followed by three more, one on each of the next three holes. As the leader marched down the hill from the 14th green to the 15th tee, up ahead Johnson was making birdie on the uphill par-4, one of the most difficult holes at Bethpage Black, for the fourth straight day. The lead was now but a single stroke.

Just when it looked like the Koepka bandwagon had veered into a ditch, he showed the mettle of a player who arrived on Long Island having won three of the previous eight majors, turning the 15th and 16th into the decisive holes of the tournament. While Koepka didn’t match Johnson’s birdie at the first of those two holes, he did stanch the bleeding by negotiating a tricky downhill sliding two-putt par. Then shortly after Johnson found the rough at the 16th and needed a 4-iron for his approach, Koepka split the fairway with his drive and was left with just an 8-iron to the putting surface. The result was a bogey for the pursuer and a par for the leader that allowed Koepka to breath again over the final holes.

Koepka’s final round of 4-over 74 was the highest by a PGA Championship winner in fifteen years. On a more positive note he becomes the first golfer ever to win both the US Open and PGA Championship titles in back-to-back years. He also joins an elite list of golfers with four majors before his 30th birthday, and Koepka has three more such events to add to his total before he reaches that milestone early next May. Should he do so he’ll join Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones on a list of major championship aristocracy. While his Sunday best came up short, Johnson also joins an admirable short list of pro golfers – those who have taken second place at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Yet as Koepka readily admitted after his victory, he was just “glad we didn’t have to play any more holes.” By the time the final putt was holed, the real winner of this year’s PGA Championship was that behemoth of a muni known as Bethpage Black, which surely brought a smile to the lips of weekend golfers everywhere. Time to freshen up the paint on those warning signs.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 16, 2019

One Gentle Swish, A Long Time Coming

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life returns from a brief break necessitated by a medical issue. Apparently, an original issue part was not warrantied for the life of the vehicle. While the resulting surgery will keep me at home for a bit and forced the cancellation of plans to attend this weekend’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, I am happy to report that an expected full recovery is running ahead of schedule. Thanks as always for your support.

To anyone who hasn’t experienced it, describing the noise level inside a professional sports venue as rabid fans give voice to their heartfelt desires in the final moments of a crucial contest may well be an impossible task. It is not just the sheer volume of noise that overwhelms the senses, but also the intensity of raw emotion behind every shout and scream, as hope and despair share momentary space on a knife edge, with the only certainty that just one will survive the next few ticks of the clock, becoming forever the way the moment is remembered.

In our various games certain venues have earned reputations as particularly compelling locations for the expression of fan sentiment. There is Anfield in the English Premier League, home to Liverpool FC. CenturyLink Field in Seattle, where celebrations by fans of the NFL’s Seahawks have been known to register on nearby seismic monitors. Yankee fans in the second and third decks of the old Stadium could feel the concrete and steel shake beneath them at crucial moments in their team’s storied history. Indoor arenas, largely because of their smaller capacity, are less often cited as locations for sensory overload. But make no mistake, put eighteen or twenty thousand screaming partisans in a confined space and the result is sure to be memorable.

There is thus no lack of irony in the fact that the noise an NBA fan most wants to hear at any time, and never more so than as the clock expires in the seventh game of a playoff series, is barely discernable in an otherwise silent room. It is the softest sigh of sound, like a gentle breeze moving through pine boughs on a warm and drowsy summer’s day, the sound of a basketball finding nothing but net – swish.

That was the sound the nearly 21,000 fans crammed into Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto wanted to hear Sunday night, though it would have been impossible for them to do so, given the noise they were busy creating.

Like the entire series, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Raptors and 76ers was a close, hard-fought contest. Toronto led for much of the game, and although Philadelphia refused to capitulate, when Pascal Siakam laid in a basket to push the Raptors’ lead to four with 1:14 to play – the first Toronto points by anyone other than Kawhi Leonard in almost six minutes – the home fans dared to exhale just a bit, victory and a date in the conference final against Milwaukee so very near at hand.

But the teams exchanged fouls and free throws over the next minute, and when Leonard missed one from the charity stripe with 10.8 seconds remaining, the 89-85 margin had shrunk to 90-88. That’s when the 76ers’ Tobias Harris pulled down the rebound and released an outlet pass to Jimmy Butler, who took the ball the length of the court and tied the score with a layup. For Toronto, for Philadelphia, for 21,000 screaming fans, 4.2 seconds and a collective wish for an ever-so-quiet sound remained.

Every player on both teams, every fan in the stands, every viewer watching at home knew with certainty that Toronto’s play to win the game and the series would go through Leonard. A mid-season acquisition from San Antonio, with the right to opt-out of his contract and become a free agent at season’s end, Leonard is the Raptors’ star and had already tallied 39 points.

Toronto lined up with Leonard in the paint. With just four seconds left the Raptors eschewed multiple passes. Instead Leonard ducked behind a screen and took the inbounds throw from Marc Gasol at the top of the key. He immediately began dribbling to his right, pursued by Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. As Leonard raced into the far corner of the court, Simmons gave way to Joel Embiid, the 76ers seven-footer. Leonard planted himself just inside the three-point line, and as he prepared to shoot a jumper Embiid took flight. Afterwards, Leonard acknowledged that he had thrown the shot higher than usual, knowing he had to get it over the defender.

The clock went to zero and the horn blared even as the basketball found the top of its arc and descended toward the basket. And then, amid all that noise, the sound could be clearly heard, or perhaps it was simply that everyone knew what the sound would be and so substituted thought for reality.

Clank! Not the sweet swish of success but its noisy counterpart, the ugly metallic braying of a ball hitting the basket’s rim. Leonard’s shot was half a ball short. But it was exactly half a ball short, so instead of bouncing away from the rim the ball bounded straight into the air, rising above the backboard. Down it came for a second chance. Clank! Once more leather kissed metal, and for a second time the basketball bounced, but this time the ricochet was not so high, and directed toward the opposite rim. Clank! For a third agonizing time Leonard’s shot hit the rim, but this time the contact was softer. Even as players and fans stood or in Leonard’s case squatted, all mesmerized by the slowly unfolding ballet ten feet off the ground, the denouement was now at hand. Clank! One final time off the rim, but gently now, the noise more imagined than heard. To the joy of Raptors fans, that final contact was against the inside of the rim. The ball again rebounded, but barely, just enough to center it over the basket, where gravity at last seized the day. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity spent watching a single shot, came the quietest, and for Toronto fans, the sweetest sound of all. Swish!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2019

A Hard Call, But The Right One

A NOTE TO READERS: With this post On Sports and Life is stepping away from the keyboard for a brief sabbatical to attend to some personal matters. The regular posting schedule should resume within a couple of weeks. As always, thank you for reading and for your support. See you soon.

Despite their often-distinctive uniforms, such as striped shirts, which in some sports makes them the most noticeable individuals on the field, the goal of officials in all our games is to remain invisible. Their job is to call them as they see them while maintaining both order and legitimacy in the proceedings. Inevitably, circumstances arise in which that wished for anonymity is no longer possible. But no self-respecting official in any sport considers it a good outcome when the story of the day is about them.

In thoroughbred racing the officials are quite literally invisible. The team of stewards at every track is hidden away in a box overlooking the track, banks at video screens at hand. Most fans will spend a day at the races without every knowing the stewards are there, and even when if called upon to rule on the occasional objection from a rider, their deliberations are private and their decision delivered not in person but by a lighted sign on the tote board.

It is thus fair to say that Barbara Borden, chief steward of the Kentucky Racing Commission, Brooks Becraft, a second state steward, and Tyler Picklesimer, the steward for Churchill Downs, were in the last place they wanted to be last evening when they appeared before the press in the media center usually reserved for the connections of the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Led by Borden, the three were releasing a statement explaining their decision to uphold foul claims lodged by the riders of Long Range Toddy and Country House against the horse that hours earlier had been first to cross the finish line, pre-race favorite Maximum Security. In their statement the stewards said that after interviewing all the affected riders and viewing video from multiple angles, the three had unanimously agreed that as the field swept around the final turn, Maximum Security drifted out of its lane, interfering with and impeding the progress of War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress. “Therefore,” the statement said, “we unanimously determined to disqualify number 7 and place him behind the 18, the 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.” That decision dropped Maximum Security to 17th place, and made Country House, the horse that finished second, the official winner of this year’s Derby. At 65-1, Country House becomes the second longest shot to claim the Run for the Roses, behind only 91-1 Donerail’s improbable victory in 1913.

During the more than twenty minutes between the end of the race and the posting of the steward’s decision, NBC’s viewers saw repeated replays of the race’s decisive moment. It was clear that the favorite swerved suddenly, jumping a puddle on the rain-soaked track and drifting right from the second lane to the fifth. Horses running behind Maximum Security bunched together and jostled while trying to slow down and avoid a potentially disastrous multi-horse collision. One jockey rose in his irons, attempting to prevent disaster. That group of bumping horses grazed Country House, who was moving up even further outside. The leader’s jockey, Luis Saez, did his best to steer Maximum Security back in line and later said the horse had been spooked by the roar of the crowd.

But before he could do so the damage was done, ultimately giving Maximum Security an unwanted page in the record books of horse racing. In the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby, only 1968 Winner Dancer’s Image had been disqualified, and that took place not immediately after the race but days later based on results of a blood test for banned drugs. Maximum Security thus stands alone as the only apparent Derby champion to have its number taken down by the stewards.

The decision did not sit well with many fans, in large part because while Saez’s mount clearly swerved out of its lane and impeded several other runners, Country House received no more than a glancing blow in the mashup at the quarter pole. Awarding a Triple Crown jewel to the 65-1 longshot, who was manifestly unable to run down Maximum Security in the stretch, seemed inherently unfair to the thousands who took to various forms of social media Sunday night to voice their complaints.

But what that popular point of view does more than anything is serve as a reminder that on the first Saturday in May horse racing attracts millions of fans who pay the sport no heed for the rest of the calendar. They would be called fair weather fans except the quantity of rain that has fallen on Churchill Downs for the last two Derby’s makes the description ironic. Those fans understandably focus on which horse wins the race, or in this unique case which horses. But that is only a part of horse racing and ensuring the integrity of the saddle number on the tote board’s win line only part of the stewards’ job.

The first fact that critics ignore is that the melee in the mud took place after the field had run a mile, with the rest of Churchill Down’s long home stretch, fully one-fifth of the race’s distance, still left to be covered. We all know what happened on Saturday over that final quarter-mile. As Maximum Security and Country House ran on, War of Will faded to eighth, Bodexpress backed up to twelfth, and Long Range Toddy staggered home in eighteenth place, prior to each moving one spot with the disqualification. But it is impossible to know how much of that order of finish was because those three horses weren’t in the leader’s league, and how much was because three notoriously high-strung animals lost all interest in running after caroming off one another and, in the case of War of Will and Long Range Toddy, having to slam on their equine brakes.

Second, while winning gets all the attention in racing, it is not the only source of revenue for a horse and its connections. Just as bettors are paid out for horses that finish second, third, and in some exotic bets even fourth, so too the Derby’s purse is divided among the top five finishers. The stewards’ obligation is to protect the entire field, and their decision had a significant financial impact not just on Maximum Security and Country House, but also Code of Honor, Tacitus, Improbable and Game Winner.  But for the foul one of the interfered horses might have made that list.

Finally, that obligation to “protect” is not limited to the order of finish. It also applies quite literally. In a sport recently rocked by scores of equine deaths, ten per week last year, a rate far higher than in any other country in the world, all parties having anything to do with a race should see their most important job as bringing all the horses home safe.

Mark Caisse, the trainer of War of Will, said after the race, “I feel like a lucky man because I just got him out and jogged him and he’s perfect. The horse racing world should be happy War of Will is such an athlete because not every horse doesn’t go down there.” Asked about the disqualification, Caisse said “They had to take him down. A lot of people said the best horse won, you know, maybe he did. But we would have liked the chance. Should he have come down? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Kentucky Derby or not. The horse put people’s lives in danger, he put jockeys’ lives in danger.”

Having the three stewards in the media center Saturday evening was not what they or anyone else associated with the Derby wanted. And perhaps there is no way for the broader public to see the result as anything other than a public relations disaster. That of course is a powerful blow to a sport already teetering on the edge of viability. But the truth is that the storyline out of Kentucky Derby 145 could have been so very much worse. That’s a reality that the officials would have been dead wrong to ignore.

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