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Waiting For A Champion

144th Belmont Stakes - Preview

By Bill Campbell

If any sport in the land has needed a boost in interest and attendance, it’s horse racing. A colt named I’ll Have Another was poised to give it a shot.

The Belmont Stakes was expecting a big crowd of 100,000 or better because the Triple Crown was on the line last Saturday. Not since Affirmed in 1978 had any horse won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont in the same year. Affirmed had been the third Triple Crown champion in six years, following the legendary Secretariat who’d won it in 1973 and equally-lauded Seattle Slew who’d done it in1977. Of course, there had been a twenty-five year gap between Citation’s win in 1948 and Secretariat’s in 1973. But back in the seventies, Triple Crown candidates seemed a normal part of life, like the New York Yankees being in contention for baseball’s American League pennant every year. Yet when they lined up for the 2012 race, we hadn’t seen a Triple Crown star for thirty-four years. Who would have believed that we would wait at least a generation for another to arrive on the racing scene? I’ll Have Another could have ended the drought, but he had to be scratched from racing the day before the Belmont with swelling in his left foreleg.

If the Belmont people were disappointed, imagine the reaction of the colt’s team – trainer, Doug O’Neill, and owner, Paul Reddam. O’Neill first felt swelling in the front foreleg last Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t there on Friday morning, so the horse went for a brief gallop at 5:30 a.m., and the trainer was hoping for no swelling to recur. Sadly, it did, and a scan was ordered.

“He had been quiet the last few days of galloping. I had hoped it was just a minor skin irritation. We did him up in a special poultice. In the Friday morning gallop, he looked great on the track, but in cooling out the swelling was back. The scan showed the beginning of tendinitis in the left front tendon. As you can imagine, I didn’t feel very good,” O’Neill explained.

“This was just a freakish thing,” O’Neill said. But he also added, “When you have a human or equine athlete who gives 100 percent every time they step on the court or track, they are susceptible to injury. I had been hoping and praying he would stay injury free. It just didn’t happen.”

So I’ll Have Another missed his chance and now will be retired and put out to stud next year. He will end his racing career with a great year, $2.6 million in earnings. But he will probably be valued somewhere between $5 and 10 million, not the $25 or so million as projected before the Belmont. Without this horse going for the big prize, the interest and attendance in horse racing will suffer a bit, particularly on the part of the crowds and TV ratings. When the next crop of three-year-olds comes along in 2013, it will be thirty-five years since the last Triple Crown was won. But the world of sports will always revere a great champion.

The wait continues.

Joe Banner

Some of the most interesting sports headlines to hit the Delaware Valley in years were those noting the departure of Joe Banner form the Eagles’ hierarchy. In the aftermath of Joe’s leaving, everyone is trying to draw conclusions. Some think the Birds’ biggest problem is the owner, Jeffrey Lurie, and his dedication to Head Coach Andy Reid. Others think the biggest issue has been Banner and his rigid “take no prisoners” attitude often displayed in negotiating with player agents. Still others believe that the Phillies enjoy a special relationship with the fans through the media – a relationship that is denied the Eagles and causes some jealousy. Maybe Banner is gone for all of these reasons.

In just about any city, the faces of most professional sports teams are represented by two people: namely, the general manager and the manager. In Philadelphia, that has meant Joe Banner and Andy Reid for the Eagles vs. Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel for the Phillies. In a contest, the Phils would win that one in a rout. It’s always been easier to interview Amaro or Manuel as opposed to Banner or Reid. Ruben is smart, articulate and has a sense of humor. Manuel may not be the most charming or literate guy on the block, but if you’ve ever listened to Andy Reid at a post-game or day-after news conference, it goes without saying that the Phillies’ reps have the edge. Of course, after five straight division titles, a World Series appearance and 102 victories last year, you and I could represent the Phillies decently. But the Eagles, always falling short, with taciturn faces at the helm – they’ve had their problems with the press and the fans.

I’ve often wondered how important front office personnel are in the overall scheme. But the 76ers have been brought back to life and they’re talking about searching for a new president. Now Howie Roseman is the new contract negotiator for the Eagles in Banner’s place – and Jackson, McCoy, Mathis, Cole and others are on board and seem content, happy. –which may be the real reason Banner is gone. Reid is still here – but maybe not on the “hot seat” as Lurie intimated during his strange post-season press conference last winter. Perhaps the front office is listening a little to the fans. Personally, I think it’s beneficial if our teams are concerned about the attitude of those who buy the tickets. The seats cost enough and attendance has been pretty good at most of our teams’ games, the economy notwithstanding. So good-bye, Joe, and good luck.

The Phillies Season

The Phillies, home and away, touched the “minus eight” number in relation to first place. Almost 2,000 days have passed since they were so far removed from the top spot. Ty Wigginton is trying to replace Placido Polanco at third base. He’s having his troubles, with nine errors so far including a recent four in four straight games. Unfortunately, Freddie Galvis, who has played well at both second base and shortstop, has gone to the DL. He was probably the most useful of the Phillies’ fill-ins. But the principal and most controversial topic has been Charlie Manuel’s use of the most expensive bullpen star: Jonathan Papelbon.

In that tough defeat last Sunday in Baltimore, 5-4, Joe Savery was trying to win the game after Michael Schwimmer had pitched three strong innings. Savery was pitching because Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo were unavailable. Many of us, I’m sure, expected to see Papelbon n the mound but Papelbon didn’t even start to warm up with runners at second and third. Later, Manuel explained that Papelbon would pitch only if the Phillies had taken the lead, then he would have come on to pitch for the save. But the Phillies lost on a walk-off hit for the seventh time this season. Papelbon, believe it or not, has not appeared in any of those games. The starter in last Sunday’s game was Cliff Lee, who has yet to win a game going into mid-June. On Sunday, he had a three-run lead and threw a three-run homer into the wheelhouse of Steve Tolleson, whose batting average was 235. Before Sunday, he’d hit two home runs in his entire career. The Phillies show signs of losing their luster.

Still waiting for a champion there too.