Bears

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah victorious at Haskell Invitational

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Triple Crown winner American Pharoah victorious at Haskell Invitational

OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) — A slight nudge was all it took for American Pharoah to seize control of the Haskell Invitational. And when Victor Espinoza asked, the majestic colt delivered an encore performance in his first race since winning the Triple Crown.

"This horse, he just keeps bringing it," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's just a great horse."

With a record crowd of 60,983 cheering him on Sunday at Monmouth Park, American Pharoah came out of the final turn with a clear lead and cruised to a 2 1/4-length victory while Espinoza barely moved a muscle.

"He ran like a champ," Espinoza said.

After winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and first in 37 years, American Pharoah's return was greatly anticipated. Fifty-seven days after the Belmont, the 3-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile looked better than ever in his eighth consecutive victory.

"That was nerve-racking," Baffert said after his eighth win in the Haskell, five more than any other trainer. "I was getting pretty nervous."

Sent off at odds of 1-10, American Pharoah became the shortest price winner in Haskell history, returning $2.20 for a $2 win bet. He paid $2.10 to place and $2.10 to show.

Keen Ice rallied for second at 18-1 odds, followed by Upstart, Competitive Edge, Top Clearance, Dontbetwithbruno and Mr. Jordan. The winning time for the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:47.95 — 95th hundreds of a second off the Haskell record.

American Pharoah's next start is now the biggest question in racing. There's no answer yet, but options include the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29, the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 19, and the Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Sept. 26.

"No clue," owner Ahmed Zayat said when asked about his colt's next race. "We're going to enjoy this moment."

If all goes according to plan, American Pharoah will run his final race in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31. And then, he's headed down the road to the breeding shed at Coolmore's Ashford Stud.

A few minutes after rocker Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" blared over the speakers as the horses walked onto the track, American Pharoah broke well from post No. 4. But it was Competitive Edge who took the lead. Espinoza kept his horse in second until the far turn. And then, American Pharoah took off and was all alone in the stretch.

The final margin was deceptive because Espinoza never asked American Pharoah to run any harder than necessary.

"It was pretty easy," Espinoza said. "For me the key was just coming out of there running. I knew that other horse would want to take the lead so I sat back just a little bit. I never like to go head and head with another horse so I sat back maybe half a length behind. He did everything by himself. It was pretty easy, pretty impressive."

American Pharoah followed many of his Triple Crown colleagues by winning his first start after three grueling races in five weeks. Of the 11 others, seven won in their return and one, Count Fleet, was retired after the 1943 Belmont with an injury.

American Pharoah opened his career with a loss before reeling off eight in a row — seven of them Grade 1 races. With the $1.1 million payday in the Haskell, the son of Pioneerof the Nile's career earnings soared to $5.6 million.

As he was led back to the winner's circle, the cheers continued.

"I couldn't believe the crowd, how loud it was," an emotional Baffert said, his voice breaking. "It was a great crowd. I love bringing my horses here. Thank you for being behind Pharoah the whole way."

The long day at Monmouth Park began with gates opening at 9 a.m., and fans strolling into the Jersey Shore track after waiting in line for hours, some since 5 a.m. But it wasn't until late afternoon until the place looked packed.

When American Pharoah was led into the paddock, the crowd stood 15 deep around the railing, straining to get a cellphone photo of the colt. And the horse came through with a truly remarkable performance.

"It's very rare that I'm speechless, but I am extremely proud," Zayat said. And the fans loved it, except for a moment when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared in the winner's circle and was loudly booed. "I couldn't be happier that this is happening in the great state of New Jersey. This is a superstar. He has touched everybody's heart."

The Haskell win gave American Pharoah an expense-paid berth in the BC Classic.

The previous Haskell record crowd was 53,368 in 2003, when Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide finished third behind Peace Rules.

Is Bears “D” in “football shape?” Lacking ability to finish? Fourth-quarter fades raise questions

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USA Today

Is Bears “D” in “football shape?” Lacking ability to finish? Fourth-quarter fades raise questions

During the critical fourth-quarter Oakland Raiders drive for a game-winning touchdown, one former Pro Bowl’er and NFL observer remarked to this writer that he was surprised to see a lot of hands on hips and mouth-breathing by members of the Bears defense – two common signs of being gassed.

Critiquing conditioning – or lack of – is problematic the way judging pain tolerance is. And if the Raiders score were an isolated incident, the question likely doesn’t come up.

But something is amiss. While the Bears defense remains among the NFL’s best, at least statistically, a shadow of concern is falling over the defense and its ability to close out games that it has within its reach.

The Bears held fourth-quarter leads over Denver and Oakland and allowed go-ahead touchdowns. They were rescued by Eddy Piñeiro’s 53-yard field goal in the final second. No such rescue in London.

Fully half of the eight touchdowns scored by Bears opponents in 2019 have come in fourth quarters. (The Bears themselves have not scored a single TD in any fourth quarter this season, but that’s a separate discussion.) By contrast, last season the defense did not allow a fourth-quarter touchdown in any of the final five regular-season games.

The temptation is to look only at the numbers, which are in fact positive. Even with the 24 points the Raiders scored against them in London, the Bears ranked second only to New England in scoring stinginess (13.8 ppg.) and fifth in yardage allowed (312 ypg.).

But the Bears have 17 sacks as a team; only three of those have come in fourth quarters.

Opposing quarterbacks have passed at an 81.3 rating in first halves; they are throwing at a 91.4 clip in second halves.

The defense has allowed 16 first downs in first quarters; 21 in seconds; 20 in thirds.

In 2019 fourth quarters, 34 first downs allowed.

Pulling the camera back for a wider view, extending back to include the disturbing 2018 playoff loss:

Vs. Philadelphia
Eagles drive 60 yards in 12 plays and nearly 4 minutes to score game-winning TD with :56 remaining. Cody Parkey’s double-doink overshadows fact that Bears defense forces Eagles into only two third downs and allows winning score on a fourth down.

Vs. Green Bay
With the Chicago offense sputtering all game and in need of a short field, Packers go on a 10-play, 73-yard drive that consumed 6:33 to set up a field goal to go up 10-3 deep in the fourth quarter.

At Denver
Inept Broncos offense scores 11 points in the fourth quarter to overcome a 13-3 Bears lead, driving 62 yards in 12 plays, converting two fourth downs and a two-point conversion. Denver’s second-half drives: 41 yards, 56 yards, 84 yards, 62 yards.

Vs. Washington
Bears build 28-0 lead before one of NFL’s worst offenses scores a pair of largely meaningless second-half TD’s.

Vs. Minnesota Vikings
Drive 92 yards in 13 plays for TD before Bears stiffen to stop two-point PAT and next Minnesota possession.

Vs. Oakland (London)
Raiders win game with 92-yard drive that includes fourth-down conversion on punt fake run despite Bears leaving No. 1 defensive unit in, anticipating fake.

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers, and tonight helped further confirm this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including 4 offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob", Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what Boylen is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished the Bulls win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.