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.”
Smyrna high school swimming has long been a source of excellence for the Bulldogs and this season was no different. In a Covid altered year, these aquatic canines exceeded expectations with another fine season.
Under the expert guidance of veteran coach Tony Trumphour, the Bulldogs finished 2021 with a flourish. Eleven swimmers turned in Region qualifying times in forty eight different events. Two of those swimmers were prohibited from participation at the Region meet as they also turned in State meet qualifying times.
The two State qualifiers both made up for lost time when their opportunity arose. Tyler Addison swam season best times in both the 50 freestyle and the 100 butterfly. Carter Biankowski broke Smyrna high school records in both the 50 freestyle (22.82) and 100 breaststroke (1:02.12).
Those Dogs that were Region meet qualifiers included the likes of Kayelie Anguiano, Julia Mangrum, Josh Holmes, Blake Intorcia, Michael Mason, Austin Mills, Billy Mitma, Andrew Painter, and Kevin Van Dyke.
All those participating swimmers represented the purple and gold in fine fashion. Finishing in the top 16 in their respective events were Julia Mangrum (16th 100 butterfly), Billy Mitma (16th 100 butterfly), Austin Mills (5th 200 individual medley, 5th 100 backstroke), and Kevin Van Dyke 4th 50 freestyle, 16th 100 freestyle).
“These kids did a great job during a very challenging year”, says Trumphour. “They all were willing to put in the work that it takes to excel and the changing schedule made it a little tougher. Truly representing the spirit of the Bulldog, our team found a way to represent this program in a way we could all be proud of.”
Crazy Beautiful is an aptly named filly in this year’s Oaks
The day before the Kentucky Derby is quite magical. The Kentucky Oaks is a race for the top three year old females and it too has been contested for 147 years. As we know, girls are the real rulers of the world, so let’s take a quick look-see at the fourteen fantastic females that will be running for their shot at immortality.
1 Pauline’s Pearl (20-1)- Trained by Steve Asmussen, this daughter of Tapit was a winner in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park in her last start. My be a gem worth playing at that price.
2 Maracuja (20-1)-This daughter of Honor Code has finished in the top three in all four career starts with one win. A second place finish in the Gazelle Stakes last out was her only Stakes run.
3 Clairiere (5-1)-Another Steve Asmussen trained prime timer, this daughter of Curlin has alternated finishing first and second in her four career starts. A second in the Fair Grounds Oaks last time means Churchill’s leading rider from last season, Tyler Gafflione, may be primed this time.
4 Crazy Beautiful (15-1)-Fantastic name for this Kenny McPeek trainee. Her last start was a win in the Gulfstream Park Oaks and she has three wins and three seconds in seven career starts. Jose Ortiz rides and she is pretty enough to win here.
5 Pass the Champagne (15-1)-Unraced at two, her three year old campaign has seen two seconds and a win in three starts. Trained by George Weaver, this daughter of Flatter will be her namesake with a win here.
6 Travel Column (3-1)Winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks, this daughter of Frosted is our pick to take the Lillies. Trainer Brad Cox won this race last year (Shedaresthedevil) and in 2018 (Monomoy Girl).
7 Ava’s Grace (50-1)- After winning her debut at Ellis Park, this daughter of Laoban has ran third twice and was second in the Fantasy Stakes. She may not be quite graceful enough here.
8 Moraz (30-1)-West coast shipper for trainer Mike McCarthy has yet to win in Stakes company but has hit the board in all three tries. A big test but jock Flavien Prat might get her in the money again.
9 Coach (50-1) A Brad Cox trained Luis Saez ridden runner that is 50-1 ???? Not a likely winner but with a win at Churchill to her credit and that combo it makes you wonder…
10 Malathaat (5-2) A deserving favorite, this Todd Pletcher trained daughter of Curlin is unbeaten in four starts. Her only start this year was a convincing win in the Ashland at Keeneland.
11 Will’s Secret (30-1) A third place finish in the Ashland was preceded by three consecutive wins including the Honeybee at Oaklawn Park. Trainer Dallas Stewart has a knack for pulling upsets as he won this race with Lemons Forever in 2006 at odds of 47-1. Just sayin’….
12 Search Results (3-1)- Unraced at two, this Chad Brown trained daughter of Flatter won the Gazelle Stakes in her last start. With jockey Irad Ortiz in the irons she certainly could yield some great results.
13 Competitive Speed (50-1)-Has not won since January and last three starts have produced a sixth and two thirds. To be Competitive in this one needs to have more speed.
14 Millefeuille (20-1) Trainer Bill Mott will have this daughter of Curlin ready but the outside post may be a bit of a challenge in the short run to the first turn. She has only one win in five career starts but using her in the exotic wagers might not be a bad idea.
The 147th run for the roses is now upon us. Immortality awaits the winner of this mile and a quarter drive over the Churchill Downs dirt. Which three year old will etch his name in the record books? Let’s take a look at the entrants and get a thought on each. We know you can pick your friends and we know you can pick your clothes…but can you pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby???
Essential Quality- Unbeaten Juvenile champion has done everything right and has lived up to his moniker to this point. Brad Cox trainee is a very deserving favorite and certainly is the one to beat.
Hot Rod Charlie-Louisiana Derby champ ran second to Essential Quality in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 94-1. Has raced seven times at four different tracks for trainer Doug O’Neill and seems to be peaking at right time. Our top pick to get the checkered flag here.
Super Stock- Upset winner of the Arkansas Derby and has some sentimental value as Churchill’s all-time leader in training wins Steve Asmussen saddles him for owner and father Keith. Asmussen has never won the Derby and it will take a big run from this son of Dialed In to make it happen in 2021
Like The King-Jeff Ruby Steaks winner has a lot to prove if he hopes to wear the Derby crown. Trained by Wesley Ward, this son of Belmont Stakes champ Palace Malice has finished in the money in all six career starts with three wins.
Known Agenda- Florida Derby winner and a son of Curlin, this Todd Pletcher trainee has two wins in three starts this year. Tactical speed gives him a chance to put a trip to the winner’s circle on the Agenda for owner St Elias Stables.
Rock Your World- Unbeaten in three lifetime starts, this son of Candy Ride has started only once on dirt but it was a jaw-dropping romp in the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer John Sadler has sent four others to the gates on the first Saturday in May, but this may be his best yet. If he gets loose on the lead he might just rock everybody’s world.
Bourbonic-Huge upset winner of the Wood Memorial stamped his ticket with a late drop from the clouds. If the front end falls on it’s face he might pick up the pieces at the end for trainer Todd Pletcher, but a big drink from the bottle is a safer bet.
Medina Spirit-A horse that always runs hard, this son of Protonico is trained by six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert and that certainly means something. Injury and such has knocked out Baffert’s more highly acclaimed runners and make no mistake he will have his Spirit in top form…it just may not be good enough here.
Midnight Bourbon-Another Steve Asmussen trainee, this tough running son of Tiznow has two wins in seven lifetime starts, but has been in the money every time. Probably needs a few drinks to win here, but could be in the money again as jockey Mike Smith gets the mount.
Mandaloun- A great work horse, this son of Into Mischief threw in a clunker in the Louisiana Derby but has given off great signs since. Trainer Brad Cox hopes this runner keeps his work boots on when the gates open on May 1.
Highly Motivated-Trainer Chad Brown wins a lot but has never had a Kentucky Derby winner. A strong second in the Bluegrass Stakes told us this son of Into Mischief is for real. Five career starts has yielded two wins, two seconds and a third. He could be there at the end.
Helium-With only three career starts under his saddle with one being on dirt, this Tampa Bay Derby winner may go off at long odds, but he seems to be a runner on the rise for trainer Mark Casse. Certainly worth a play as he could be one that shakes it all up.
Soup and Sandwich- Another Casse trained runner, his second place effort in the Florida Derby was quite tasty. Also lightly raced, this son of Into Mischief has two wins and that second in three lifetime starts. Will need a career best to be Soup du jour in this bowl.
Dynamic One-Trainer Todd Pletcher has started more horses than anyone on Derby day and this is another. Just a nose away from winning the Wood Memorial in his last start, he needs to be more Dynamic to win this one.
Sainthood-Ran second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks for you guessed it, trainer Todd Pletcher. Represents powerhouse WinStar Farms but needs a holy performance to be blessed in this one.
Hidden Stash-Trained by Victoria Oliver, this son of Constitution has a win in allowance company at Churchill in 2020, but is winless as a three-year old. A fourth place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes in his last start was preceded by a second in the Tampa Bay Derby. Needs to find some Hidden something to be there in this one.
O Besos- Ran a closing third in the Louisiana Derby in his last start and has made his way into the field due to defections. Trained by Greg Foley, this son of former Derby champion Orb needs to translate another big effort to hit the board.
King Fury- Upset winner of the Lexington Stakes comes in hot for trainer Kenny McPeek and jockey Brian Hernandez, both Churchill staples. The King might be there in the end to pick up some of the pieces at a nice price.
Keepmeinmind- Once a horse that was highly thought of, a lack of big runs at three has left him winless in 2021. Trainer Robertino Diodoro gets in because of some late defections. Has won at Churchill at two, but been a bit lackluster since.
Brooklyn Strong- This son of Wicked Strong finished his two year old campaign with wins in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes and in the Remsen Stakes. With only one start in 2021, a fifth place in the Wood Memorial, this Danny Velazquez trainee needs to be plenty strong if he hopes to be in the money.
Shawn Middleton (right) enjoyed his 100th win as leader of the Siegel Lady Stars with trusted assistant Tim Westfall by his side.
When you are sitting at the Texas hold’em table and those first two cards are dealt, the best you can likely hope for is a pocket pair of aces. The other players may not initially know how good you have it, but in the end, everyone figures it out.
Rutherford County high school sports has long been a high stakes game. Talented players and good coaches have made life especially exciting over the past two decades. Deeply rooted in this game have been two devoted leaders that may have not always gotten their just due. Recently, each reached a milestone number with their current teams and these cards were revealed as the aces some already knew they were.
Shawn Middleton of Siegel and Lonnie Drayton at Smyrna have been dedicated men that have been delivering the goods for many seasons. Having coached multiple sports in Rutherford County over the years, they have positively influenced the lives of many young athletes. Both are now deeply immersed in the sport of girl’s softball and recently each won their 100th game as leaders of their respective program.
Shawn Middleton has been a magical force since first walking onto the Smyrna high campus in 1998 as an assistant football coach. As an assistant in football, boy’s basketball, baseball, softball, and the head coach in girl’s basketball at Smyrna, this Riverdale graduate helped raise many Bulldogs. Having led the Siegel softball program to all-new heights over the past four seasons, interestingly enough, Coach Mid reached the 100 mark with a win over Smyrna.
“I honestly didn’t even think about that number until after the game”, says Middleton. “I just care about my kids and the little things we do to make each other better on and off the field. The 100 is not about Shawn Middleton, it is about all the great players I have had over the past four seasons.”
Lonnie Drayton is cut from a similar cloth. A 1995 graduate of Smyrna high, Drayton has nothing but purple and gold pulsing through his veins. In 2003 he became an assistant to the legendary Steve Willey at Smyrna and has been on Bulldog drive ever since. As a head coach in both boys and girls basketball at different times, Drayton has also guided many Dogs in the right direction. Having assumed the leash for the softball program some six seasons ago, this devoted Bulldog has re-installed the bite for the 2013 class AAA state champs. Hitting the 100 win mark is something the dedicated Drayton puts in perspective.
“I don’t even think about any of those numbers regarding myself”, says the one-time Bulldog basketball sharpshooter. “None of this happens without having great players and a great staff. The number 100 is about them more so than me.”
It is obvious these two have some similarities in their approach. Perhaps that is why they have both enjoyed popularity with players and parents alike.
“I have always been a player’s coach and try and communicate with kids based on them and their mentality,” says Middleton. “You have to know your personnel and what makes them tick. You try and always problem solve and move forward with your players. Having great people around you makes things easier and guys like my assistant at Siegel, Tim Westfall, is what really makes it happen.”
“For me it has always been about the culture of this softball program”, says Drayton. “I really enjoy coaching this sport, but you can’t have success without support from your staff, players and parents.”
These two are both unassuming and selfless in their approach. Each has succeeded in one of the most competitive sports in Rutherford County. If they happened to be a pocket pair before, make no mistake, the cards are now on the table and Shawn Middleton and Lonnie Drayton are no doubt aces in the coaching world. And for the record, Siegel is currently sitting atop the district standings with Smyrna nipping at their heels in second.
Remember when you went out on Halloween night and got a sack full of candy. After returning home it was fun to sort through and hopefully you would find the special piece that was your favorite. As the May 1 Kentucky Derby approaches, Thoroughbred trainer John Sadler is hoping he has a special piece of Candy that he can unwrap for all to enjoy.
Rock Your World is a lightly raced but unbeaten son of Candy Ride that Sadler will send to the starting gates for the world’s most famous race. The California based conditioner’s World punched his ticket to Churchill Downs with an emphatic gate to wire win in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3. Making just his third career start but first on dirt, his romp opened a lot of eyes in the horse racing world.
“Truthfully, he ran beyond our expectations,” says Sadler. “We always thought he had a lot of potential, but we never expected him to run as well as he did in his first start in graded stakes company and his first start on dirt.”
Rock Your World had enjoyed wins over the Santa Anita turf course in the first two starts of his career. Unraced at two, he broke his maiden in a six furlong turf race on New year’s Day. Following that up with a win at a mile on the grass in the Pasadena Stakes at Santa Anita, the stage was set for his dirt debut. The Kentucky Derby was not at the forefront of his racing plans, but after he Rocked it on April 3, it was on.
“Our main goal was to just let him develop as a race horse,” says Sadler, who has saddled four previous runners in the Kentucky Derby. “We wanted to find out if he was a Derby horse and I think we got our answer in his last start.”
Interestingly enough, this will be the third son of Candy Ride that Sadler takes to the twin spires for a Run at the Roses. In 2010 he saddled Sidney’s Candy (17th place finish) and in 2014 it was Candy Boy (14th). Although he never ran on the first Saturday in May, Twirling Candy may have been his best son of Candy Ride as he won seven races with a second and a third in eleven career starts for the Sadler barn.
Of course, the legendary father of these runners will go down as one of the best to ever toe the track. Bred in Argentina, Candy Ride was unbeaten in six career starts and had that special greatness about him that just does not come along every day. Closing his career with a win in the 2003 Pacific Classic, his smooth stride was impeccable.
“We have been fortunate enough to have quite a few Candy Ride horses in our barn over the years,” says Sadler. “He was a really special race horse for sure. I am hoping we have some of that brilliance with Rock Your World.”
Come May 1, we will all find out just how special Sadler’s piece of Candy really is.
The time is here to think Kentucky Derby. Which horse are you riding?…What’s that…you don’t know who to pick?…Here is one to consider and he might just provide a nice payday should things go his way on May 1.
One of the best ways to determine your selection is find a runner that is ready. Obviously talent is very important, but having their horse in peak form for the first Saturday in May is every trainer’s goal. One of those blossoming three-year olds that appears to be on the rise is Helium.
Running out of the Mark Casse barn, Helium stamped himself as a contender with an ultra-impressive run in winning the Tampa Bay Derby on March 6. Coming from off the pace, this son of Ironicus made a 5 wide move at the top of the stretch and captured the lead. Running with a dogged determination down the lane, this grandson of 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch gamely held on to win by ¾ of a length.
The margin of victory was certainly not great, but the way in which he won was what impressed all including his conditioner.
“That was one of the most incredible performances I have seen during my 40 years in this game”, says Casse, who won the 2019 Preakness (War of Will) and Belmont Stakes (Sir Winston). “He had so many things go against him but still found a way to win. The biggest thing was the wide trip which means he ran a lot further than the rest of the horses.”
Another factor that makes the Tamp performance freakish is the fact it was his first start on dirt. The first two races for Helium came during his two-year old season as he won seven furlong events on the synthetic all weather track at Woodbine in Ontario, Canada. In September of 2020 he won by 3 ¼ lengths and then followed that with a 4 ¼ length win in October. Shipping to Tampa for the first start of his three-year old season, Helium gassed the competition with that huge run.
“His works had told us he deserved a shot on the dirt”, says Casse. “We knew he had plenty of talent and his pedigree says grass, but he had given us plenty of signs that says he can be great no matter what surface he runs on. We couldn’t have been more happy with how he performed at Tampa.”
Old school Kentucky Derby thinkers have always thought horses needed to race four to five weeks before the big day. Training has changed in recent times and many of those old “do’s” and “don’t do’s” have been put out to pasture. Knowing his horse and understanding the sport he has been involved in since the mid 1970’s, Casse has decided to train Helium up to the Derby and not run him until that first Saturday in May.
“He came out of the Tampa Bay Derby in great shape and we are cranking him back up now,” says the eleven time Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s top Thoroughbred trainer. “We know he fires well off the bench and we thought it would be better for him to just train instead of racing again.”
In covering the mile and a sixteenth at Tampa in 1:43.55, Helium earned 50 qualifying points. That currently has him sitting 15th on the list with the top 20 earning a berth in the starting gates. Barring some majorly unforeseen happenings in the Arkansas Derby on April 10, that should be enough to get Casse’s charge into the starting gates.
“We feel as if he is headed in the right direction”, says Casse. “Helium is doing very weel and will be at Churchill Downs this week to start settling in.He will be ready to run on the first Saturday in May.”
Rutherford County has been blessed with many fine athletes over the years. Recent times have really magnified this as increased population and more high schools have produced talented kids in many different sports. Mainstream games like baseball, basketball, and football have put plenty of kids in the college spotlight, but in 2021, the athlete that is perhaps shining the brightest is a gymnast from Siegel.
Hannah McCrary graduated as a Siegel Star in 2018 and dove right into college as a gymnast at the University of Missouri. Having been one of the most highly regarded youngsters in her trade in the Southeast, McCrary made the decision to head to Mizzou with big goals in mind.
“Growing up here I really wanted to be in the Southeastern Conference and I felt like Missouri was the best fit for me,” says McCrary. “Our coach (Shannon Wilker) is always pushing the program to be better and the culture here is exactly what I wanted. Everyone gets a fair opportunity and those that work the hardest everyday get the chance to perform.”
Now a junior for the Tigers, McCrary actually committed to Missouri as a freshman while at Siegel in 2015. Having built her gymnastic foundation since first toeing the tumbling mat at age 4 ½, Hannah has put in countless hours over the years with a simple goal of being the best she can be.
Currently, those efforts have earned this daughter of former Oakland high school football standout Johnny McCrary a spot on the NCAA Nationals to be held in Fort Worth, Texas on April 16. A brilliant performance in the Tuscaloosa Regional saw Hannah nail her floor routine and earn the top score with a 9.925. A true demonstration of her outstanding all-around gymnastic skills, McCrary has seemingly found her niche.
“The floor routine just comes natural to me,” says Hannah. “I have learned how to have fun with it and just be myself. Relaxing and just enjoying it all have been very important aspects in developing a good routine.”
Perhaps the most demanding of any collegiate sport, gymnastics can separate contenders from pretenders. Drive, determination, and a lot of faith has helped McCrary reach these lofty heights.
“Most people don’t realize the hard work it takes to be good in this sport,” says the psychology major. “I have practiced between 20 and 40 hours every week since I was very small. I always strive to be at that next level. Looking to take that next step while trusting in God and believing in myself is the goal. I thank God every day for the strength he has given me and the many blessings He has bestowed upon me. That faith has helped me through some tough times and now I have a chance to compete in the Nationals.”
McCrary will represent the Tigers in the individual portion of the Nationals as the Missouri team did not score well enough to advance out of the Regionals. Eager to represent her college and the folks here in Middle Tennessee, Hannah will be a shining example for all no matter what the judges score may read.
“It is an honor to represent Missouri and be part of the progress the gymnastics program has made in recent times,” says McCrary. “I have always tried to do what was best for the team and work hard every day. It has not been an easy road but I am very happy to have a chance to compete doing what I love to do.”
When does a hillbilly turf writer think about the Kentucky Derby?…Pretty much all the time. When does the every day sports fan think about the world’s most famous race? With about a month to go, the time to get behind a horse is upon us all. With that in mind, let’s examine our top ten Kentucky Derby contenders entering the week. As we all know, things in this game can change at a moments notice. The best looking three year old in our eyes was Life Is Good out of the Bob Baffert barn, but an injury last week in training has put him on the shelf for 60 days. For right now, these are the ones hot on our list. As we have asked many times before, “can you pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby? “ Let’s get out of the gate…
1 Concert Tour- He’s got a lot going for him, speed, two stakes wins, unbeaten in 3 career starts, his pappy Street Sense won the 2007 Kentucky Derby, but most importantly he runs out of the Bob Baffert barn.
2 Essential Quality- Unbeaten in four career starts including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Trainer Brad Cox is one of the best in the business but is still searching for Derby glory. Gets his final test in the Bluegrass Stakes on April 3 at Keeneland.
3 Hot Rod Charlie- Two lifetime wins in seven career starts but has been in top three six times including runner up at Breeders’ Cup. Showed plenty of horsepower in recent Louisiana Derby win and conditioner Doug O’Neill has won the Derby twice before (2012, 2016).
4 Known Agenda- Florida Derby win told us this son of Curlin has great tactical speed and is headed in the right direction. Trainer Todd Pletcher has been to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle twice as well (2010, 2017).
5 Caddo River-This son of the hard-knocking Hard Spun looked fantastic in the Smarty Jones but was a disappointing fifth in the Rebel Stakes. Gets a chance to rebound in the Arkansas Derby on April 10 and he needs qualifying points to get in for trainer Brad Cox.
6 Greatest Honour- Three wins in a row had him looking like perhaps THE one, but then the Florida Derby exposed his trip dependency as a closer. Big finishing kick means he is always dangerous for veteran trainer Shug McGauhey.
7 Medina Spirit- A runner with courage and plenty of fight, this son of Protonico has been first or second in four lifetime starts (2 wins). The only horse to beat him was his highly regarded stable mate Life Is Good. Bob Baffert trained and dangerous for sure.
8 Mandaloun- Another Brad Cox runner with lots of talent. Looked fantastic in Risen Star Stakes win but was flat as a pancake in Louisiana Derby. One of his three career wins came at Churchill.
9 Helium- Unbeaten in three lifetime starts with two on the grass and one VERY impressive win on dirt in the Tampa Bay Derby. Trainer Mark Casse won the 2019 Preakness and Belmont Stakes and seems to have a horse on the rise with this son of Ironicus.
10 Dream Shake- Son of Twirling Candy has only raced twice, a super impressive maiden win over a talented field and a third in the San Felipe behind Life Is Good and Medina Spirit. Will be running for his spot in the Churchill starting gates on April 3 in the Santa Anita Derby for trainer Peter Eurton.
The 2021 Doris Coady Rutherford County Swimming Championships employed an all-new format but the end results were very familiar…Oakland Patriot dominance.
For the first time ever, three sessions were used to allow for the proper protocol considering the world’s current situation. The girl’s events were in one session, the boy’s in another, and the top qualifiers swam in the finals during a third round.
At the end of the day after the final scores were tallied, the Patriot swimmers left the others in the bubbles of their wake. The Oakland boys were easily the best as they tallied 122 point to second place Central’s 52. On the girl’s side Oakland was once again much the best as they garnered 138 points and Central was once again second best with 51. The final team totals were Oakland 260, Central 103, Riverdale 57, Blackman 43, and Middle Tennessee Christian 32.
On an individual basis, senior Colin Tindall was superb as he won the 200 freestyle and set a meet record (51.92) in winning the 100 butterfly. Fellow senior Breaton LaLonde won the 200 individual medley.
The Lady Patriots had huge performances from a number of seniors. Lily Resha won both the 50 and 100 freestyle and established a new meet record (55.65) in the 100. Melissa Maheu took the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly, Kelley Orr was victorious in the 500 freestyle and 100 backstroke, and Katherine Jordan was the 100 breast stroke champion.
With another County championship in the books, the Patriot swimmers will now turn their focus to the Region and State championship meets.
Analyzing the Louisiana Derby
So what really makes a Hot Rod run fast? Is it the dual line double pumping quadrajet carburetor? Maybe the bored 40 over cylinders with an Edelbrock intake manifold does the trick. Perhaps the positive traction rear end with the turbo 400 transmission and the Muncie shift kit plays a factor. Could it also be that Big Daddy Don Garlits is sitting behind the wheel?
All those can play a part, but how in the hillbilly does that relate to the Louisiana Derby? We are going to take a moment and break it down for those scoring at home.
Coming into this $1 million dollar edition of the Louisiana Derby some questions were bouncing around about the West Coast invader named Hot Rod Charlie. Running out of the Doug O’Neill barn, some wondered why he was shipping to the Big Easy. Of course the short answer is there was a million good reasons…but in reality it was a lot more than that. The grade 2 centerpiece of the Fairgrounds race course offers 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner and a likely spot in the world’s most famous race. Also the spacing of the race between his last start and the first Saturday in May were very attractive to the Hot Rod team.
So here it was March 20 and Charlie stepped into the starting gates facing a group of beastly boys that had been hanging on Bourbon Street the past few months. The highly regarded Mandaloun had won the Risen Star Stakes last out at these Fairgrounds. Midnight Bourbon had displayed an intoxicating run while winning the LeComte over this same dirt and Proxy had been a strong second in both of those events. How would this Hot Rod run over this challenging mile and three sixteenths? The gates opened and we discovered O’Neill and his pit crew were bringing a finely tuned machine to town.
First up, we found out about the posi-trac rear differential. The key to a good start is being able to get out of the hole without spinning the tires. Too much gas too early means you get sideways or maybe even redline and burn a valve. Breaking alertly when the gates opened, Charlie motored to the front with authority. Well within himself, this son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow was off and running without any slip of his racing slicks.
Moving through the first turn, we found out a little about the fuel intake this Hot Rod has under his hood. Pressured throughout, the dual line double pumper was in full force as he cruised down the back stretch with two of the local boys just off the front fender. Race favorite Mandaloun was just outside while Midnight Bourbon was virtually on even terms through solid opening fractions (23.1 quarter, 47.04 half mile). As the fuel ignited and the visiting race team rolled to the top of the stretch, Mandaloun was the first to taste the exhaust fumes from a revved up Hot Rod.
Powering down the long home stretch of the famous Fairgrounds, the benefit of a strong transmission came to the forefront. The ability to maintain a certain RPM level is always important, but the ability to wind out and then shift into another gear makes for a winner. Only a half length in front in the race’s final furlong, you had to wonder if the wire would come quick enough. Bourbon was the hometown boy and he was still right there. And then it happened. At the sixteenth pole, Charlie rose to the challenge and made the most of that Muncie. Finding even more, he sped ahead and left Midnight Bourbon drinking dust. Winning by a convincing two lengths Hot Rod Charlie left little doubt as to who was the most finely tuned runner in this race.
And finally, the Don Garlits of the day was jockey Joel Rosario. An expert at his trade, this was vintage Rosario. Understanding the wheels beneath him, this winner of over 3,000 races guided his mount to the checkered flag in a fashion that would make Big Daddy proud.
“We are very fortunate to have some real grade 1 talents with the runner and the rider,” says a proud O’Neill. “We are so proud and grateful for this colt.”
The kicker for the Hot Rod in this one is he did a burnout in some other boys backyard and in a track record time (1:55.06) to boot. That means his runner up finish in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 94-1 was not a fluke and Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing LLC, and William Strauss will all be sitting in the owner’s box at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
There are many components that make a Hot Rod run. If they all come together at the right time, watch out for the white smoke.