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.
As college comes closer to a reconvene, the time to think about upcoming athletic seasons are upon us. As we attempt to return to a normal way of life, the entertaining getaway sports offers is a welcome sight to the stress and strain of the everyday world. In an effort to promote unity within the sports community, the Middle Tennessee State athletic department has been “blitzing area residents of late with eyes on tackling the needs of Joe and Jane Sportsfan.
Wednesday, July 28, the Blue Raider entourage will be at Lee Victory Park in Smyrna for a meet and greet with locals. The extravaganza will take place between 6 and 8 pm with coaches from a variety of sports present.
Given the fact we are quickly approaching August, many fans are focused on football. Middle Tennessee State head football coach Rock Stockstill has been a rock of consistency for the University during his tenure. Now entering his 16th season, the six-time coach of the year is focused on continuing a tradition of basic fundamentals that began back in 2006 when he took control in Murfreesboro. An emphasis on academics, work ethic, dedication, honor, and respect have allowed the former All-American quarterback at Florida State to elevate the Blue Raiders on and off the field. With eyes on a big 2021 season, Coach Stock will be there to mingle and matriculate with the fine folks of Smyrna. To see some good college football, people do not have to drive hours away, they can simply bolt to the ‘Boro.
Others associated with Blue Raider athletics will be in attendance. Men’s head basketball coach Nick McDevitt will be there along with several members of the football staff and athletic director Chris Massaro just to name a few.
Festivities will offer fun for the entire family as our local university looks to expand the horizons of area college sports fans.
Now that the dust has settled from an exciting Triple Crown series, the three year old male division is preparing for the summer races that will likely decide year end honors. Of course the Breeders’ Cup is the end goal for most, but one runner in particular is looking to white smoke his tires on July 17 in the Haskell.
Hot Rod Charlie has quickly become one of the most loveable figures in the Thoroughbred racing game. Running out of the Doug O’Neill barn, this son of Oxbow has every bit of his dad’s determination. The love affair with fans began when he ran huge in a second place finish during the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 94-1. After stamping himself as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender with a gutsy gate to wire win over a salty field in the 2021 Louisiana Derby, the pony palpitations were even more present.
Leading up to the Kentucky Derby, people became even more familiar with the real Hot Rod story and how a team of young and old guys got together. Donating a portion of all of the winnings to cancer research, Boat Racing, Strauss Brothers, Gainesway Stable, and RoadRunner Racing and their tale is one of the really “feel good” stories in the sport.
The world’s most famous race did not necessarily turn out the way team Hot Rod wanted as some early traffic problems resulted in a third place finish. Much like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, his Kentucky Derby effort was encouraging as he finished just over a length from the front despite the obstacles he encountered.
Choosing to skip the Preakness, O’Neill sent Hot Rod Charlie into the Belmont with eyes on opening up that dual line double pumping carburetor. His horsepower on the front end had allowed for success in the Louisiana Derby and the crafty California-based conditioner wanted to see Charlie have a chance to release the hounds without hindrance.
The plan worked wonderfully for over a mile and a quarter. Breaking well without spinning out, Charlie bolted to the lead. Pushed early by Rock Your World and France Go de Ina, he refused to give up the poll position despite suicidal opening fractions ( 22.78 opening quarter, 46.49 half mile) for a race of this length. As the two early challengers faded, the pony with the posi-trac rear end was still there maintaining the lead as they turned for home. In one of the most courageous stretch runs ever, Hot Rod Charlie battled brilliantly with a late running Essential Quality. Unfortunately for the heroic grandson of Indian Charlie, the Belmont Stakes is a mile and a half race and he ran out of gas in the final furlong.
“I am more proud of Charlie’s Belmont run than of any other horse I have had that didn’t win”, says O’Neill, who has won over 2,000 races. “To run those early fractions and still be there at the end is amazing. He’s got so much heart and courage.”
Those very qualities have made this Hot Rod a hero to many. After a brief break and a little fine tuning, Monmouth Park and the $1 million Haskell is next. As is the case with most Hot Rods, adjustments can be made to increase horsepower and in this case, O’Neill will remove the blinkers after some encouraging recent works.
“Early in his career, he needed the blinkers to help him focus, but now he has matured and we think it will benefit him to run without them”, says O’Neill. “We have worked him without blinkers recently and he has that competitive nature where he wants to separate himself from other horses.”
The mile and an eighth Haskell has long featured some of the top three year old runners as they race for glory. Past winners include names like Bet Twice, Holy Bull, Point Given, Rachel Alexandra, Big Brown, American Pharoah, and Authentic just to name a few. This year’s field is likely to feature Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun and Triple Crown toughened Midnight Bourbon. With the highly successful Flavien Prat back in the irons, Charlie’s plan for victory is pretty simple.
“We just want a clean break and a clean trip”, says O’Neill. “With a 19 horse field in the Derby the traffic caused him to hit the brakes some early and we think that compromised our chance of winning. In the Belmont everything worked out great, we just had to run too fast too early. He looks great right now and we are really excited about this opportunity.”
As is the case with most runners in this game, the only race to think about is the one directly in front of you. With the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar as the likely year end target, the Hot Rod team is currently focusing on a big Haskell run.
“He came out of a very tough Belmont in great shape and we have developed a good foundation for him”, says O’Neill. “We are not looking past the Haskell right now. This is a big race for us and we just want him to remain healthy. He’s happy to be a race horse and loves doing what he does. We just want to continue this amazing ride. Let’s get lucky!”
The Haskell will be the headliner of a card that will feature six stakes races. First post is set for 12:15 pm eastern at the Oceanport, New Jersey track.
As we roll down the road of life, it is understood certain trips are better than others. You hang in there during the bad times and rejoice during the good ones. For one of the top Thoroughbred trainers in the world, it is all smiles as he prepares his horse for the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes.
Doug O’Neill has enjoyed many “huge” wins during his time as a trainer. Based on the West coast, he has enjoyed multiple training titles at the major California tracks and won the Kentucky Derby twice (2012 I’ll Have Another, 2016 Nyquist). As he prepares his latest stable star for a run at Belmont glory, this winner of over 2,000 races has been enjoying the ride with Hot Rod Charlie.
Owned by a partnership that includes his nephew Patrick, O’Neill has fine tuned this Hot Rod and saw him white smoke the tires in the Louisiana Derby. Coming up just short in the Kentucky Derby with a third place finish, the excitement has continued. Running hard every time out, this son of Oxbow has given his team plenty of thrills since last fall.
“I would be lying if I said this has not been a special ride for all of us”, says O’Neill. “My nephew Patrick and some of his high school football buddies own 25% of Charlie. Roadrunner Racing, Gainesway Thoroughbreds, and Strauss Brothers Racing own the other portions. There is an age gap between them but the dynamics are really cool. The older guys want to be like the young guys and the young guys want to become established like the older guys. It has been lots of fun.”
Part of the fun of course has come from a very competitive horse at the game’s top level. It began at the 2020 Breeder’s Cup when Charlie finished a hard-fought second at odds of 94-1 in the Juvenile. Having earned his first win just a month earlier in his fourth career start, the Hot Rod was just ¾ of a length from shocking the world.
“That Breeders’ Cup run confirmed what we thought he was“, says O’Neill. “He has always had a great personality and is really comfortable in his own skin. His demeanor is just fantastic because he combines cool with competitive.”
Following his powerful gate to wire win in the Louisiana Derby, it looked as if O’Neill had the horsepower to get his third win in the world’s most famous race. Stalking the pace, the Hot Rod swung outside under jockey Flavien Prat at the top of the stretch but could not overcome the frontrunners on a speed biased surface.
“I am very proud of his effort and I think Flavien had him right where he needed to be”, says the first man to win the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year with one horse (Lava Man 2006). “The track was playing in favor of the front end speed and we just could not get by them.”
After sitting out the Preakness, Charlie is ready to roll in the mile and a half “test of a champion” known as the Belmont Stakes. A good mix of speed and stamina with a versatile running style, Hot Rod will have Prat back aboard after California’s top jock rode West coast based Rombauer to victory in the Preakness.
“We are thrilled to have Flavien back aboard”, says O’ Neill. “He has worked the horse a lot so he is very familiar with him. Prat is a great rider that is a huge asset, especially in a race like this.”
The prestigious Belmont Stakes is the third leg of the Triple Crown and it’s $1.5 million purse will bring out some of the division’s best. Preakness winner Rombauer is likely to be there along with Juvenile champion Essential Quality. New York training staple Todd Pletcher will also send some of his stable stars forward. With a field that may approach ten runners, O’Neill understands this is no easy task. But he also feels a finely tuned Hot Rod is fun to run and can be hard to beat.
“We welcome the opportunity to run against some of the best in the division”, says O’Neill. “Hot Rod has filled out and will be fresh after the five week break. The distance does not bother us as we think he is sure footed and versatile enough to be there at the end. We certainly respect all of the other runners but with this Hot Rod we don’t have to fear any of them. If he runs his race and comes out healthy it should be a lot of fun.”
The Belmont will be run on June 5 at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
Thoroughbred trainer Michael McCarthy is no stranger when it comes to walking to the winner’s circle. Forgive him if he looks more like a Chesire cat these days as one of his recent trips to those hallowed grounds was landmark to say the least.
Winning any graded stakes race is an accomplishment. A grade 1 is a real woosh. How about a Triple Crown triumph in your very first attempt? That is what this West coast conditioner achieved on May 15 when he orchestrated Rombauer’s romp in the 146th running of the Preakness.
“When I think about it, it is really pretty overwhelming”, smiles McCarthy. “It really was an amazing experience capped by an outstanding performance by Rombauer. We were going into it very confident he was ready to run well. Our hopes were he would deliver a big effort and that is what happened.”
The Preakness win for this hard-working Ohio native was a result of a brilliant game plan playing out perfectly. His masterpiece at Pimlico was perhaps set up with his win in the El Camino Real Derby win on February 13 at Golden Gate Fields. A worst to first run that featured a huge move down the lane earned him an automatic berth in the Preakness. It also told McCarthy this son of Twirling Candy is sweet enough to compete at longer distances.
“Winning that race was a big deal for us”, says the Ohio native. “We always thought he had the stamina to run as far as the race lets him and he proved that here. He was a lot farther back than we wanted, but he had plenty of gas in his tank coming down the lane and had the heart to get his nose down at the wire. It guaranteed us a spot in the Preakness so that took some pressure off as well.”
Rombauer ran in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 3 finishing a distant third behind Essential Quality. At that point, McCarthy pointed his pony toward the Preakness with eyes on a fresh horse in the Crown’s second jewel.
With some post-Kentucky Derby rumblings regarding winner Medina Spirit and the absence of many runners from the first Saturday in May, some wondered how the race would play out. For the late running Rombauer it could not have turned out any better.
Breaking alertly under jockey Flavien Prat, Rombauer moved in mid-pack just off the rail. Orchestrating a ground-saving trip, Prat piloted his pony perfectly down the back stretch. As front-running Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon dueled on the lead, Rombauer continued to move up. Steadily stalking, his closing stride was unleashed as the runners turned for home. Swinging wide inside the eighth pole, the romp was on as Prat hit the gas pedal and a powerful push left the front-runners digesting dirt. Cruising to the wire a widening 3 ½ lengths ahead, Rombauer left no doubt as to who was the best horse on this day.
“I truly believe we had the perfect trip in the Preakness”, says McCarthy. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Prat did a great job of putting him in exactly the right spot. That was the first time he had ridden Rombauer, but he worked him the week before so he had some familiarity with him and I think that helped. It was the stuff you dream about.”
The dream may continue as McCarthy has sent Rombauer to Belmont Park with eyes on a start in the third leg of the Triple Crown. The mile and a half distance of the Belmont Stakes is not really a concern and a three week space between races also bodes well. A recent work at Big Sandy went well, but McCarthy will not fully commit just yet for very good reasons.
“He came out of the Preakness in really good shape”, says McCarthy. “The thing is we want him to tell us where he needs to be. Winning the Preakness is a great achievement for our team but the bottom line is we are the same as we were before that race. We take care of what is in front of us and put the horse first and the race second.”
The horse has always been first for Michael McCarthy and he has every reason to smile about that now.
With the annual TSSAA spring fling just around the corner, local sports fans are wondering if any area athletes will be putting their skills on display. If things progress as they have been recently, it’s likely some Stars may be aligning.
Siegel high school has enjoyed another banner season on both the softball and baseball fields in 2021. With a sectional appearance cemented, each will gun for a spot in the Tennessee state tournaments later this week.
The Lady Stars have continued their excellence under coach Shawn Middleton. With masterful guidance and great motivational skills, this middle Tennessee athletic coaching icon has engineered another fantastic campaign. For the third consecutive season, Siegel claimed the regular season district 7 AAA title in what is a very tough league. To top things off the Lady Stars capped an unbeaten district regular season with an unbeaten tournament run.
“The chemistry of this team is probably our biggest strength,” says Middleton. “We have got such a great group of kids that all have a team first mentality. They hang together on and off the field and are really a tight knit bunch.”
To go along with that chemistry, Siegel also has tremendous team speed, timely hitting, and great defense behind the excellent pitching of Mary Bradley. Different players have stepped up on different nights as the Lady Stars have found a way to win every contest except one this season.
“We have had some very talented teams here, but one through nine, this is probably our most complete lineup,” says Middleton. We can play small ball if we need to and we have girls that can go yard. Our overall team speed is good and that puts pressure on the opponents defense because a routine grounder is not routine with these kids. That versatility gives me great confidence as a coach.”
The Stars baseball team has also flourished in 2021. Like a super nova, Siegel burned through the district 7 AAA tournament and claimed their seventh title under head coach Craig Reavis. Now in his 25th season coaching the sport he starred in at Middle Tennessee State, Reavis and his cerebral approach continues to produce winning results.
“I still really enjoy what I am doing and it is a lot of fun coaching this game,” says the two time AAA state championship winner. “The competition and the kids still get the juices flowing and this stuff just never gets old.”
Having boasted strong pitching throughout his coaching career, this team is no different. In the 2-0 win over Lawrence County in the Region 4 semifinal, Jameson Nephew tossed a one-hitter while registering 10 strikeouts over seven innings.
“He wasn’t real happy with his last start,” says Reavis, “but he really stepped up here. We have been very fortunate to have a lot of quality arms come through here. There is no big secret to having good pitching, you just need to have talented kids and we have.”
A balance squad that finds ways to win, these Stars have continued to put a smile on the veteran leader in what has been a shining season.
“The best thing about this bunch is they always have fun and are just a great group of kids,” says Reavis. “I have not had to worry about any of them getting in trouble and they all work hard to get better every day. This has been a lot of fun so far, we just hope it continues.”
Now that the 146th running of the Preakness Stakes is in the books…what have we learned?
First and foremost, the only predictable thing on days like this is unpredictability. Like the first leg of the Triple Crown series (Medina Spirit, Kentucky Derby, 12-1), we had a runner going off at double digit odds upset the apple cart. Rombauer’s romp at odds of 11-1 was certainly a surprise to some, but his 3 ½ length score left no doubt as to who was the best horse on that day.
In the big races the jockey can be of the utmost importance. Flavien Prat is the leading rider on the West coast. Routinely registering more wins than anyone in California, this flying Frenchman has been one of the “money” riders since moving to the United States in 2015. As the mile and three sixteenths Preakness unfolded at Pimlico, Prat piloted his runner with confidence. Understanding the stalking style of this son of Twirling Candy, Prat waited for exactly the right moment to hit the gas pedal. As the stretch drive unfolded, he deftly swung outside the tiring front runners and booted his charge home with authority.
Rombauer’s win also told us you can’t always judge a book by it’s cover. A quick glance at his past performances said two wins in six starts and he did not run in the Kentucky Derby. Why on earth would you think he could win the Preakness? This is where you have to look inside and read some of the pages to understand. Having run at four different tracks in those six races including two ships east for starts at Keeneland, this El Camino Real Derby winner had been competitive in every start. Having not run in the Kentucky Derby, he was coming in a bit fresher than those that raced just two weeks earlier. And that win at Golden Gate Fields in the El Camino was a stalking trip where he overtook frontrunning speed at the end. The blueprint for Derby winner Medina Spirit was to get out and go which set things up for this Michael McCarthy trained runner. Also, you knew he was battle tested as five of those six starts were in Stakes races.
As is the case with any athlete, being at the top of your mountain is catamount on game day. McCarthy no doubt had his horse primed for another big effort. The works leading up to the race had all been stellar and his past runs left no doubt he belonged here. Coming in with a dream, the Rombauer team was all smiles after the beautiful execution of a great game plan.
Lastly and perhaps of the greatest importance, we once again learned this is the greatest sport in the world. A combination of so many layers, Thoroughbred racing is something that allows many to be king for a day.
After the shakeout of another historic Kentucky Derby there is perhaps a little head scratching going on. Regardless of what happened May 1, we are now off to the Preakness. Of course, the folks in Maryland say the reason they run the Derby is to decide who is good enough to make the starting gates at Pimlico. The mile and three sixteenths at Old Hilltop is usually thought to be a speed favoring race, so let’s take a look at the ten entrants for the Triple Crown’s second jewel and get a thought on each. Post time is slated for 5:47 central time on May 15.
1 Ram (30-1)– This son of American Pharoah is trained by six time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas and has now won two races in a row. Having never raced in Stakes company the questions abound, but his win at Churchill on Derby day was pretty powerful. A longshot to use in your exotics as he appears to be a horse on the rise.
2 Keepmeinmind (15-1)- Six of seven career starts have been in graded stakes company but this son of Laoban has won only once. A seventh place finish in the Kentucky Derby has some wondering why he enters here, but the fact is they are only three-year olds once. He will likely be forgotten at the windows, but stranger things have happened.
3 Medina Spirit (9-5)- The Kentucky Derby winner comes back looking good after a fantastic front-running effort. Trainer Bob Baffert has won this race seven times before as speed is his calling card and the game plan is likely the same…break well and take them all the way. A real fighter, there should be plenty of Spirit under jockey Johnny Velazquez.
4 Crowded Trade (10-1)-Lightly raced with only three career starts, trainer Chad Brown won the 2017 Preakness with new shooter Cloud Computing. A third place finish in the Wood Memorial in his last start means this son of More Than Ready needs to step it up, but Brown has a knack for getting lightly raced runners ready. Not one we will trade our money for.
5 Midnight Bourbon (5-1)-Trained by two-time Preakness winner Steve Asmussen, this son of Tiznow is coming back after a sixth place finish in the Derby. Normally a horse that breaks well, his courageous style could pose a problem to the other speed horses in the race. His seven previous starts were all top three finishes against good company. A dangerous horse that should be there at the end.
6 Rombauer (12-1) This winner of the El Camino Real Derby was third in his last start in the Blue Grass Stakes. A son of Twirling Candy and trained by Mike McCarthy, jockey Flavian Prat gives him an advantage as the little Frenchman is one of the best in the game today. He can close with authority so if the front end speed is too hot he might be an upsetter.
7 France Go Da Ina (20-1)-A mystery horse that ships over from Japan, this son of Will Take Charge has only ran once this year and that was a sixth place finish in Dubai. In this his first try on American soil, his biggest asset may be jockey Joel Rosario. He has two wins in four career starts, but not likely to be on our tickets.
8 Unbridled Honor (15-1)- Amazingly enough, trainer Todd Pletcher has never won this race and he comes in here with a runner that has not won a race since February. With only five career starts and one win, his second place finish in the Lexington Stakes gives the hall of fame conditioner reason to believe…but not us…we look elsewhere for Honor.
9 Risk Taking (15-1) Another Chad Brown runner, this son of Medaglia d’Oro was a disappointing seventh in the Wood last out. Having the services of jockey Jose Ortiz is a major plus, but this Withers Stakes winner has never raced outside New York. Picking him to win is certainly Taking a Risk, but playing this Chad Brown runner in your exotics might be worthwhile. He certainly poses a threat.
10 Concert Tour (5-2)-Which version of this horse shows up? Will it be the dominating speed merchant that romped in the Rebel Stakes or the less than courageous fellow that flopped in the Arkansas Derby when challenged? Trainer Bob Baffert puts his go to guy Mike Smith aboard and we think this son of Street Sense shows up big here. Being on the outside is likely a good thing for him as a clean break should put him on the front end where he needs to be. If he outbreaks his stable mate look out.
One of the great things about Thoroughbred horse racing is it allows a hillbilly turf writer the opportunity to get philosophical. Do the words “hillbilly” and “philosophical” belong in the same sentence?… Just follow along and then render the verdict.
The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby provided another valuable lesson. The wonderful thing about this game is it offers a more simplistic view on some of the important values of a bigger game we all play…the game of life.
Bob Baffert came to Louisville looking for a record-breaking seventh training win in the world’s most famous race. Injury and other circumstances had depleted a once powerful lineup of runners in the Baffert barn, but the hall of fame conditioner still had a determined runner left in the batting order. So what do you do when you have lemons…you send lemonade to the plate and let him take a swing.
Medina Spirit had always shown a willingness to battle and just had a little something-something about him Baffert admires. A $35,000 purchase by Zedan Racing Stables, this Florida bred son of Protonico always ran hard and had never been worse than second in five career starts. Runner-up finishes in his previous two starts (San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby) had most thinking he had little chances at giving his connections Kentucky Derby glory.
Doing what Bob Baffert does, his team went to work preparing their Spirit for a run at glory. Even though the highly skilled and defending Derby rider John Velazquez was in the irons, the Medina team was totally under the radar in this edition. Baffert had worked to get his runner as right as he could be, now it was time to roll the dice and just have fun.
“I came in knowing he was tough and we had him ready, but we needed a lot of things to go right”, says Baffert. “We came in under the radar and I didn’t want anyone on our team to get too excited. We just wanted to enjoy being here and hope for the best. I have been to some Derbies that I didn’t think I could lose and then I lost. The night before the Derby every trainer and every owner thinks they are going to win the Kentucky Derby. Then the gates open and the whole scenario changes.”
The scenario did indeed change as Johnny V executed his game plan of getting Medina away from the gate well and making a comfortable lead. Guiding the field of nineteen through solid opening fractions (23.09 opening quarter, 46.7 half mile)things were falling into place. Moving with ease down the back stretch, the rider’s confidence grew as he felt the power of the Spirit beneath him. Turning for home and still running out front, things looked as if they might just get real.
As the race caller bellowed “and down the stretch they come” a hard running Mandaloun charged forward along with highly regarded Hot Rod Charlie and race favorite Essential Quality. Here is where the Spirit showed his heart and those admirable qualities that had put him in the Baffert barn. Refusing to let anyone by, Medina hunkered down and dug in. Continuing to gobble up ground, he found the wire a half length in front of Mandaloun and a length in front of Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality.
“We knew we had the jockey and he always does such a great job of getting horses away from the gate”, says Baffert. “It was a team effort and this horse showed me he was a helluva lot better than I thought he was. This is one of my biggest Derby wins and certainly one of the most thrilling.”
So here is the moral to an unlikely Cinderella story involving Bob Baffert. So I know you are asking do the words “Cinderella” and “Bob Baffert” belong in the same sentence. The answer here is yes. What put this all together and made it happen? The simple answer is faith. Faith is something that makes life so much better in every aspect and that was what guided a gifted athlete and a great coach to historic heights.
Big Race Bob has flat toted the mail during his time as he has delivered more grade 1 wins than any trainer in history. In winning the last two Kentucky Derbies with what were considered longer shots (Authentic 6-1 and Medina Spirit 12-1), he has proven his program works and does not need an overwhelming favorite to get it done. Faith in his people and his process has provided perhaps his most gratifying win beneath the twin spires.
Medina Spirit showed us all faith in what you stand for is rewarding. You can’t put a price tag on heart and even though he may have had a relatively modest purchase price, he can still run like he’s worth millions (or at least $1.8 million which was his winner’s purse).
Faith in doing the right things can be a guiding light as we know it can be a path for greatness to happen. In this case for the Medina Spirit team and Bob Baffert…it DID happen.
The goal of any athlete is to finish strong. Ted Williams launched a dinger in his final at bat. John Elway won the Super Bowl in his final game. American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup in his final race. You get the idea. Carter Biankowski may not be in quite the same category, but the kid turned in some superior performances the last time he swam for Smyrna High School.
In a tough sport that requires lots of work and dedication, Biankowski has been one that has paid his dues. Wearing the purple and gold since his freshman year, he has evolved into a versatile performer that always represented Smyrna High Swimming in all the right ways. In this, his senior year, Carter hoped to become top Dog.
During the past two seasons, Covid restrictions have limited opportunities for this young man. Wanting to etch his name in the record books at Smyrna, Biankowski came up just short during the regular season, but would have one more chance in a reconditioned State meet. Eager to prove his worth, the dedicated Bulldog went to Ensworth with a simple goal of turning in his best times in the 100 yard Breaststroke and the 50 yard Freestyle.
As is the case in most sports, competing against the best can often times bring out the best in an athlete. On the season’s biggest stage, Biankowski put on a show that will not soon be forgotten by the Bulldogs. Paddling with a passion, this determined Dog broke school records in both events. His 50 freestyle time (22:82 ) and 100 breaststruck time (1:02.12) eclipsed the marks of previous record setters John Anderson (50 free) and Cameron Grey (100 breaststruck).
“Carter is a kid that has been totally dedicated to being his best for Smyrna,” says Bulldog swim coach Tony Trumphour. “He came from a gymnastics background as a middle schooler and I think that really helped because he understood the importance of utilizing your entire body. His versatility in the water is amazing because he can swim every stroke in a very proficient manner.”
Even though Biankowski was prohibited from swimming in the Region Swim meet as he was deemed “too fast” because of his State qualifying times, he had qualifying times in all 8 individual events. Had he been able to participate in Region other records may have fallen including relay team marks.
Omission from the Region wound up not being a factor for Biankowski as when it was time to perform… he did. As Carter swims away from Smyrna his name will be on the wall in recognition of his record setting performances.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Carter Biankowski”, says Trumphour. “He has been a great representative of our program and we are really happy to have had him as a Bulldog.”