Archives for November 2011


Joe Frazier made a public appearance at the Saratoga Race Course in August, so I was surprised when I read about two months later that he was in a hospice for the liver cancer that took his life on November 7, 2011. Memories flooded my mind because Frazier and I are from the same generation and I can vividly recall his rise to prominence and his famous bouts against Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Frazier was a World’s Heavyweight Champion when boxing and horse racing were much bigger deals than they are today. Both sports lost out over the years to a variety of other sporting and entertainment options, largely owing to self-inflicted wounds.

In Frazier’s era, the environment surrounding a world’s heavyweight championship fight or a Triple Crown race was as electric as it gets. And champions in the ring and on the turf were widely recognized by the general public.

This was a golden age of sports that included the likes of Frazier and Ali, Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and numerous others, as well as such equine greats as Buckpasser, Secretariat, and Forego. Kelso was going out of the limelight when Joe Frazier was coming into it.

I did not root for Smokin’ Joe in his three classic bouts with Muhammad Ali because I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and followed the hometown boxer Cassius Clay. Yet I always admired the ferocity and heart that Frazier demonstrated and thought Ali (Clay) wrongly disparaged him as a person in a successful effort to promote ticket sales by turning Frazier into a villain.

The animosity between Frazier and Ali was evidently real, however, and helped to make Howard Cosell famous. Cosell was once sitting between Frazier and Ali on a television program, interviewing them, when suddenly they went after one another and dislodged Cosell’s toupee in the process.

As a heavyweight fighter who was shy of six-feet-tall, Frazier was disadvantaged in reach against much taller opponents like Ali and George Foreman. But Frazier had a powerful build and his punches were devastating. The brutal Frazier-Ali fight known as the “Thrilla in Manila” likely did lasting damage to both men.

Ali, now severely hobbled by Parkinson’s, was a sad sight at the Frazier funeral. It was hard to watch and difficult to believe that this was the same fellow who use to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and is one of the greatest boxers of all time. The vicious left hook that Frazier used to momentarily send Ali crashing to the canvas on his back  in round 15 of the first of their three fights–called the “Fight of the Century”–might alone have been enough to cause brain damage.

Today’s football and basketball players are generally much bigger and faster than their predecessors of 40-45 years ago. On the other hand, old-time baseball players (Bench, Clemente, Gibson and other legends) were arguably better than the current crop of players because the most gifted athletes of the day went into the then-most-lucrative sport of Major League Baseball. But there are no ifs and maybes about the boxers and racehorses of Joe Frazier’s time: they were better than the present-day crop by a country mile.

Every generation of young sports fans tends to dismiss the remembrances of older folk about the supposed superiority of the athletes of their day as being mostly nostalgia. Count me as old and nostalgic, but I really believe that the top boxers and the best racehorses of the period when Joe Frazier was in his prime would, in general, wipe the floor with the leading boxers and racehorses of the 21st century.

Today’s heavyweight champions would be hard pressed to rank in the top ten contenders in Frazier’s era. Similarly, while Zenyatta could hold her own with Ruffian, she is the exception. Imagine a contemporary colt in the same race with Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser. Talk about choosing your poison. Sham, second banana to Secretariat, would be a sensation if he were a 3-year-old in 2011—possibly a Triple Crown winner.

Smokin’ Joe seemed to be indestructible. He could be beaten but not broken. Now this iron man from South Carolina and later South Philly is gone in his late 60s. Reminds me of the day I heard that the hulking specimen Secretariat had to be put down at a relatively young age for a breeding stallion.

Joe Frazier’s passing is a vivid reminder of a golden age in sports. Thanks, Champ, for the memories of a gallant warrior who rose from poverty to fame and asked no quarter from anyone in the ring or life.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


Many professional sports team moguls like George Steinbrenner, Jack Kent Cooke, and Robert McNair have also been prominent owners and breeders of racehorses. They no doubt agreed with the observation that dealing with equine athletes is much easier than meeting the demands of human athletes. The ongoing labor unrest in the National Basketball Association is the best current example.

The NBA owners’ last offer to the National Players Association was rejected for containing insufficient compensation. The owners offered a 50-50 split of basketball-generated revenues.

The average NBA salary in 2011 was $5.15 million (compared to $3.34 million in MLB, $2.4 in the NHL, and $1.9 million in the NFL).

The late Lance Corporal Benjamin Schmidt grew up around NBA players because his dad, David Schmidt, is the team physician for the NBA San Antonio Spurs. Cpl. Schmidt joined the Marines after not making much progress in college and having some issues with alcohol abuse. The Marines helped turned Cpl. Schmidt’s life around and he became a sniper. On October 6, 2011, he was killed in the fog of battle by friendly tank fire in Afghanistan, while trying to take out Taliban snipers.

Earlier this year, Cpl. Schmidt had extended his tour of duty so that his friends would not redeploy to Afghanistan without him.

NBA players are quick to point out that their careers can be brief and therefore their lofty salaries are justified. Yet, while they play a game invented for boys and girls, Cpl. Schmidt and others like him voluntarily risk their lives for relatively meager pay. A Marine Corp Lance Corporal earns about $24,000 per year, with another $225 a month thrown in if he or she is in a combat zone.

Cpl. Schmidt’s story was told on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. That publicity pales in comparison to the fame and adulation lavished on NBA players, especially the stars.

Wonder if Cpl. Schmidt would have demanded half his employer’s revenues or complained about the possibility of a short-lived career.

Cpl. Schmidt is not the most recognizable young man to have graced the locker room of the San Antonio Spurs, not by any means, but he certainly should be the most revered.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


American racetrack backstretches are largely kept going by grooms, hot walkers, and exercise riders from Latin American countries. Many of them are in the United States under the provisions of the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ H-2B visa program, which reads, in part:

“The employer must establish that its need for the prospective worker’s services or labor is temporary, regardless of whether the underlying job can be described as permanent or temporary. The employer’s need is considered temporary if it is a one-time occurrence, a seasonal need, a peak-load need, or an intermittent need. The employer must demonstrate that there are not sufficient U. S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.”

The period of time defined as temporary is normally no longer than a year with an absolute maximum of three years.

Recently, Belmont Park’s request for H-2B visas for almost 100 foreign backstretch workers was denied. The rationale was that the workers do not meet the definition of temporary employees because, after the New York racing season is over, they will move with their employers to Florida for winter racing. Thus the arrangement is not “a one-time occurrence.”

In response, six Thoroughbred trainers filed suit in federal court. The crux of their argument is that there is a dearth of American citizens who are willing to do backstretch work. Help-wanted ads, for instance, are not productive.

The issue of guest workers is, of course, certainly not confined to the horse-racing industry. Businesses like lodging, restaurants, and lawn services often depend on foreign help.

The official unemployment rate in the United States is 9.1 percent, but is much higher if part-timers and the people who have given up looking for work are counted. Yet some businesses can’t find enough workers. About three million positions in information technology and engineering are vacant for want of qualified applicants. High-tech employers complain that the federal government does not allow enough H-1B visas so that foreigners can be admitted to fill the jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, many low-skill jobs go begging because people purportedly can’t or won’t do such hard work, especially for meager pay.

These are societal problems having to do with inadequate education and training, a broken immigration system, and arguably an overgenerous period for drawing unemployment benefits.

That’s not much consolation to racehorse trainers who can’t attract enough Americans to backstretch work and who aren’t permitted to hire an ample number of people from elsewhere to compensate. But it is a fact of life and an ongoing challenge to doing business in a country where the subject of immigration reform is too controversial for elected federal representatives to address in a meaningful way.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Used with permission.