Sports Betting

NFL Football, Horse Racing have pedigrees in common

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February 6, 2016

Everyone has their favorite, but for my money, the most dramatic – and hilarious – intersection of horse racing and football came on the final turn of the 1996 Preakness Stakes when some liquored-up yahoo in the Pimlico infield launched a spiral in the general direction of the favored Cavonnier, running fourth at the time under Chris McCarron.

A [bleepin’] football!” yelled McCarron, perfectly audible beneath Dave Johnson’s call on the ABC telecast. McCarron did not blame Cavonnier’s fourth-place finish on the incident. Instead, he received just the kind of attention you’d expect. “They played it all week,” McCarron said later. “I heard from my mother about that.” The DNA of football runs deep in horse racing. Sunday’s Super Bowl takes place in the city where the DeBartolo family has owned the San Francisco 49ers, five-time Super Bowl champs, since 1977. Patriarch Edward DeBartolo made his mark in Thoroughbred racing as owner of Louisiana Downs, ThistleDown, and Remington Park.

Like the DeBartolos, the Rooney family has three generations dedicated to football with the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose six Super Bowl titles mark the all-time high. But while Edward DeBartolo Sr. was able to afford racetracks and football teams because of his real estate fortune, Steelers patriarch Art Rooney bought the original Pittsburgh franchise in 1933 with gambling winnings from the track. Later, the Rooneys bought Yonkers Raceway, where the elder Rooney played the horses when it was called Empire City. “Although I understood the football business as well as anybody in the league, I didn’t pay the attention to the business that some of the other owners gave it,” Rooney told sports historian Bob Ruck. “I was out of town a great deal of the time at the racetracks. With me, the racetrack was a big business. And generally, I’d have a head coach who was like me – he’d like the races.”

Buffalo Bills founding owner Ralph Wilson bred and raced Thoroughbreds as Oxford Stable. Charlie Whittingham trained stakes winners Title Game and Spinning Around for Wilson in the 1960s, while the Wilson-bred Jim French won the 1970 Santa Anita Derby. Wilson also bred Arazi, the champion 2-year-old of both Europe and North America in 1991. Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells has scored as a horse owner, most significantly with Saratoga Snacks, the winner of the 2013 Empire Classic. Green Bay Packers star Paul Hornung loves the racetrack action, as does the Chicago Bears’ Mike Ditka, who is closely associated with Chicago racing, and Mike Tice, the former coach of the Minnesota Vikings. On and on it goes. Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, was the man behind Stonerside Stable until he sold most of his Thoroughbred holdings to Sheikh Mohammed. Stonerside raced the champion filly Chilukki and the stakes winners Tuzla and Bob and John, among many others.

Billy Kilmer, the quarterback of the 1972 NFC champion Washington Redskins, went from horseplayer and fan to successful owner with the accomplished Raymond Earl, a stakes winner who set the pace in Affirmed’s 1978 Kentucky Derby. As recently as last winter, Kilmer could be found in the winner’s circle at Santa Anita, presenting a stakes trophy. Sam Huff, the New York Giants Hall of Famer, has dedicated much of his post-football years to the advancement of Thoroughbred racing in West Virginia. Huff gets credit for the West Virginia Breeders Classic highlighting the industry in the Mountaineer State. Perhaps the highest profile of the symbiotic football-horse racing relationship was embodied by entertainment mogul Sonny Werblin. Werblin was part of the ownership of the former New York Titans, who became the New York Jets, although he was bought out by his partners before the Jets won the 1969 Super Bowl. Werblin also was on the board of directors of Monmouth Park, built and managed the Meadowlands sports complex, and owned such stakes winners as Process Shot and Silent Screen, the champion 2-year-old colt of 1969. It was Werblin who asked his good friend, Daily Racing Form’s Joe Hirsch, to take the 1965 Jets’ bonus baby, Joe Namath, under his wing when the young quarterback hit the Big Apple. Good times. Namath hit the races often because of Hirsch and apparently made an impact.

In 1985, Gulfstream Park inaugurated the Joe Namath Stakes, which later became the Joe Namath Handicap, then morphed into the graded Honey Fox Stakes, to be run this year April 2 as part of the Florida Derby program. Some good fillies have won the race, including Top Socialite, Fieldy, and Rare Blend (when it was the Namath) and Wasted Tears, Wait a While, and Spook Express in its Honey Fox guise. Namath also won the 1969 Super Bowl with the Jets, which puts having a nice little turf race named for you into perspective. But if nothing else, it gives Cam Newton something to shoot for once he’s finished with the Broncos.



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