Issue no. 15: Too Many Governing Bodies In Horse Racing To Blame For Constant Drug Infractions

  
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-4:20

Three years ago hall of fame thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert told me, “Horse trainers need to stick to training horses and stay out of politics.”

He severed eye contact with me as his answer trailed off. Surveying the room over my left shoulder. Then over my right shoulder. “Why is this reporter not asking me about Justify?” he probably thought to himself.

It was days out from the 2018 Belmont Stakes. Baffert’s super horse Justify was on the precipice of capturing the vaunted Triple Crown, and there I was asking him about the business side of things.

“What do you make of horse racing having 38 jurisdictions instead of a singular governing body?” is what I had asked him, and what fueled his dismissive answer.

I was aware of the moment, and perhaps my question didn’t fit it. But I was also curious to learn what one of the most successful trainers thought of working within a business model where 38 different states police themselves on racing regulations.

Justify would go on to win in dominating fashion days later, giving Baffert his second racehorse in four years to earn the sport’s most elite claim.

What I didn’t know at the time — and nobody knew — was that Justify had failed a drug test a month prior to the 2018 Kentucky Derby. The California Horse Racing Board investigated the case for four months, allowing Justify to compete in, and ultimately with all three legs of the Triple Crown. Justify’s drug tests after each of those Triple Crown races were all clean. However, the drug infraction that occurred beforehand was ultimately disposed of by the board behind closed doors.

So in retrospect, my question to Baffert was probably more sensitive than I had realized. Especially considering how he was being privately scrutinized by California at that time, but publicly mythologized by Kentucky, Maryland and New York — the three states that host the annual Triple Crown.

Horse racing’s lack of uniformity has both aided and punished Baffert in his administering of medical treatment to his horses. Probably more so than any other trainer in the game today.

In his four decades in horse racing, Baffert has had 30 incidents where his horses have failed a drug test. Notably, five have come in the last 13 months.

The latest to carry that fate is Medina Spirit, the temporary winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Temporary because a second positive test for the drug betamethasone, the pain and swelling reducing medication found in Medina Spirit’s system post-race at the Derby, would strip the colt of the win.

But because of Kentucky’s current jurisdictional model, results from that second test aren’t expected for a couple weeks. In the interim, Medina Spirit will continue its pursuit of a now-tarnished Triple Crown.

For the casual horse racing fan who tunes in annually for these three races that span three states from May to June, it’s hard not to be disillusioned by a sport constantly dealing with drug-related issues.

Baffert — whose recognized for his distinguished white hair and as a face of horse racing for many — is not excused from claiming that he doesn’t know what’s happening in his own barns. Nor should he receive sympathy for blaming a cancel culture or people that are supposedly out to get him.

The several states still currently fighting to prevent the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act passed by congress last year from being implemented on July 1, 2022 is the biggest problem.

Horse racing says they want to change, but the actions of the 38 jurisdictions don’t seem to want to turn over control to one authority.

A board appointed by the Federal Trade Commission to be that sole authority on rules and penalties, which is what the law calls for, is horse racing’s only hope at building back trust among its owners, trainers, jockeys and fans.

But Baffert is not the problem in horse racing. Not by a long shot.


Thanks for reading!

And if there's ever a topic you'd like to get my thoughts on, or a question you have, please don't hesitate to ask or suggest something.

Until next time...

-Benjamin Block

Issue no. 14: Yankees Take Series Over Astros; Bullpen Buzzed By Altuve In Finale

  
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-3:28

Don’t tell the New York Yankees that time heals all wounds.

Not in recent memory has a mid-week, three-game affair in May meant so much to a Yankees team. Roughly 18 months after the Houston Astros cheated them out of an earnest run at the 2019 World Series, the Yankees this week were finally afforded the opportunity to rehab that memory. 

And they took it. 

The Yankees won the first two of three games in a springtime slugfest with the Astros, a club they hadn’t faced since October 19, 2019. 

Living rent free in the minds of Yankees players — many of whom remain from that roster two seasons ago — were memories of Astros players striking big hit after big hit en route to beating the Yankees in six games in that American League Championship Series.

That year Houston was just a little better. A litter faster. A littler sharper. Until we found out that they had help.

Not long after the sting of defeat that the Yankees had been nursing, came a lingering contempt by all of baseball and beyond. In January of 2020, an investigation by Major League Baseball revealed that the Astros had implemented cheating advantages, and had been doing so since 2017.

I remember speaking with Yankees then-second baseman and current shortstop Gleyber Torres in February of 2020 to get his reaction to the scandal.

Baiting him to abandon his conditioned media savvy, Torres only allowed himself to admit “frustration” with the news of the scandal. It felt mild and incongruent to the magnitude of the fallout at the time.

As a sports writer, I’ve come to know that athletes tend to withhold rather than flat out lie, so I was unsurprised when Torres told me the following:

“The past is passed, and we forget about that.”  

Yet, with a tightness in his voice, he shied away when I asked him how well he knew some of the Astros players. 

“I have a couple friends on the Astros, but I don’t want to say something wrong.”

New York pummeled Houston for 25 straight innings over three days this week, but the Astros came alive over the final two innings on Thursday. A couple of late home runs against a usually stingy Yankees bullpen got them a win in the series finale and kept them from being swept.

Jose Altuve, the biggest symbol of the Astros cheating scandal, delivered the go-ahead three-run blast, giving Houston a lead late that they would not relinquish.

Fans mercifully booed Altuve for all three games, as they will always associate him with Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS. He allegedly wore a buzzing device alerting him of pitches before they were thrown when he hit the game-winning home run off of Aroldis Chapman that sent the Astros to the World Series.

Eerily, it was an Altuve at-bat again on Thursday that did the Yankees in. I’m sure to many, it was shades of Game 6 all over again.

The only difference is that this time Altuve wasn’t wearing a buzzing device.

Or at least, baseball and its fans hope not. 


Thanks for reading!

And if there's ever a topic you'd like to get my thoughts on, or a question you have, please don't hesitate to ask or suggest something.

Until next time...

-Benjamin Block

Issue no. 13: Yankees' Gleyber Torres For Rockies' Trevor Story Is NON-Story

  
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Do you prefer the term “sell papers” or “get clicks?”

It doesn’t matter.

Regardless of the era you grew up in, a sports writer’s objective remains unchanged, and that is to garner eyeballs.

A mint example of this came from The New York Post’s Joel Sherman, who served up a masterclass in this over the weekend.

In his Saturday column Sherman manufactured a rationale for trading Gleyber Torres to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Trevor Story. Preying on the insecurities of a perpetually fragile Yankees fanbase, the piece did exactly what it set out to do — get people talking.

His unsupported editorial received a lot of traction because Torres has looked timid at shortstop this season, even though he’s only been officially charged with two errors through the team’s first 10 games.

However, this is hardly the first time Torres has heard that his fielding needs work, something he revealed to me at a banquet in February of 2020, where he was being recognized for his off-the-field work.

“I heard too many things like ‘be better defensively.’”

Torres had just inherited the starting shortstop duties, as weeks earlier Didi Gregorius had signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in free agency. And he doubled down on his comfort level with moving from second base to shortstop.

“I’m back to my position, I feel more comfortable…I don’t feel pressure or anything.”

A year has passed since our encounter, and while things move unapologetically swiftly and loudly in New York, I would argue that the sample size on Torres at shortstop is still not large enough to make the organization-shifting decision suggested by Sherman.

According to Baseball Reference, the 24-year-old has played only 148 career games at shortstop, not even a full season’s worth of games at the position.

Also counter to Sherman’s article, the Yankees seemingly invested more confidence in Torres this past offseason when they committed the next six years to DJ LeMahieu to primarily serve as their second baseman.

Furthermore, Torres is contractually — rather inexpensively — under the Yankees’ control through the 2024 season, while Colorado’s Story will become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

I think Sherman’s article was more of a reaction to the overreaction of Yankees fans, more than anything else.

But hey, the business of media, like sports, never has to make sense in order to make dollars.


Thanks for reading!

And if there's ever a topic you'd like to get my thoughts on, or a question you have, please don't hesitate to ask or suggest something.

Until next time...

-Benjamin Block

Issue 12: Only One Thing Matters In Yankees' Pursuit of Championship No. 28

  
0:00
-1:44

As the Yankees open up the 2021 baseball season Thursday at home with a 1:05pm ET start versus the Toronto Blue Jays, remember this fans:

“There is no contingency plan for your best players.”

These words first entered my mind on a brisk Autumn Sunday in 2018. Such a succinctly powerless theory, I remember thinking.

It was WFAN Yankees beat reporter, Sweeny Murti who introduced this line to me. Our seats were adjoining in the designated media row inside Yankee Stadium, recessed along the third-base side. It was game no. 155 of the season. The impetus for our chat: Aaron Judge’s 54-game absence from late July to mid September because of injury.

Admittedly, Sweeny didn’t coin this phrase. He heard former Texas Rangers General Manager John Daniels utter it in 2013 in response to MLB’s suspension of Nelson Cruz and his connection to the Biogenesis scandal.

But its essence resonated all the same.

Star players become unavailable for a myriad of reasons, and — at best — any replacement player or players merely give off an illusion of possibility.

The Yankees have been victimized by this, alarmingly so since 2018.

Simply, the Yankees have the overall roster to win it all in 2021. But their stars — namely Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks — need to stay on the field.

Otherwise, there’s no contingency plan for capturing their 28th world championship.


Thanks for reading!

And if there's ever a topic you'd like to get my thoughts on, or a question you have, please don't hesitate to ask or suggest something.

Until next time...

-Benjamin Block

Issue 11: Nick Kyrgios Good at Self-Sabotage

Four years ago, after I met and spoke with feral tennis player Nick Kyrgios, I eviscerated him in my column for CBSNewYork.

He was low hanging fruit.

He had just been fined for tanking a match in China and verbally abusing a spectator. Subsequently in Mexico he told fans of his Jewish opponent, Dudi Sela, to “shut the f___ up” during their match.

Spending a winter’s day and night in New York for a cash-grab exhibition match at Madison Square Garden, Kyrgios exuded the peripatetic nature of a professional tennis player. He skulked outside the press conference room of the Central Park South hotel. There was a distance in his presence. I approached.

He had utter disdain for me and what I represented even before I could ask him any questions. He didn’t feign regret for his actions in previous weeks and months. But Kyrgios had been public about how he didn’t love tennis — despite his successes — so none of this shocked me.

Truthfully, he was a breath of fresh air. The petulance he played with on court was not put on. He wasn’t trying to be anything he wasn’t. He was in fact that moody. He really did sulk around.

He wore the “next bad boy of tennis” label not as crown, but as a cement necklace.

Simply, his act remains the same way win or lose — unhinged.

Kyrgios showcased this on Monday in his first round match at the 2021 Australian Open. Projecting his sluggish start onto a member of his team sitting in the stands, he yelled in between points, “Tell your girlfriend to get out of my box!”

The Australian cruised to an easy victory after that outburst and will face 29th ranked Frenchman Ugo Humbert in the second round on Wednesday at 3am ET.

Kyrgios’ biggest career win came in his Wimbledon debut in 2014 when he beat world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the fourth round to advance to the quarterfinals. It’s also a haunting benchmark of the last big win he’s had. He’s flirted with breaking into the top 10 in the years since, but his head hasn’t allowed that.

The 25-year-old is currently 47th in the world, but he’s forever Australia’s forlorn hope.


Thanks for reading!

And if there's ever a topic you'd like to get my thoughts on, or a question you have, please don't hesitate to ask or suggest something.

Until next time...

-Benjamin Block

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