By a show of hands, how many of you are surprised that the University of Tennessee football team is going to a bowl game?…Be honest…
After the opening five games of the 2019 season, the Volunteers had been left for dead by most, me included. Opening the season with home losses to Georgia State and BYU left old Smokey with his tail between his legs. That’s right, we said “GEORGIA STATE”. Blowout losses at Florida and back in Neyland against Georgia certainly did not make the 45-0 win against Chattanooga encouraging.
So here was Tennessee standing at a dismal 1-4. Given the recent struggles of this very proud and tradition rich program, even the proudest Big Orange supporters were already thinking next year. But then a funny thing happened and the Big Orange won an SEC game (Mississippi State). An inspired effort in a loss to the Alabama dynasty was followed with a 20-point league victory (South Carolina). Maybe the sleeping dog is awake here and dare Vol fans think about a post-season game?
In Phillip Fulmer fashion, Tennessee swept through November with wins over UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. Coach Fulmer had a sparkling record in the final month of the regular season during his tenure as he had a knack for always beating the teams he was supposed to. Improving as the season went along Fulmer-led squads were perennial top ten squads and that was what came to be expected by modern fans. Granted, this November schedule was not full of juggernauts, but the recent past tells us Vandy had vanquished the Vols in three straight and Kentucky had even collared Smokey.
The Volunteers are still a long way from being the national title contenders some expect them to be, but this rally is certainly cause for hope. The Big Orange program deserves a lot of credit for staying the course and exhibiting the heart of a Volunteer. Each week is a new test of pride and commitment. Often times in today’s society we forget it is not supposed to be about the money or the next level. It’s about the little things football is supposed to teach about the real game…life.
Rumors have the Big Orange (7-5) maybe headed to the Gator Bowl to play Michigan (9-3). I know it is a shoulda, woulda, coulda, but if Tennessee hadn’t let Georgia State sneak up on them and then went to sleep against BYU their record would also be 9-3. Hmmmmm
Good news for Vol fans, that old Blue Tick Hound gets to eat from a post-season bowl again.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. At least that’s what they used to say. For one particular Thoroughbred, that old adage paid off in a big way on November 29.
Tom’s d’Etat is a veteran runner that has enjoyed success during his career. In fact, this son of Smart Strike won six of seven starts between August of 2016 and December of 2018. Unfortunately none of those wins came against graded stakes company. The victories at Saratoga, Churchill Downs and the Fair Grounds in Louisiana told trainer Al Stall Jr. it was time to step up into the graded stakes races with his talented six-year old.
The trips to the winner’s circle during his four and five year old seasons allowed the veteran conditioner the opportunity to see talent. Deciding to jump with both feet, the first start of 2019 came in January in grade 1 company in the Pegasus World Cup. Running strong early, Tom faded to a ninth place finish due to a slight injury against some of the best competition in the Classic distance division.. Allowed some rest and recuperation time, the horse named for the late owner of the New Orleans Saints (Tom Benson) came back in the Alysheba on Kentucky Oaks day and ran a good second to a very talented McKinzie. Remaining at Churchill, Tom again ran in graded stakes company but finished two lengths back of Seeking the Soul in the third spot on June 15.
More than holding his own in those three starts, Tom was sent to Saratoga where he collected a win in the non-graded Alydar Stakes. Still searching for a graded stakes win, Stall saw his courageous charge come up just short again in the grade 1 Woodward the last day of August. Each of his 2019 starts had been against top company and his efforts had been commendable, but moral victories do not a big bankroll make at the track or in the breeding shed.
Regrouping again, Tom was sent to Keeneland and that is where he came marching in with a grade 2 win for GMB Racing. Finding his best stride in the Hagyard Fayette Stakes, an emphatic 4¼ length win gave everyone a glimpse of what can happen when things go right for this grandson of Giant’s Causeway.
The time was right for another grade 1 run and the Clark at Churchill was the spot. A very competitive 12 horse field showed up, but so did perhaps the best Tom’s d’Etat we have seen. Breaking alertly under jockey Joel Roasrio, the pace stalking Tom sliced through horses at the top of the stretch and moved easily to the lead. Dispatching a game Mr. Freeze at the eighth pole, Stall’s runner cruised to an easy 3 ¼ length win. Covering the mile and an eighth distance in 1:48.84, that elusive grade 1 was finally his.
“There are a lot of grade 1 horses in this game that don’t make grade 1 races,” says Stall. “To have a horse like this is extremely special for our entire barn.”
Getting over the hump was good in many ways. The $349,680 first place purse pushed his career earnings over the million-dollar mark ($1,236,572). Also it gives the Tom team options as far as the huge money races that begin the 2020 season (Pegasus, Saudi Cup, Dubai World Cup).
“This win gives us a lot of options,” says Stall who reported Tom came back from the race in great shape. “We’re going to let him tell us what to do next.”
As Oakland continues its march through the TSSAA playoffs, the Patriots have proven something some already knew. With a convincing 31-14 beat-down of Blackman in a class 6A quarterfinal contestOakland (13-0) is the last school standing from Rutherford County. So that means they are the best in a tradition rich area. But why is it that for six consecutive years the Patriots have earned a semifinal berth on the road to the BlueCross Bowl?
Rivals within the County confines point to certain factors like recruiting and favorable calls from game officials. Is there any validity to these accusations? I don’t think the zebras are herded in by the Patriots and convinced to hold or fling the flag. Anyone that has competed understands good teams that do things the right way will seem to get the benefit of questionable calls. Is that anyone’s fault or just the way it is? How can one school be luckier than another when it comes to the whistle? Luck can be defined as opportunity meeting preparation. Oakland is usually always prepared.
The recruiting is a hot topic in such a competitive county. In Rutherford County all schools recruit. With such a massive influx of people and the desire to win, every school wants to convince kids to come and be part of their program. Given the society we live in, if you are not trying to raise your bar perhaps you should be in a different business. As long as things are done within the framework of the rules, you can’t blame Oakland for wanting to be good.
Next question…why are they good? The answer can be summarized from another Oakland philosophy that was popularized years ago. The NFL Raiders and Al Davis had a motto of “commitment to excellence”. A proud athletic tradition has been built since the school opened in 1972. Over the years, coaches and administrations have changed, but these ideals have not.
“When we start the season we talk about wanting to play football past Thanksgiving,”says head coach Kevin Creasy. “At that time it seems like it’s a long way off but this program has high expectations and it becomes engrained in these kids. This group has worked hard to live up to the tradition of Oakland football. If we didn’t make it this far we would be disappointed.”
Having good players is always a key ingredient, but a commitment to execution of the basics of the game normally equals success. Discipline and the ability to execute the fundamentals have been strong points during the Creasy era. Not trying to be a rocket scientist, the current Patriot mentor has used basic math while finishing as state runner up (2016) and state champ (2018) to go along with trips to the final four in each of his five seasons.
“Good defense, sound special teams, and executing on offense is how you win,”says Creasy. “Now we have to go on the road and try and do something special.”
For the sixth consecutive year the Patriots will battle another perennial state powerhouse in Maryville for the right to play in the class 6A “Ship. Creasy has beaten the Rebels twice, but both wins came in Murfreesboro. The last time Maryville lost a playoff game at home it was to a Rutherford County school as Smyrna headed east in 1995 and used a basic fundamental philosophy in an 18-0 triumph.
As Oakland flies the County flag on their way up Interstate 40, perhaps others can draw from their blueprint and join them with a fellow commitment to excellence. Kickoff for the November 29 game at Maryville is slated for 7pm eastern.
This is the time of year when a person can enjoy lots of good food. Whether it’s Aunt Hattie Mae’s buttermilk pie or Cousin Joe Bob’s fried turkey, we all like to have a big plate that offers plenty. For those that are looking for something extra to sink their teeth in, look no further than the Clark at Churchill Downs on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The 145threnewal of this grade 1 event looks more promising than some peach cobbler. Run every year since Louisville’s iconic oval opened back in 1875, this particular edition contains a very competitive field. The $600,000 in prize money will bring twelve runners to the table. Here’s a quick run down on the entrants.
The likely favorite could be local standout Seeking the Soul. Earlier this year, the Soul won the grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill and in 2017 was victorious in the Clark. Trainer Dallas Stewart has been very pleased with his charge since returning from a West coast swing that saw him finish 7thin the Pacific Classic, 4thin the Awesome Again, and 6thin the Breeders’Cup Classic. The Soul will try and become just the fourth horse to win this prestigious event twice and first to do so in non-consecutive years.
Another runner that may be popular with the public is Tom’s d”Etat. This Al Stall Jr. trainee is looking for his 9th career win from 16 starts and is fresh off a score in the grade 2 Fayette Stakes at Kenneland. This son of Smart Strike has finished in the top three 11 times but has yet to win a grade 1 event.
Owendale is the lone three-year old in the group but brings a lot of promise. This well-traveled colt has raced at 10 different tracks in 13 career starts for trainer Brad Cox. Wins this year in the Lexington Stakes, Ohio Derby, and Oklahoma Derby have been sandwiched around a third place finish in the Preakness. For good measure, Cox saddled last year’s Clark winner (Leofric).
Legendary conditioner D. Wayne Lukas brings hard-knocking Bravazo to the table. Coming in off a 10-month layoff, this son of Awesome Again will be making a 10thconsecutive appearance in a grade 1 race. Bravazo has not made it to the winner’s circle in any of these events, but did finish second in the 2018 Preakness, Haskell, and last year’s Clark.
The winner of the 2019 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs, Mocito Rojo is another prime timer in the mix. With five victories in seven starts this year, this Shane Wilson trained son of Mutaada hopes to break through with his first grade 1 win here.
Draft Pick will be invading from the left coast for trainer Peter Eurton. Four starts this year has produced 1 win (allowance) 1 second (Pacific Classic) and 1 third (San Diego Handicap). Also looking for his first grade 1 win, this son of Candy Ride last started in the Awesome Again Stakes (5thplace finish) at Santa Anita.
Ack-Ack Stakes winner Mr. Freeze will look to make it two in a row beneath the twin spires. Conditioned by Churchill’s all-time leader in wins, Dale Romans, this son of To Honor and Serve has finished first or second 7 times in 9 trips to the starting gate. His last start was a runner-up finish behind Tom’s d’Etat in the Fayette.
Kentucky Downs hero Snapper Sinclair comes to Churchill for Bloom Racing Stables with eyes on adding to his million dollar earnings bankroll. Saddled by Steve Asmussen, Snapper finished fourth in the Breeders’Cup Dirt Mile last out.
Rounding out the field and not to be discounted are the Charlie LoPresti trained Fact Finding, New York-based Mr. Buff, ten-time winner Pioneer Spirit, and the Peter Miller-trained Major Cabbie.
With all this competition, the Clark promises to be a great betting race with no overwhelming favorite. Slated as race 11 on a 12 race card, first post is scheduled for 1 pm eastern with the Clark going off at 5:56 on November 29.
Winning a state title in football is always a challenge. Doing it in back-to-back years is even more of a mountain. So last Friday, when class 6A defending champ Oakland was facing a treacherous climb, their ball coach went to the back pack and broke out a new wrinkle.
It was mid-third quarter at Ray Hughes Stadium in a second round matchup with Mount Juliet and the scoreboard said visitor 7 home 3. Huh?… The Patriots had not trailed in the second half of any game this season. This was certainly gut check time to see if this deep and talented team could respond. Missed opportunities and a tough Bear defense had kept Oakland out of the end zone. Now behind and with their playoff lives hanging in the balance it was simply a “whatcha gonna do”moment for the defending champs.
This is where head coach Kevin Creasy proved his worth. Recognizing the need, Creasy switched to the Wild Pat offense which lines up 6-foot 6-inch quarterback Kody Sparks at wide receiver and puts a much smaller Victor Stephenson (5-foot 8) in the shotgun. Rolling the dice with a wrinkle, Creasy knew he needed points on the board.
The gamble paid off in a big way as Stephenson orchestrated a physical scoring drive with tough runs and great reads. The Patriots would score two more touchdowns on their next two possessions to take command of the contest. This versatile junior finished with 58 yards rushing and found pay dirt twice, but more importantly was the wrinkle that came up as a seven when Creasy rolled them bones.
“We found out a lot about ourselves in the third quarter,”says Creasy. “We knew it was going to be a tough game and I am proud of how our kids responded. You have some of those wrinkles you save, but you can’t save them forever. Victor is a playmaker for us and I am really proud of how he responded. When we switched things up everybody did their job including our pretty boy quarterback that proceeded to go out and block his butt off.”
Next up on the road to repeat is a return matchup with district rival Blackman. Oakland won the regular season soiree 40-0 but past meetings between these two has seen the script flipped come post-season time.
“Rematches are always tough no matter who its with,”says Creasy. “We have a lot of respect for Blackman and it is always a challenge when we line up against them.”
Kickoff for the November 22 third round TSSAA playoff game is slated for 7 pm at Ray Hughes Stadium on the campus of Oakland high school.
Last week, that prospering turf track located just north of the Tennessee State line took yet another step up the ladder. Breaking ground on a $25 million renovation to the gaming facility, Kentucky Downs looks to become even more of a destination spot.
Located in Franklin, Kentucky, this facility known as the Dueling Grounds when it opened in 1990 has become a hot spot for both racing and gaming in recent times. The introduction of historical horse racing machines back in 2011 changed the horizon for Kentucky Downs. These “slot machine”type games rapidly increased revenue and have allowed for serious upgrades in recent times. The gaming facility, which once only housed an off track betting facility, a bar, and bingo room was transformed into a place that house 753 gaming terminals, live music, and dining options. With eyes on the future and an understanding of the opportunities created, new owners Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone spearheaded the new ground-breaking.
“We are going to make it bigger and better from top to bottom”, says Winchell, a prominent Thoroughbred owner, breeder, and Nevada gaming entrepreneur. “When you come in here a year from now it is not going to look like the Kentucky Downs you’re used to in the last couple of years. You’ll have a couple of new restaurants in a building that’s more up to date and create a more comfortable, elevated experience.”
The expansion will allow the number of historical horse racing machines to expand to 1200 and the live entertainment opportunities will also increase. The current facility will be renovated as it incorporates changes to make the Downs experience even better.
Scheduled to be completed before the live racing meet begins on September 2, 2020, this should only add to a blossoming turf track. In recent years, Kentucky Downs has become the buzz track on the late summer racing schedule. Offering the highest per race payouts in the country and second highest in the world, this European-style track attracts heavy hitters from all across the country. More gaming machines should create even more opportunities for horsemen and horse racing fans.
“This sits in an ideal location just 30 minutes outside of Nashville,”says Falcone, a prominent casino executive and financial specialist. “Hey, this is a 300 acre opportunity to do much more than racing and historical horse racing. There are opportunities for much broader things with the real estate we have here. We looked at this as a 10 year project to encompass how to maximize and create a destination in Franklin, Kentucky.”
Did the Bob Hope Stakes on November 16 provide us with a glimpse of a real Kentucky Derby contender?…. At this stage I think the answer is…a big maybe!
Just to clarify, we are not riding the fence on this, we are just being real. The 2020 Kentucky Derby is a loooooong way from now when you consider the reality of getting a talented two-year old colt ready for the run of a lifetime in the spring of his three-year old year. But for those looking for an early Derby horse, the Bob Hope winner might be a good one to ride.
High Velocity picked up his second career win in as many starts in the seven furlong Hope and appears to have several things going for him. First of all, this son of Quality Road is trained by five-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert. With an ability to train up the front-running speedsters, the California based conditioner appears to have one of his proto-type horses here as High Velocity took’em gate to wire. Heart and a willingness to compete also appears to be a characteristic as when challenged in the stretch by a talented Strongcostitution, the Velocity increased as he pulled away late to win by a length and a quarter.
Baffert likes the horse and sees the potential here. Big Race Bob has to be given his just due in the talent-judging department, especially in younger horses. That means right now we say “Hope”when it comes to High Velocity. (photo by Benoit)