The 148th Kentucky Derby was a real head-scratcher…or was it? Let us expound upon a theory that should have told us all how this miraculous mile and a quarter was going to unfold.
As a believer in the omens of horse racing, this sport often times mirrors the game of life. Usually a happy place, the track can give us joy on many levels, especially on Kentucky Derby day.
Of course, we kick things off with the fashion. An integral part of the game, dressing to the nines or in some provocative and classy manner is a big part of the fun. Looking good means you are feeling good as you walk through the turnstiles. Once inside and with beverage in hand, it becomes obvious others have brought the bling as well, which is how it rolls in this game.
As we marvel at the human magnificence, the competitive presence of the athletes is real jaw-dropper. Four-legged masses of muscle, these Thoroughbreds are beautiful creatures. Exuding joy as they are excited to do what they were born to do, their human companions need not get in the way. Watching them parade around the paddock provides a sense of the power pulsing through their veins. Then as they flow from the starting gates and reach speeds of nearly 40 miles per hour, there is a better understanding of their athletic prowess.
The monetary speculation on the sport is another of the many positive layers we enjoy. Trying to figure the outcome is often times over thought as numbers and theories abound. In the end, no one really knows what’s going to happen as one person is guessing same as another. But oh my, the hunt for the euphoria that ticket cashing brings is a thrill in its own right.
So now that we have engaged in several paragraphs of philosophical Hillbilly rhetoric…what the heck is the point ???
Rich Strike was an 80 to 1 shot that wasn’t even going to run in the Kentucky Derby until a very late defection created a spot. Very few thought he belonged and even fewer gave him a chance to win. A perfect storm brewed when a trainer did an outstanding job, a rider took advantage of every break he got in the race, and an athlete performed to his utmost capabilities. Hats off to Eric Reed for his conditioning job, Sonny Leon for an excellent ride, and of course Rich Strike who did his upset minded pappy (Keen Ice) proud.
Here is where we come full circle. All 147,294 people in attendance and every one who participated in the record $168.8 million wagered on the race got paid. Now, not many cashed a ticket ($163.60 on $2 win ticket, $161,630 on a 20 cent pick 6), but there were dividends in so many other ways. If you didn’t Strike it Rich maybe you were doing something wrong. Perhaps it was the new people you met, the tickets you cashed on other races, or the reassurance that all things are possible if you work hard and do the right things. For the first time in two years it was a “normal” Kentucky Derby and that in itself was a big payoff. This is the sport of kings and all participants were king for a day.
So, when you consider all Kentucky Derby day offers and the omens of horse racing, shouldn’t Rich Strike been a natural selection? Almost like his win was poetic justice for man and horse kind….Hmmmmmmmmm
The Kentucky Oaks is one of those races horsemen dream about. Although it does not get the same notoriety as its twin brother, the Kentucky Derby, this race was born the very same year (1875) and has been run every year since. Sending a fast filly to the starting gates in this crown jewel for three-year old females is good. Having a real chance at winning is even better.
Bret Calhoun is one of the bright training minds in the Thoroughbred game today. Having enjoyed some big moments all across the country (3387 career wins) throughout a career that began back in 1993, Calhoun doesn’t want to just be at the Kentucky Oaks…he wants to win it.
Last October it appeared as if Calhoun had the early 2022 Oaks favorite in his barn. Hidden Connection had won her first two starts by a combined 16 ¾ lengths. The second of those was a 9 ¼ length romp in the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs on September 18, 2021. But then the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly race happened and a bobble out of the starting gates saw this daughter of Connect finish a disappointing 4th nearly 14 lengths behind winner Echo Zulu. Resting until mid-February of 2022, Hidden Connection again finished fourth in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. This time, she was only about four lengths off winner Turnerloose, but still questions were rolling about this once highly regarded filly.
“You always wonder how a horse will progress from one year to the next”, says Calhoun. “Some improve and some go the other way. We knew she was not completely in top form for the Rachel Alexandra but she needed to run. For us to continue down the path to the Kentucky Oaks we wanted to see improvement in her next start for sure.”
Continuing to work his training magnificence, Calhoun prepared his prized filly for the Fair Grounds Oaks on March 26. Rewarding her coach with a superior effort, Hidden Connection was beaten by just a stray whisker. Full of run all the way to the wire, this granddaughter of Awesome Again just missed nailing rival Echo Zulu.
“We wanted to see progression and we got it”, says the man with 24 stakes wins at Churchill Downs. “For us to go to the Kentucky Oaks she had to take us. I am not interested in just putting a horse in the starting gates at a race like that. She comes first and if she is not ready to compete on that kind of stage we just simply wouldn’t run her.”
Since that run in late March, Hidden Connection has continued to put smiles up in the Calhoun Camp. Recent works and breezes at Churchill point towards a peak performance on May 6. Having won over the track is another positive in what promises to be a very competitive field for Kentucky Oaks 148.
“I don’t know if her win at Churchill really means anything but it certainly makes me feel better”, smiles Calhoun. “We have gotten everything we have wanted in her recent works. This may be one of the deepest fields in recent Kentucky Oaks history. We think she gives us a real chance at winning and that’s why we are putting her in the starting gates.”
We all understand the Spring weather can be very unpredictable. Temperatures go up and down and we might get rain or even snow. One pretty safe forecast, however, is that during baseball season the Creek will rise.
Since first stepping onto the diamond back in 2014, success has been synonymous with Stewart’s Creek high school baseball. Under the guidance of head coach Mike Bartlett, the Redhawks have flown to the state tournament three times since he started the program. The Creek crested in 2017 with a state runner-up finish at the class AAA Spring Fling. Achieving that type success in a highly competitive Rutherford County climate has been pretty incredible to say the least.
The 2022 edition has hopes of joining those past teams with a memorable run through the post-season. Entering the week at 18-4, Stewart’s Creek has a chance to complete a perfect league season and host the District 8 tournament beginning May 5.
Powerful pitching has been one of the keys in the Creek’s rise this season. Senior Brett Vondohlen has stepped into the starting rotation and been a force on a strong staff.
“Our pitching has been as good as we have ever had”, says Bartlett. “These guys pound the zone and throw lots of strikes. This is the first season we have used Vondohlen a lot as a starter and he has been very good on the mound. We can usually count on him for five or six solid innings and the kid has been very good at the plate too.”
Pitching isn’t the only thing that has contributed to the high waters. A solid lineup that plays both small and long ball has put up some pretty gaudy numbers thus far. Seniors like Reggie Cooper and Bryce Jackson blend speed and power which equals flash flood warnings.
“Top to bottom I think this is the fastest lineup we have ever put on the field”, says the veteran head coach. “We have lots of kids that can hit for power, but we need to cut down on our strikeouts. Our kids have been getting better at putting the ball in play but we still need to improve.”
The relatively short history of Stewart’s Creek baseball has been very decorated. Winning may not always breed winning, but expectations have been created on these baseball banks for sure.
“As a coaching staff we have very high expectations of our teams”, says Bartlett. “Sometimes I may need to back up a bit, but we set lofty goals with hopes of lofty achievements. I like where this team is at right now, but we always want to maintain a hunger. The current players that lost in last year’s region final have been very good about keeping this group focused.”
Stewart’s Creek will close out their district regular season with a two game series against Cane Ridge on April 25 and 26.
We all understand a good three year old colt can bring out the pearly whites this time of year. One runner that is bound for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland really has some folks cheesing.
Smile Happy is a lightly raced colt that has been aptly named. Having displayed plenty of potential in just three career starts, this son of Runhappy has two wins and a second. Even though the racing resume is not deep, trainer Kenny McPeek thinks the talent level is.
“He is a really, really good colt”, says McPeek. “We have taken our time with him, but we see all the signs that tell us he has a chance to be special.”
Recognizing early that he had a real contender for the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown races, the veteran conditioner made his plan and he’s sticking to it. Two starts as a two year old yielded two very nice wins. His lone start at three saw him finish a fast closing second in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on February 19.
“Coming into his three year old season we wanted to have two starts before the Kentucky Derby”, says the man with over 1800 wins as a trainer. “The Triple Crown races are far more important than these prep races and we wanted to have a fresh horse going in. We have been just keeping him on ice waiting for the right spot.”
Having already earned 30 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, Smile Happy may have a spot in the starting gates secured for the first Saturday in May. The Risen Star run provided some while the others were earned in his super impressive win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November.
“His win at Churchill was really nice”, says McPeek. “Knowing he likes the track there is a good sign moving forward. Some horses do not like certain surfaces so it’s always good when you see your horse handle a track the way he did in that one.”
It is understandable for McPeek and owners Lucky Seven Stables to be thinking Kentucky Derby, but the crafty conditioner is focusing on one race at a time. Next up is the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington. Run on April 9 as one of the top final major preps, Smile Happy looks to say cheese at the same track where he broke his maiden on October 29, 2021.
“We chose the Bluegrass primarily because our ownership group is based in Kentucky”, says McPeek, who has won the Bluegrass twice (Harlan’s Holiday 2002, Java’s War 2013). It’s a very prestigious race against good competition which is what we want. From there its four weeks to the Kentucky Derby and we think it gives us a shot. He’s been working well down in Florida and we are very excited.”
The Toyota Bluegrass Stakes is part of a huge opening weekend at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky.
Now that it is mid-March it is absolutely time to unfurl the Kentucky Derby flag. Thoughts of spring for the normal sports fan usually encompasses the world’s most famous race. When did this hillbilly turf writer begin contemplating Derby 148?… The day after Derby 147 !
Let’s take a look at who we view are the top ten three-year-old runners in the fast lane on the road to the first Saturday in May.
1. Forbidden Kingdom- Richard Mandella trained, he’s two for two as a three-year-old. His last start was a jaw-dropping gate-to-wire romp in the San Felipe that would make his pappy (American Pharoah) proud.
2. Simplification-This Florida-bred son of Not This Time has been very impressive with two wins and a second this year. His Fountain of Youth win was an adversity-overcoming run that saw him take command at the top of the stretch and win easily by 3 ½ lengths.
3. Epicenter- This Steve Asmussen trainee was just nipped at the wire in the Lecomte but rebounded with a stellar effort in Risen Star Stakes win. This son of Not This Time has won three of five career starts.
4. Secret Oath- A daughter of Arrogate…wait a minute…we said…DAUGHTER. Yes, this D Wayne Lukas trainee has been so impressive in her two stakes wins the Coach has decided to run her in the Arkansas Derby with eyes on the first Saturday in May. The last filly to win the Kentucky Derby was Winning Colors…trained by D Wayne Lukas.
5. Classic Causeway- Back-to-back wins in Tampa were nice displays of his front-running prowess. Trained by Brian Lynch, this son of Giants Causeway has three wins a second and a third in five career starts.
6. White Abarrio-A handsome son of the aptly named Race Day, this Saffie Joseph trained Kentucky-bred strutted his stuff in Holy Bull Stakes win. Three wins in four career starts and a third place means he has always been right there.
7. Mo Donegal-Todd Pletcher trained son of Uncle Mo had to miss his last start because of a fever. Closed smartly last out in third place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes. Won the Remsen Stakes at Belmont to close his two-year old season.
8. Smile Happy-Trained by Kenny McPeek, this impressive son of Runhappy has two wins and a second in three career starts. A fast closing second in the Risen Star Stakes, his win in the Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November got folks excited about his future.
9. Morello- Unbeaten son of Classic Empire looked great in Gotham Stakes win. All three career wins have come at Aqueduct in New York. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the Wood Memorial is the likely next start.
10. Call Me Midnight- Huge late kick allowed him to just get up at the wire in Lecomte Stakes win at the Fair Grounds in late January. Seven career starts means this son of Midnight Lute has some seasoning. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, the Louisiana Derby is on the radar.
The two “biggest” races in the Thoroughbred world on Saturday, February 26 produced a pair of HUGE upsets. Upon completion, the shocking finishes left me feeling …shocked.
On the other side of the globe, the third running of the world’s richest race featured runners from seven different countries. The Saudi Cup has attracted top horses in it’s brief history with all of the entrants eyeing 20 million reason$ to run. With ALL that money on the line, large fields are the norm which means ANYTHING can happen. And it did!!!
The Saudi based Emblem Road rolled home in fine fashion and nipped the Bob Baffert-trained Country Grammer by a half-length at the wire. Crossing the finish at odds of 99-1, this four year old son was actually a huge longshot that made $ense. The American based horses were catching most of the money as the Brad Cox-trained Mandaloun went off at 6-5. Shipping is always a challenge, especially when you think about traveling to the other side of the globe. Emblem Road had won six of eight previous starts with a second and a third in there as well. Five of those wins had come at this same King Abdulaziz Racecourse. A horse for the course is always an angle and Emblem Road was absolutely that.
The Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park was another big race with an electrifying finish. Traditionally a stepping stone to the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, this $1 million drive over the Arkansas dirt also attracts bigger fields. Unpredictable weather and even more unpredictable young three-year-old runners means this race too can produce surprises.
Bob Baffert has been a big winner in Oaklawn’s three year old series over the past decade or so. Sending out Southwest winner Newgrange at 4-5, it looked like it was Big Race Bob’s race to lose. Somebody forgot to tell the other ten runners.
Moderate early fraction (23.42 opening quarter 48.86 half mile) over a wet track saw Newgrange just off the pace, but so was the longest shot in the field Un Ojo. Riding the rail at odds of 75-1, this son of the speedy Laoban was rolling right along. As the horses turned for home Newgrange began to fade, but the Ricky Courville-trained underdog was still maintaining his spot along the rail. Inside the sixteenth pole, Un Ojo suddenly found a little extra and surged just past both Etheral Road and Barber Road. Winning by a half-length, this determined runner with only one good eye saw himself come home as the longest shot to ever win the grade 2 Rebel. This second career win from six starts provides 50 qualifying points and a likely spot in this year’s Kentucky Derby. And oh by the way, Un Ojo returned $152.80 on a $2 win investment.
After the shock wore off from these two shocking results, suddenly the old hillbilly turf writer’s horse racing adage came back to me …in this game the only predictable thing is…unpredictability.
From the ashes rises the Phoenix. Were they talking about a racehorse when they made that famous statement? Well, we are because it absolutely pertains to the magnificent Knicks Go as he prepares for the final start of his racing career.
Back in 2018, this now six-year old son of Paynter shocked the Thoroughbred racing world as a 70-1 longshot that enjoyed a spectacular gate-to-wire win in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Trained at the time by Ben Colebrook, Knicks Go followed that up with a solid second place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Five starts into his career a record of two wins, a second, and a third rallied thoughts of superstar three-year old and dreams of Kentucky Derby glory.
As can be the case for many hopeful young horses, things did not go according to plan. Nine starts and a year later, Knicks Go still had only two career wins to his credit. Maybe this brilliantly marked Maryland-bred wasn’t what people originally thought.
The calendar turned to 2020 and ownership decided it was time for a leadership change. Transferring their $87,000 yearling purchase to the barn of Brad Cox, Korea Racing Authority held hopes this hard-working conditioner could cultivate this once coveted colt back into a winner.
As arguably the top trainer in the game today, Cox instituted a program for this speed merchant and saw immediate results. A 7 ½ length front-running score in an allowance race at Oaklawn Park on February 22 broke the losing streak. After a summer strictly in the training program, October 4 saw Knicks Go roll to a 10 ½ length win in gate-to-wire fashion in allowance company at Keeneland. Giving him a shot at Breeders’ Cup glory with a start in the Dirt Mile on November 7, Knicks Go responded with another resounding win. Establishing a new Keeneland track record for the distance (1:33.85), it appeared as though Brad Cox had certainly found the light switch. Spreading his wings even more, Knicks Go opened 2021 by flying gate-to-wire in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on January 23.
“We had no idea Knicks Go was going to be this kind of horse”, says Cox. “We knew we had inherited a horse with talent. He was a grade 1 winner at two, but people would have thought we were crazy if we had said he’s going to set a track record in the Breeders’ Cup and win the Pegasus. Honestly, the allowance race at Keeneland was going to be a prep for a start in the Clark at Churchill in late November. When he ran such an eye-popping race there we thought, why not try the Dirt Mile.”
The four-race win streak was broken in an overseas trip for the Saudi Cup and the one turn
Met Mile was not to his liking either. Loving two turn races, Knick Go got back to his winning ways with a blistering score in the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows on July 2. The mile and an eighth whipping he put on a very talented Whitney field at Saratoga on August 7 was legendary. A tour de force triumph in the Lukas Classic at Churchill in September was another jaw-dropper. Closing his 2021 campaign with perhaps the most impressive win, Knicks Go became a Breeders’ Cup champion again. In his first ever start at a mile and a quarter, Cox’s charge amazingly carried his incredible speed throughout. Finishing a geared down 2 ¾ lengths ahead and covering the distance in 1:59.57, he was just off track record time (1:59.11) at Del Mar.
After an incredible eight wins from ten starts over two years in the Brad Cox barn, Knicks Go will make the final start of what has become an amazing career. Looking to defend his Pegasus World Cup title at Gulfstream Park on January 29, this one-time reclamation project will face another talented field. Hoping to add to his over $8.6 million in on track earnings, his strategy will likely be the same as it has been under Cox. Make the lead early and let the big dog eat has been VERY successful thus far and his conditioner sees no reason to change his stable star now.
“We want him to be him”, says Cox. “He has been very good for two years now and that is a really huge statement. Some horses may be good for a few races, but he has competed on the biggest stages and been very good doing it. The Pegasus is bittersweet for us. He has been such a bright spot for our barn we hate to see him go but we are also very proud he gets the chance to compete in a race like this again. We are looking forward to seeing his greatness on display. I just hope to see him go out a winner.”
Given the tale of this Phoenix it appears as though Brad Cox shouldn’t worry. No matter what happens in the Pegasus on January 29, Knicks Go will exit the game as a real winner.
Awarded annually in recognition of excellence on the high school football field, the Pigskin has been around since 1994. Because the race for this coveted trophy was so tight this year, for the first time ever two recipients were granted the honor. When you consider all things, there was no separating this awesome twosome.
Oakland high school marched to a second consecutive class 6A state football championship in 2021. Many great performances highlighted their undefeated run to the title. A pair of Patriot defenders, however, were without question key in conquering all fifteen foes this season.
Defensive linemen Theron Gaines and Ethan McLaurin both earned the Pigskin because of their exceptional playmaking abilities. Feeding off one another’s disruption of the opponent’s offense, these monsters of the midway registered almost unbelievable statistical numbers in 2021.
“Me and Theron have started since we were sophomores and we have always competed with each other”, says McLaurin. “We have always tried to make each other better by working hard every day.”
“I owe a lot to Ethan because without him I could not have done the thing I have done as a high school player”, says Gaines. “The competition between us just helped drive us both to be better and we carried that onto the playing field every week.”
As what some would consider a bit undersized for defensive lineman at 240 pounds, these two used drive and determination while recording gargantuan numbers. Theron Gaines was in on 147 total tackles with 100 of those being solo. Included in those numbers is an amazing 31 tackles for loss. Those are not misprint numbers. Yes, we said 100 solo and 31 tackles for lost yardage! McLaurin’s numbers are not quite as big but he tallied 74 total tackles with 42 solo stops and 27.5 tackles for lost yardage. If you need help mathing that is 58.5 tackles for lost yardage… by two players in one season!!!
“I can’t say enough about what these two kids have meant to our program”, says Oakland head coach Kevin Creasy. “They both faced off against kids a lot bigger than them and were double teamed on nearly every play, but they still found a way to get it done. We are very happy to see them get recognized with this award.”
The internal competition was no doubt good for both. Pride in their Patriot colors and a willingness to compete to the fullest every time they stepped on the field also helped these young men reach almost unheard of heights.
“When we lost in the playoffs at Maryville during our sophomore season we knew there were people out there that doubted us,” says Gaines. “After last season we knew there was a bullseye on our back. We began the season with a slogan of state title or bust. We wanted to go out and prove we are the best each and every week. It was really great that things worked out so well for this program.”
“We know there are defensive lineman out there that are bigger than us and maybe faster than us”, says McLaurin. “But nobody plays harder than us and that is what helped us be successful. I give a lot of credit to our coaches for always trying to make us better. I couldn’t have asked for things to have turned out any better.”
Along with being awarded the Pigskin these two also have been named as members of the Tennessee All-State team for 2021.
The grade 1 Malibu Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita has long been a showcase for speedy three year olds. This 2021 edition offers up more of the same, but one of the entrants may view it as a little more than just a chance to display his talent.
Dr. Schivel comes into this race with a decorated resume. All four of his starts in 2021 have been against older horses. Wins in the grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar and the grade 2 Santa Anita Sprint Championships featured both his versatility and remarkable turn of foot.
“He has shown us all he is a very special horse”, says trainer Mark Glatt. “We threw him in with older horses every time out this year and he has responded extremely well. He’s just very consistent which is the mark of good horses.”
Three wins and a second in four starts this year has demonstrated the talent of Glatt’s charge. His lone defeat came on the biggest of stages when he was beaten by less than a flaring nostril in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Rating just off a torrid early pace (21.91 opening quarter mile, 44.11 half mile), the Dr. surgically dissected the front runners at the top of the stretch. Assuming command as the wire drew ever closer, it looked as if a winning prescription had been written. Then out of the clouds came Aloha West. As the two speedsters hit the wire together in the closest finish of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup, the photo went West as he was determined to be the victor.
Losing the biggest race of his life in the final inches of a six furlong fight was certainly tough to swallow. The accomplished Southern California conditioner, however, is trying to keep things in perspective.
“He put up a winning effort in the biggest race of his life”, says Glatt, who is now in his 28th year as a trainer. “From the quarter pole home he looked like a winner. The result was heartbreaking, but there is not much we can do about it now.”
Glatt is in fact doing something about it. He is letting his prized pupil do what he does best, run. Originated back in 1952, the Malibu gives Dr. Schivel a golden opportunity. For the first time this year he runs against only three-year olds with eyes on some year-end honors. In what has been a wide-open Sprint division, this son of Violence has been a model of a race horse. If he can produce as he has done throughout 2021, he should be under strong consideration for Eclipse Award Sprint Champion.
“The timing of this race fits perfectly into our program”, says Glatt. “The Malibu is a very prestigious race that we hope will serve as a springboard to a 2022 campaign. He has been doing great and has not missed a beat since the Breeders’ Cup. Winning races like this is never easy and we think if things go the way we want he absolutely could be named as Sprint champion.”
The Malibu is part of a blockbuster opening day program on December 26 at Santa Anita that will feature six graded stakes races.
The brilliance of the Oakland Patriots was in full display during their 43-26 win over Summit in the TSSAA class 6A BlueCross Bowl. In claiming a second consecutive state title, many players enjoyed fine performances. The gleam was no doubt a bit brighter due to some kids that seldom receive the recognition they so richly deserve.
A quick glance at the post-game statistics provides proof positive of the prolific Patriot offensive perpetuation. Execution to near perfection of coach Kevin Creasy’s game plan saw Oakland accumulate a whopping 348 yards rushing. BlueCross Bowl Most Valuable Player Jordan James was responsible for the lion’s share of that as he juked for 232 yards including 2 jaunts to paydirt. Here is the real kicker on those numbers. The longest run of the night was a James jog of 29 yards. That means those 7.7 yards per carry was the result of a consistent amassing of positive yardage time after time during those 45 rushing attempts.
To break things down a little further, the bludgeoning of the Summit defensive front took place from start to finish in this contest. Oakland’s offensive front has made huge strides as the 2021 season unfolded and their magnificence came to fruition when it counted the most. As Spartan defenders were being manhandled Oakland runners like James and Antonio Patterson (14 carries 107 yards 2 TDs) danced to daylight through gaping holes. With the majority of their rushing yardage coming between the tackles, there was no doubt about the Patriot performance in the trenches.
“I love our offensive line”, says Creasy, who has now claimed his third state title in six seasons at Oakland. “We have got a bunch of kids that are undersized by today’s standards but they are technique sound. When you have a bunch of kids that are 220 pounds you have to be fundamental. David Watson is one of the best offensive line coaches in the state and has done an excellent job of coaching these kids up.”
Watson, a former Patriot himself, has indeed gotten the most out of this group. Seniors Carson Shaw (left guard) and Tezjioh Knox (tight end) anchored this group. Juniors Zach Turk (right tackle), Brian Burrell (center), and Cameron Floyd (right guard) served up plenty of pancakes throughout the season. Sophomores Duce Hewitt (left tackle) and Marcus Bullard (H back) made their presence felt throughout 2021 as newcomers on the varsity scene.
As the books close on another Patriot championship season fond reflections will be had by all that wore the Oakland colors. The offensive line may not have their names listed on the historical stat sheets, but those in attendance will remember the dominance that fueled the repeat.
The Clark is one of the most historic races in the long and illustrious life of the fabled Churchill Downs. When the ponies go to post for the 147th running on November 26 the books may have a little more to add to the story of this edition.
Maxfield is a powerful four-year old that has been more than just good beneath the Twin Spires. Having recorded four wins in four lifetime starts at the Louisville Oval, a fifth would land him in a place no other runner has roamed.
Earlier in 2021, this son of Street Sense convincingly captured the grade 2 Alysheba Stakes on Kentucky Oaks day. On June 26, he fantastically finished first in the grade 2 Stephen Foster. A win in the grade 1 Clark on November 26 would make Maxfield the first runner to romp home first in all three of Churchill’s biggest races for older horses.
A strapping son of Street Sense, one of the Downs most dynamic runners ever, Maxfield could walk in his father’s footsteps as a record setter at the nation’s most famous Thoroughbred racing venue. In 2006 the Carl Nafzger trained Street Sense won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill in as dominating a fashion as any before or since. The following Spring, Nafzger and his prized colt ridden by Calvin Borel became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to also win the Kentucky Derby.
“I think Maxfield is a very talented horse that has great tactical speed”, says Nafzger, who also won the Kentucky Derby in 1990 with Unbridled. “It’s always nice to see a horse you trained succeed in the breeding aspect of the sport. Street Sense is a very special horse to us and we love seeing his off springs succeed.”
Maxfield has indeed enjoyed a successful career to date, but it has also had a few bumps in the road as well. A powerful score in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in October of 2019 put him in the fast lane towards the 2020 Kentucky Derby. However the injury bug bit and despite a delayed Derby, trainer Brendan Walsh saw the bigger picture and did not push his prized colt.
A healthy and fully recovered Maxfield has enjoyed his busiest year in 2021. After tasting defeat for the first time in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 6, Walsh wheeled him back for the Alysheba score on April 30 and followed with the Foster win. Two starts in New York saw second place finishes behind Knicks Go (Whitney) and Art Collector (Woodward).
“I am absolutely proud of what this horse has done this year”, says Walsh. “He has ran well every time out and has never been worse than third in his career. He started off very well at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana and then we got a bit ambitious with the trip to Santa Anita. His runs at Churchill were very nice and we think he ran well in New York. Finishing second to a horse like Knicks Go (Whitney) is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. The Woodward didn’t play out exactly as planned, but Art Collector ran a great race.”
Now the crafty Irish conditioner turns his attention to the Clark. Scheduled as the final career start for his mighty Maxfield, recent works say he is ready to do what he has always done, run well. Facing a potential field that will contain hard-knocking three-year-olds Midnight Bourbon and King Fury along with accomplished older stakes winners Code of Honor and Happy Saver, Walsh understands his runner needs to bring his best.
“It will be good to get him back on his home patch”, says Walsh. “He has obviously performed well here and loves the surface, but he is certainly not a one track horse. We have been very lucky to have a horse like him in our barn and look forward to a good effort in the Clark. The likes of him don’t come around that often.”
The Clark is the centerpiece of the 12 race black Friday card at Churchill Downs on November 26. First post is slated for 1 pm eastern time.
How many times can we use the word “Classic” in a sentence and it still be okay? Hopefully four is permissible so here we go…The 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic featured a classic run by a classic race horse in a classic setting.
Run at the iconic Del Mar Race Course in Southern California on November 6, the setting at the Seaside Oval is nothing short of spectacular. With the heaviest of hitters in the lineup, the mile and a quarter Classic was the deserving main event of these World Championships. The word “Classic” doesn’t do Del Mar justice but we’ll use it here anyway.
Coming in as the morning line favorite, Knicks Go was every bit deserving of that distinction. Three consecutive tour de force wins and seven victories in nine starts under the care of trainer Brad Cox told us all he really gets after it. The recent win totals are impressive, but the way in which he has done it is even more spectacular. A horse that gets out of the gate and runs hard through the wire, he has left little doubt about his “catch me if you can” style. Full of courage and heart, he defines “classic race horse”.
The thing about the 2021 Classic was there were a couple of other top notch runners with a similar style. Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit had both won big races during this, their three-year old campaign, in similar fashion. Hot Rod’s runs in the Louisiana Derby and Pennsylvania Derby were white-smokers. Medina Spirit was more than funky in winning the Kentucky Derby and Awesome Again Stakes. Question here was would the race be hotly contested on the front end and produce and pace melt down?
Races run earlier in the day had seen such results as front-end speed faded and closers hauled home the hardware. The $6 million question for Knicks Go and the other front runners was do you alter your style or simply do what you do?
Here is where a classic runner proved exactly why he is what he is. This five-year old son of Paynter had no need to change anything. Having never won at a mile and a quarter was not a scary thought as his recent wins saw increasing horsepower and widening margins as the wire drew closer.
“We have learned Knicks Go is a two turn horse”, says Brad Cox in the weeks leading up to the Cup. “His only two losses running out of our barn were one turn races. He just seems to gain momentum coming out of that second turn.”
Breaking like a rocket on the Del Mar dirt, Knicks Go went immediately to the lead and never looked back. He threw down a solid opening quarter (23.03) and quickened a bit (22.61 ) for a solid half mile time of 45.77. Cruising down the backstretch with the others digesting dust, his stride was storybook. Turning for home things played out as Cox claimed. Hot Rod Charlie was the first to come at him but just couldn’t hang. Stable mate Essential Quality attempted to make a run, but no dice. A reserved running Medina Spirit was the final pursuant with a chance but he too lacked the horsepower to make any real kind of challenge and finished 2 ¾ lengths behind in second .
Covering the distance in a swift 1:59.54, Knicks Go turned in one of the most powerful performances in Breeders’ Cup Classic history. In leading every step of the way this classic race horse’s classic performance at a classic venue can be summed up with a classic old Southern phrase. “He flat toted the mail”.
Debate is one of the great things about sports. The conversation spurs some deep pondering as somebody may think this one is the best while others have contrary thoughts. This can be especially true in the world of Thoroughbred racing. Being the oldest “professional” sport in the world, comparisons are commonplace. The athletes and equipment in racing have not changed much over the years. You may not be able to easily compare Red Grange with Derrick Henry, but Man o’War and American Pharoah are far more alike.
With all that in mind, we are going to throw out a statement that may initiate debate but has plenty of substance. Maxfield is one of the best horses to ever run at Churchill Downs. Considering they have been running at this Louisville oval since 1875, that is a statement. Here is a more than a little meat on the bone that backs it up.
His racing career may have been a bit brief as he only had eleven lifetime starts, but eight wins, two second place finishes and one third tells us he was always running big. Nine of those runs were in graded stakes company which means there was good competition in the starting gates beside him. Here is the real kicker…Maxfield was a perfect five for five in starts beneath the Twin Spires.
Interestingly enough, this strapping son of Street Sense began his career on September 14, 2019, at Churchill Downs with a win under jockey Jose Ortiz. Ten races later he ended his career with another powerful score in the grade 1 Clark Stakes at this same Downs dirt beneath Jose Ortiz. During this, his four year old year, this Brendan Walsh trained behemoth became the first horse to pull off the Churchill trifecta. Wins in the Alysheba Stakes, Stephen Foster Stakes, and Clark made him the first to take the biggest three races for older horses at the world’s most famous Thoroughbred race track.
Maxfield may have saved his best for last with an impressive score in the Clark. Facing a stellar field of seven others, Ortiz masterfully guided his charge to victory. Hustling out of the gate from his outside post, Maxfield ran a close second to the speedy race co-favorite Midnight Bourbon. As the runners turned for home, Ortiz urged Maxfield and this fabulous frame of a horse responded. Striking the front, Maxfield poured past Midnight Bourbon and then refused to let a charging Happy Saver by. Crossing under the wire a half length ahead, this Godolphin-owned runner finished his racing career in fitting fashion.
“I have been on a lot of good horses and Maxfield is certainly one of them,” says Ortiz. “It was really good to see him finish his career with a win like this. I am very thankful for the opportunity to ride him and Brendan has just done a fantastic job with him.”
The training job by Walsh certainly has been a huge factor in the rise to glory. After taking the grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in early October 2019, Maxfield was the early favorite for the 2020 Kentucky Derby. Injury sidelined him for several months and he was not able to run again until May 23 of 2020. With eyes on a start in the Covid delayed Kentucky Derby, injury again sidelined him. Carefully nurturing his prized colt back to health, Walsh returned his charge back to the track and a fabulous four year old campaign that saw him run seven times at five different tracks.
“This game teaches us you should never think about what might have been”, says Walsh. “Even when he was injured we always knew he would come back and hopefully do something special. He’s just such a quality horse and this full body of racing at four proved that.”
Maxfield has certainly been a special horse for the Brendan Walsh barn. As the Irish-born conditioner will quickly admit horses like him don’t come around that often. The ability to come back from injury and return to top form testifies to the quality of both horse and trainer. To see them together in the winner’s circle beneath the Twin Spires one final time in a grade 1 was a warm fuzzy for all.
“It’s really fantastic to see him finish with a grade 1 at this track”, says Walsh. “Eight wins in eleven starts and never out of the top three speaks of his quality. A horse that does that in the company he has kept tells us a lot about who he is. People were questioning about how good he was coming in and I think he answered.”
And that answer might just be…best ever at Churchill Downs.
The Breeders’ Cup is always a huge showcase for talent in the Thoroughbred racing game. Often times it also can crown champions as a win against this type competition can solidify a horse’s qualifications. One entrant in this year’s Mile brings an impressive resume, but a win here could help crown him as the best in his division and more.
Mo Forza has been one of the best turf runners in the sport over the past two seasons. Eight wins in his last nine starts means this five-year-old son of Uncle Mo has been nothing short of fantastic. Possessing a huge late kick, this Peter Miller trained meteor has been burning bright since breaking his maiden back in September of 2019.
“You know he really is a super horse”, says Miller. “We feel so very fortunate to have a runner like him in our barn. Mo has that excellent turn of foot that good grass horses have, but more importantly he has a tremendous desire to win.”
Win is what he has done and normally in exciting fashion. A runner that comes from off the pace, Mo Forza has time and again found that extra gear in the stretch and gotten up at the wire with a perfectly timed prance to the finish line.
Despite his tremendous success, Mo Forza has yet to make an appearance at the Breeders’ Cup. Recurring suspensory ligament soreness has put Mo on the shelf more than once. Wins in the 2020 Del Mar Mile and City of Hope Mile at Santa Anita had Miller’s charge primed for a run at Cup glory. The injury bug bit however, and Mo Forza was placed on injured reserve.
Taking the time to get his horse back healthy, the crafty Miller exercised patience. Allowing for a full recovery, Mo Forza put his toes back on the turf in the Del Mar Mile on August 21 of this year. Coming with his patented late run, Mo came off the bench and made his comeback a great one as he just got up at the wire. Again running in the City of Hope, Mo Forza’s stretch power was on full display as he again dashed the hopes of his competitors with a big late move.
“I am so proud of how he has come back”, says Miller. “He has pretty much dealt with this injury since he first started running. Sometimes it just flares up and we have to do what we do to keep him safe and healthy. His accomplishments speak for themselves. Being able to come back from those long layoffs and return to top form says a lot about who he is.”
Barring another bite from the injury bug, Mo Forza will get his shot at Breeders’ Cup glory on November 6 at Del Mar. Based in Southern California and having won his last three races at the Seaside Oval, Mo Forza has a nice opportunity in front of him. In reality, it’s an opportunity a horse like him richly deserves.
“I 100% believe Mo Forza deserves the opportunity to compete against the best”, says Miller, who has saddled five Cup winners including three straight in the Turf Sprint (2017,2018,2019). “He might be the best North American runner in a race the Europeans have won a lot over the years. We love Del Mar and consider it our home track. Right now Mo’s doing great and we look forward to him getting a start against the best of the best in his division.”
The Breeders’ Cup will be contested at Del Mar on November 5 and 6.
This season, it was a family affair. The father and son team of Danny and Beau Brewer were recently crowned champions of the Monday Jimmy Golf League at Cedar Crest. Having finished as high as second during their four year stint in a handicap league that has been contested for over 20 years, Team Brewer finished on top in 2021.
Consistent scoring and solid all-around play allowed the big-hitting Beau to lead the way in their climb to the top. Having always possessed a very healthy driver, the former Smyrna high baseball standout became much better in the short game aspect of golf.
“There is no doubt Beau was our bell cow”, says the older Brewer. “I am really proud of how he raised his level of play in 2021. It was great for me not only because he is my partner, but also because he’s my son.”
The other half of the team enjoyed success in critical spots. Making shots when needed, Danny did what he had to in order to keep making marks in the left hand column.
“I give credit to my dear departed friend Troy Flippen as inspiration”, smiles Danny. “He was always good at doing just enough to win and that seemed to be our model this season.”
Another key ingredient in the Brewer victory was the play of Jeff Carter. Stepping in for a few weeks during the league’s fourth quarter as the older Brewer recovered from injury, Carter was big in critical situations. Overall, the Brew Crew scored points in 19 of 22 matches.
“This is a very fun league with lots of friends,” says Danny Brewer. “We owe thanks to our league commissioner Mark Agee for putting this thing together every year. We also want to thank Cedar Crest for doing a great job of hosting. Win, lose, or draw it’s always fun.”
Having a good two year old is always exciting. Having a good two-year old that is headed to the Breeders’ Cup makes for even more pep in the step.
Bret Calhoun has been in the Thoroughbred game for quite some time now. Having registered his first win as a trainer back in 1994, this Dallas, Texas native has seen his fair share of quality horses. With over 2600 career wins, Calhoun has tripped the light fantastic to the winner’s circle plenty of times. He’s got one youngster now, however, that might just take him to some all new heights.
Hidden Connection has been nothing short of fabulous thus far. The first two starts of her career have been jaw-droppers to say the very least. Winning by a combined 16 ¾ lengths, this two-year old daughter of Connect has “something special” written all over her.
“The first couple of times she breezed I got a little excited”, admits Calhoun. “Of course I have been around long enough to know you can’t get too excited until they race. What you see in the mornings does not always transfer to the afternoons. She had some early works at Keeneland that were very impressive. You could see on the gallop out she might have the makings of a monster.”
Her first start at Colonial Downs on August 17 saw Calhoun’s thoughts about this fantastic filly come to fruition. Stalking the early pace, Hidden Connection took command at the top of the stretch and rolled home in hand by 7 ½ lengths. Covering the 5 ½ furlongs in 102.21, this granddaughter of Awesome Again looked magnificent.
Jumping into much deeper water in her second start, the mile and a sixteenth Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs would tell Calhoun even more about his youngster. Once again, the crafty conditioner was rewarded with a huge performance. Again stalking the early pace, the stretch out in distance was to her advantage. Taking the lead at the three quarter mile mark, Hedden Connection opened up in the stretch and left the others in her dust. Kicking home in 1:43.78, others were finding out what Calhoun already knew as she established a new Stakes record time.
“The jump up in distance never really concerned us because everything she has done told us she wants more ground”, says Calhoun. “She is bred to go farther and even though you think she is ready there is nothing like seeing it happen on race day.”
The Pocahontas win put hidden Connection on the big stage in more ways than one. Of course one of the biggest races for three-year old fillies takes place over that very same dirt next May when the Kentucky Oaks is run. But in the here and now it provided a berth into this year’s Breeders’ Cup. The Juvenile Fillies race on November 5 will bring together many of the top two-year olds. Looking for his first win in the Breeders’ Cup, Calhoun has taken six previous runners to these year end World Championships, but this may be his best shot at a trip to the Cup winner’s circle .
“We are absolutely looking forward to the Breeders’ Cup”, says Calhoun. “The general focus of racing seems to be on the three-year olds and the Juvenile races at the Breeders’ Cup gives everyone a look at the things to come. We hope to keep our horse healthy and are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to compete at an event like the Breeders’ Cup.”
The Juvenile Fillies race will be run at Del Mar on November 5 as part of the future stars Friday card.
A certain type of fever has been well documented over the years when it comes to the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Kentucky Derby fever has gripped many over the past 145 or so years. Back in 1984 however, another sickness surfaced and yes it too causes the mercury to rise. So what’s the prescription for this Breeders’ Cup fever that came about some 37 years ago? For some it’s simple…call a doctor.
Dr. Schivel comes into the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as a horse that’s been diagnosed as a major contender. Running out of the Mark Glatt barn, this three-year old son of Violence has strung together five consecutive wins with the last two being against older horses in Stakes action. As a veteran of the game, the California based conditioner has a clear understanding of who this horse really is.
“Dr. Schivel is a horse with a big heart and lots of desire to win”, says Glatt. “When you combine that with some great athletic talent it gives you a real serious race horse.”
The last start for the Dr. gave everyone a glimpse of just how serious Schivel is. After battling from off the pace to win by a stubborn neck in the Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar on July 31, Glatt’s charge took his opponents to the woodshed in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship.
Breaking alertly under jockey Flavien Prat, going straight to the lead was exactly what the Dr. ordered in this one. Leading at every call, this Kentucky-bred was in complete command before winning by a geared down 3 ¼ lengths.
“He certainly put it all together at Santa Anita”, says Glatt. “It was his third start off a layoff, which can be a big one for horses, and he really turned in a wow performance. I never expected him to dominate, but he certainly did.”
As win and you’re in races for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, the Bing and the Santa Anita Sprint Championship caused more than just a little rise in the thermometer. Having sent five previous runners to the starting gates at these World Championships, Glatt understands fully what his Dr. will be up against come November 6.
“We understand he will be facing the very best in the Sprint division”, says Glatt. “These are also serious horses that don’t make excuses. It’s going to be a real challenge, but we really like our horse.”
Glatt and the ownership team of Red Baron’s Barn LLC, Rancho Temescal LLC, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing , and William A Branch have every reason to be spiking a case of Cup fever. Boasting three wins in three lifetime starts at Del Mar, sight of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, is nothing but a positive.
“Maybe it gives us a bit of an advantage with the race being at Del Mar”, says the winner of over 1,000 races at the Seaside Oval. “Not having to ship and being able to run out of your own stall is always good. We know he likes the surface here and gets over it well. It’s my job to bring him in healthy and happy and he will take care of the rest.”
Recent works have indicated Dr. Schivel is engaging in full treatment for the case of Cup fever he has created. Heavy hitters like Jackie’s Warrior and Following Sea will ship in from the East and Japanese trained Matera Sky is traveling from overseas just to name a few. Curing this case of Cup fever will be no easy task, but the Dr. is on the case.
“Our ownership group is fantastic and they are very deserving of a trip to the winner’s circle here”, says Glatt. “They have put a lot into the sport over the years. We like our rider and our versatility. If he’s good enough on Cup day we’ll win.”
Let’s get real for a moment…high school football is one of those special things in the sporting world. The competition, the spirit, the real pigskin purity it possesses is the essence of the game. Seeing all that is special to say the least. And that’s exactly why Thursday’s contest between Christ Presbyterian Academy and Oakland is something to circle on the calendar.
As followers of high school football know, the TSSAA playoffs will produce heavy hitting contests. The regular season games will feature some good ones, but normally it is deep in the post-season before a matchup like this happens. So when the defending TSSAA class 6A state champion (Oakland) and the defending TSSAA Division II state champ (CPA) meet on the gridiron it is must-see.
“Playing these types of games helps you determine your strengths and your weaknesses”, says Oakland coach Kevin Creasy. “Playing championship caliber opponents in the regular season makes us better and our program always wants to be better.”
Under the care of Kevin Creasy the Patriot program has been pretty good to say the least. Two state titles (2020, 2018) and a runner-up (2016) finish in a five year tenure speaks volumes. The Patriots have already faced down one private school behemoth in 2021 when they toppled Lipscomb Academy 29-21 back on September 23. This game will certainly be a great test for a team looking for a repeat trip to the class 6A ‘ship
Christ Presbyterian Academy brings an unbeaten 7-0 record to Murfreesboro. Featuring a roster that has both size and skill, the Lions have already defeated Independence (48-21), Brentwood Academy (21-17), Montgomery Bell Academy (24-10), and Cane Ridge (42-10) in 2021. The win over Lipscomb Academy in last year’s TSSAA Division II state title game provided CPA with their fifth football championship (2020, 2018, 2014, 2002, 2000). Coached by Ingle Martin, these Lion’s roar has been heard in abundance this season.
The fact these two will face off is truly a tribute to both programs. Some schools do not want to take on these types of challenges in the regular season. Perhaps the willingness to knock heads with only bragging rights on the line speaks of their commitment to the sport. And it also tells us of their eagerness to showcase who they are as they prepare for a run at post-season glory.
“We are always eager to get as many people into Ray Hughes Stadium as we can”, says Creasy. “It gives us an opportunity to showcase our program while competing at a very high level. This one should be a lot of fun.”
Kickoff is slated for 7 pm on Thursday, October 7 on the campus of Oakland High School.
Most non-region games do not carry the same significance as the league tilts. That’s not necessarily the case when Riverdale travels to Smyrna on September 24.
No longer in the same league, these two historical high school football heavyweights will be meeting on the field for the third consecutive season. Having split the last two meetings with each winning at home, this 2021 head-knocker has the makings of another classic showdown. Things are a little different than perhaps in days of old as region standings are not at stake, but rest assured, there are more than just local bragging rights on the line.
Rutherford County has been rich in football tradition in modern times. Each of these schools has taken their turn at the top. Riverdale enjoyed a momentous march to gridiron glory under the guidance of Gary Rankin. Between 1993 and 2004, the Warriors played in the state championship game an incredible nine times, winning on four (1994, 1997, 2001, 2004) occasions.
Smyrna’s time as top Dog in the state began in 2006. After falling 49-0 to the Warriors in the regular season, Bulldog head coach Philip Shadowens enjoyed perhaps the biggest win in school history when his underDogs defeated Riverdale 9-7 in the state playoff quarterfinals. Breaking a 17 game losing streak against their rivals from Murfreesboro, Smyrna went on to claim their first state title. A repeat in 2007 made the Bulldogs the first public school to win back to back titles in the states highest classification. A runner-up finish in 2010 meant the Bulldogs were one of the final two in the playoffs three times in five seasons.
Times have changed, the number of Rutherford county high schools have grown, and these two storied programs are trying to get back to the top. Each has been playoff participants in most seasons since their reign, but just making the post-season is not exactly what they are looking for.
For Riverdale, the biggest stumbling block has been their oldest rival Oakland. The Patriots have been enjoying their time at the top as two recent titles (2018, 2020) gives them one more than the Warriors overall. Talented playmakers like quarterback Jameson Holcomb and running back Marcus Lloyd have helped Riverdale remain unbeaten (5-0) in 2021. Middle linebacker Alexander Mitchell has keyed a defense that once more invokes a fear the spear mentality. Before the battle of the ‘Boro, these Warriors hope to find a way to leash the Bulldogs.
For Smyrna, their biggest challenge has been the creation of new schools. With Stewart’s Creek also in the city limits, the talent pool has been divided. A restructuring of regions has steered them away from the Murfreesboro powerhouses, but when it is playoff time and the Bulldogs have faced schools from Williamson County, they have been unable to sink their teeth into a post-season run. An unbeaten record on the field in 2021 (4-0) and game breakers like Landon Miller, Arion Carter, and Jeremiah Bailey has the purple and gold flags flying high. The game with Riverdale makes for a measuring stick of sorts for Smyrna. If a trip to the big dance floor is in the future, whipping the Warriors is a good place to begin.
Given all the implications, this promises to be a good, old-fashioned Southern slobber-knocker. Kickoff is slated for 7 pm at Robert Raikes Stadium on the campus of Smyrna high school.
The goal for any young athlete is improvement. Smyrna high school quarterback Landon Miller appears to be rolling in the right direction when it comes to getting better.
Over their illustrious gridiron history, the Bulldogs have been blessed with their fair share of talented signal callers. Names like O.J. Smith, Larry Daniels, Luke Powell, Lee Carter, Steve Willey, Steve Wilson, and Sonny Gray jog memories of recent guys that could get it done under center. Miller may not be in their company just yet, but this six-foot three inch junior is now more than just a pup.
Experience has played a factor in the rise of this talented Bulldog. Having seen varsity action since walking on to campus as a freshman, Miller seems to be getting better every game. Of course the physical maturation process has taken place, but perhaps more importantly, the mentality has grown as well.
“Landon has done a really good job of getting stronger both physically and mentally since last season”, says Smyrna head coach Matt Williams. “He has worked very hard in the weight room but has also done an excellent job of becoming a real quarterback. He has grown by leaps and bounds.”
Miller’s improvement was on full display in Smyrna’s 35-10 lambasting of LaVergne on September 10. The statistics were very solid (8 for 12 passing 183 yards 2 touchdowns, 1 rushing TD), but the decision making was the real kicker.
One play that was a microcosm of his development came in the second quarter. Scrambling from the pocket, Miller could have easily ran for a first down but instead had the patience to let the play develop. Lofting a perfect 36 yard strike downfield to a breaking KJ Whitney, Miller’s timely toss set up another Smyrna touchdown and put the Dogs up 21-0.
“That play shows how far Landon has come as a quarterback”, says Williams. “He had the moxie to make that kind of play when he could have easily ran for a nice gain. That’s a play veteran quarterbacks make. We talked earlier in the week about taking pride in doing all the little things right and he responded with perhaps his best game as a Bulldog.”
Smyrna (3-1) now stands unbeaten on the field with a Covid forfeit to Rockvale as the lone blemish. With six games to play in the regular season, Miller understands the importance of continuing to be a hungry Dog.
“We are not where we need to be as a team yet, but I think our chemistry is getting better”, says Miller. “I am getting more comfortable at my position but understand the hard work has to continue.”
Smyrna travels to Antioch on September 17 and returns home to host Riverdale on September 24.
The importance of special teams can never be underestimated in the game of football. Yes, offense and defense get’s more attention, but the special teams can really light a fuse or even decide the game. The season opener for Middle Tennessee State on September 4 saw one of those match-striking plays that ignited an explosion.
Facing a feisty Monmouth squad at Floyd Stadium, the Blue Raiders battled through a scoreless first quarter. Eager to put a disappointing 2020 behind them, MTSU had something to prove. Obviously the first 15 minutes had not gone totally according to plan, but the game is played for four quarters.
Having held Monmouth and forcing a punt to begin the second stanza, the stage was set. A low spiraling kick was welcomed into the arms of punt returner Jaylin Lane. Immediately bolting in a North and South direction, the speedy freshman left the initial wave of defenders in his dust. A quick zig-zag to the sideline left others tackling air and a big block from JaMichael Thompson sent Lane prancing to paydirt.
“Jaylin did a great job of making the first guys miss’, says Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill. “The block by Thompson and some others helped set him free. From there he just outran everyone else. It was a great momentum play and jump started us.”
The Blue Raiders put up two more touchdowns in the second quarter and were up 21-7 at the half. A 22 point fourth quarter blew things open as MTSU mangled Monmouth by a final score of 50-15. But it all got started with a lightning-like punt return by Jaylin Lane. And maybe this even better. That big play was authored by a warrior that stands 5-feet 8 and weighs 175 pounds.
Middle Tennessee State travels to Virginia Tech on September 11 for their next contest. The next home game will be October 2 when the Blue Raiders play host to conference rival Marshall.
Stop the grinning and drop the linen, we are about to have live horse racing at Kentucky Downs.
The turf track located just north of the Tennessee state line will conduct it’s live racing meet beginning Sunday, September 5. Recent times have seen this European-style track enjoy a racing renaissance of epic proportion. Graded stakes races, Breeders’ Cup win and you’re in events, and a massive influx of entrants are all a part of the landscape now in Franklin, Kentucky.
The grass has become greener at Kentucky Downs over the past several years primarily due to that other green stuff…money. Historical horse racing gaming machines have infused lots of cash and that has led to the live racing boom. Offering the highest per race purses in the nation and second highest in the world, Kentucky Downs is the place to be in early September. Big money brings out the best horses, trainers, and jockeys.
“We always look forward to the Kentucky Downs racing festival”, says owner Jeff Bloom, who will be entering horses for the fourth consecutive year. “We love the location, the people, the quirkiness of the track, and of course the money. If you can knock down a race or two during the meet it can be a major benefit to your stable.”
Bloom will be entering two-time Kentucky Downs race winner Snapper Sinclair in one of two Stakes races. Boasting a record of two wins and a second at these Downs, Snapper has proven to be a horse for this course.
“Not all horses take to this track but mine have seemed to perform well here”, says Bloom. “For Snapper to be running here for the fourth straight year says a lot about how big a fan we are of Kentucky Downs.”
Owners Robert Falcone and Ron Winchell have infused money into the facility with improvements galore. Their commitment has been rewarded with growing interest from horsemen and other racing entities. The Breeders’ Cup has selected the Turf Cup and Turf Sprint as win and you’re in qualifying races. Over the six-day meet in 2021, there will be 16 Stakes races featuring a total of $10 million in purse money.
With live racing scheduled for September 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, and 12, lots of action will be packed into a short period. September 6 will feature the first graded stakes race as the WinStar Mint Million will be run at one mile with you guessed it, a purse of $1 million. The biggest day will be on September 11 as both the Breeders’ Cup qualifiers are to be contested with each of those also carrying a $1 million payout to the entrants. First post on each day is slated for 12:20pm.
The sport of Thoroughbred racing has so many wonderful layers. Let’s take a moment or two to spin a tale of the magnificence of Del Mar on one of their biggest days.
Pacific Classic day is always a star on the calendar. The 2021 edition featured five graded stakes races and a pick six pool that reached $5 million. Now for those wondering, the pick 6 is a wager in which you try and select the winners of the last six races. You can pick multiple horses in each race, but the more you select the higher the ticket price. That being said, the struggle is to pick enough runners to have a real chance without breaking your piggy bank.
The great news for this hillbilly turf writer is Del Mar has welcomed me with open arms for some time now. Parts of the family make the trek and it’s always a very special time. For us, it’s exactly like Bing Crosby’s musical limerick regarding his brainchild. “There’s a winner in every race and a smile on every face down at old Del Mar”.
So here is where our story begins. My lovely wife, little chocolate chip cookie of a daughter, and her brainy boyfriend, were part of the posse. Teaming up on the pick 6 ticket and some other multi-race wagers, we all had our spot. My dearest can’t help but be knowledgeable as she is saddled with a guy that breathes the sport. The boyfriend is new to the game so he is not always tainted by numbers. And the little cookie grew up at the track with an uncanny knack for making sweet selections.
Three races into the pick six we had a live ticket. Of course excitement was pulsing through our veins as we were witnessing the wonderfulness of the Seaside Oval. Realizing the difficulty of hitting a wager like this, I called upon some sage advice from a professional handicapper. With three races left, we decided to play a late pick three ticket, incorporating some of the same horses as our pick six ticket, but throwing in a couple of others as well. That meant we could score with both, or still be alive with the latter if things didn’t go according to plan.
After making our choices in races 9 and 10, I asked everyone for their thoughts on the finale. The Del Mar Handicap closed the card with an 11 horse field full of talented runners. Immediately the cookie said “I like Astronaut”. He was 20-1 on the morning line, but as a veteran who donates to the windows frequently, I understand ANYTHING can happen and in these bigger stakes races they all have a chance.
A little closer look saw my man Victor Espinoza in the irons and the zen-master John Shirreffs as the trainer. Victor has won the Kentucky Derby on multiple occasions, the Triple Crown on American Pharoah, and was the pilot for one of my all-time favs California Chrome. Besides, you can’t cash a bigger ticket without some longshots and like I said, never doubt the sweetness of a chocolate chip cookie’s selection.
The pick six ticket was laid to rest in the fifth leg, which was the Pacific Classic. Thank goodness we had made a slight alteration on the pick three ticket so were still alive heading into the final leg. As working, functioning adults, our handicapping team had come to Del Mar to escape the rigors of the everyday world. Refusing to be saddled with the burdens life sometimes throws on our shoulders, we were all about the Del Mar Cap right now and nothing else mattered.
Watching the live odds before the race and seeing her selection was now at 24-1, I looked at my daughter and said “if you are shooting for the stars you need an Astronaut”. She smiled with the understanding that if her horse hit, the ticket would pay soooooo much more. My heart was pounding, stomach was churning, palms were sweaty, felt like I was about to pee my pants, man it was great!
As the horses were sent on their way, our runners were scattered throughout the field beginning the first lap in this mile and three eighths journey over the Del Mar grass. Watching our more favored selections, they curiously bobbed and weaved up the backside. Approaching the far turn we were so alive it was all too exhilarating. And suddenly it happened.
At the top of the stretch Astronaut blasted off. Using the instinctive abilities that have long made him one of the best riders in the history of the game, Victor split horses and sent his longshot to the lead. Unable to contain my emotions, I uncontrollably began cheering for that Astronaut that was going to take us to the moon.
Holding on by a half-length, Astronaut gave us an out of this world experience. Our track side table erupted with emotion as we slapped fives and exchanged joyous shouts of exuberance. Our collective love of the game for what it offers and the pride in my cookie for her pony picking were at all-time highs.
One of my favorite slogans about the sport is back a horse and get paid. Yes, our $32 ticket yielded $445, but this was not all about the money. The payout on the love bond created and the relief from the rest of the world during that time…priceless.
There’s a winner in every race and a smile on every face down at old Del Mar.
Sometimes Dogs are not always so friendly. Barkers don’t always bite and biters don’t always bark. So who do we fear the most? It’s usually the canines of the canine we want to avoid. Smyrna has a pair of Dogs that hope to be all teeth during the upcoming high school football season.
Blessed with two talented players in his backfield, Bulldog head coach Matt Williams hopes to have a sic’em type offense with quarterback Landon Miller and running back Arion Carter. Both have explosive abilities and the dean of Rutherford County high school football coaches is excited to turn his Dogs loose.
“Arion Carter has a chance to be one of the best running backs we have had since I have been here“, says Williams, who took over at Smyrna in 2008. “If he stays healthy he can have a big year. Landon Miller has really put in some great work in the weight room and has gotten better physically as well as mentally. His ability to make plays both passing and running makes our offense a lot tougher to defend.”
The good news about these two is they are just juniors. The better news is they are experienced and have been through the varsity wars. Both were integral pieces in Smyrna’s run to the region 6 class 6A regular season championship in 2020.
Arion Carter was the leading Bulldog rusher last season (591 yards) while appearing in 8 games. Averaging an explosive 7.2 yards a carry, Carter found pay dirt 8 times. Entering the 2021 season, this instinctive runner hopes to use his previous experience to be even better this go round.
“The coaches gave me a chance to play a lot last year and that experience has made me a lot better”, says Carter. “I feel like I know how to read the holes better now and I have gotten bigger and stronger. I hope to be more elusive and use all the things I have learned to be even better.”
Landon Miller comes into 2021 with even more experience. Having called signals under center in each of the past two seasons, his quarterbacking abilities have progressed. Last season, Miller was a dual threat as he threw for 1008 yards (87 completions 144 attempts) and 8 touchdowns while also rushing for 246 yards with 6 trips to the end zone. He also hopes to build off his time on the field.
“There is no doubt experience can make you better”, says Miller. “I think I am a lot better at reading defenses now and have a better understanding of our offense. Plus when I have a running back like Arion behind me it gives me those juices to try and raise my game even more.”
Experience will make both of these young men better, but it also means they will not be sneaking up on the opposition. Having made a mark with big plays and performances in 2020 they are now on the radar of all their opponents. This is another motivating factor for each as they strive to sink their teeth into the 2021 schedule.
“I know I will be getting our opponents best and that puts a chip on my shoulder”, says Carter. “I love the competition and want to use that to help me continue to get better and better.”
“I realize people know us and that is what motivates me to work even harder”, adds Miller. “We understand we have to continue to improve and the drive to be as good as we can be is there.”
Smyrna kicks off their 2021 regular season at rival Stewart’s Creek on August 20.
As a race horses move through their career they are tested time and again. The answers they provide will reveal certain things. The latest quiz for Essential Quality may not have been the Bar Exam, but it did tell us something about this striking son of Tapit.
The Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga has long been a springboard for three-year old males. The 2021 edition on July 31 featured a compact five horse field, but as we previously established, every race is a test and you never know who will be best on that day.
Essential Quality is just one wide trip away from being unbeaten. Traffic issues in the Kentucky Derby may have caused this handsome gray to come up just a little more than length short in his run at the roses. Coming into the Jim Dandy off a real Quality win in the Belmont Stakes, this Brad Cox trained grandson of Elusive Quality was looking for career win number seven.
As is the case most of the time in this very competitive sport, nothing comes easy. Saratoga has long been called the graveyard for favorites and going off at 2 to 5, Essential Quality was a HEAVY favorite. Could he escape the coffin here was the question.
A moderate early pace and a wider type trip were certainly causes for concern as the runners turned for home. Swinging up on the outside, Essential Quality struck the lead, but the others were simply not going away. Keepmeinmind was on the rail and had run a shorter distance in this mile and an eighth drive over this New York dirt. Trying to make like a mortician under jockey Joel Rosario, Keepmeinmind pulled even with Quality with the wire in sight.
This is where we found out even more about Essential Quality. In both the Bluegrass Stakes and Belmont earlier this year, Quality answered the call when challenged. Simply refusing to lose, this Godolphin owned colt displayed the guts of a real race horse. Digging deep within himself, he hunkered down and came home a half length in front.
The Jim Dandy win made it seven career triumphs at five different tracks. With earnings in excess of $3.5 million, there should not be much question about the Essential Quality in the Brad Cox barn.