A few days ago, NBA agent Lon Babby was on the ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning talking about the much anticipated NBA free agency season that began at midnight Thursday. With the iconic Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James and superstars Dwayne Wade of Miami and Chris Boss of Toronto all becoming free agents this year, it is the biggest and potentially most impactful free agency season in NBA history. Certainly the biggest free agency class since future Hall of Famers Grant Hill and Tim Duncan hit the market together ten years ago. Babby, who represented both Duncan and Hill, told how as an agent he provides a list of criteria to each client before the free agency process begins. On that list are things like Championships, compensation, coaching, style of play, city livability, taxes, teammates, etc. There are 13 items on the list and the free agent is asked to rank them in order of importance. Without disclosing any names, Babby went on to say that nearly every free agent he has ever represented ranked compensation as their highest priority. He clarified that money does not trump every other item on the list, but if all other things are equal, money is invariably the most important to the players.
I’ve followed sports long enough to remember when Curt Flood of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals challenged a trade after the 1969 season, taking his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and pioneering free agency. And I’d be willing to bet that from the days when Flood roamed center field in St. Louis to James’, Wade and Boss today, money has been the driving force in most free agency decisions. For Flood it was a $100,000 contract in 1969. It was a very big number for a baseball player at that time. Today it is James, Wade and Boss each hoping for the NBA maximum contract of $96 million over four or five years.
I bring up free agency in light of the curious move recently by Jess Jackson (photo right), principal owner of Rachel Alexandra, who decided to run his 2009 Horse of the Year in the ungraded $400,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park July 24 instead of the grade 1 $250,000 Ruffian Handicap at the same distance at Saratoga the following week.
While all thoroughbreds and their handlers are technically free agents and have the right to command a certain level of purse money to perform, for most, that level is limited to the tracks at which one is given a stall and further within the confines of that track’s condition and stakes books.
But for a select few throughout history, stakes schedules and prize money has been significantly adjusted by race tracks to attract those stars. Going back to 1920 when Kenilworth Park put up $75,000 for a match race between the great Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, tracks have used money and specified race conditions to feature the star thoroughbreds and promote horse racing at their venues. Certainly Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated Zenyatta fall into that category today.
Earlier this year Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella offered to boost the purse of the grade 1 Apple Blossom ten-fold to $5 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta started. Jackson declined after Rachel Alexandra unexpectedly lost in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes preparing for the Apple Blossom. The purse of the Apple Blossom reverted back to the original $500,000 but Zenyatta and her connections still showed up in Arkansas to win her 16th consecutive race.
Instead Rachel Alexandra made her next start in the $200,000 La Troienne (gr. 2) at Churchill in early May and was upset. She finally won her first race of 2010 in her third start in the $200,000 Fleur dis Lis (gr. 2) at Churchill June 12. The next day Zenyatta made history winning her 17th race in as many starts in the $250,000, grade 1 Vanity Handicap. No purse levels were adjusted in the La Troienne, Fleur dis Lis nor Vanity but now Jackson is back in free agent mode, apparently taking Rachel Alexandra to the highest bidder – and taking the criticism for it from bloggers, the media and in particular the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga where the Ruffian will be run. NYRA president Charles Hayward said in a prepared statement that they “are puzzled and disappointed that Rachel Alexandra, who performed so well at Saratoga last year, is passing up the Grade 1 Ruffian to run in a non-graded race at Monmouth over the same distance."
The solution to Hayward’s puzzle of course is money – something the NYRA does not have much of after needing financial assistance from New York State to stay in business past the Belmont in early June this year. But NYRA’s financial problems are an entirely different story.
I can’t blame Jackson and his partner Harold McCormick for taking the extra money offered by Monmouth Park management. After all, Rachel Alexandra did win the $1 million Haskell Invitational over colts last year at Monmouth Park so we know she likes the Jersey Shore. It is also easy to imagine why Jackson and his ownership team, family and friends may want to return to Monmouth Park – the track and community have wonderful reputations. But you can’t tell me the crowd at Monmouth cheers any louder than the Saratoga folks last year when Rachel Alexandra won the Woodward.
I also don’t understand why Jackson exposes Rachel Alexandra to the potential criticism of skipping a grade 1 race – something she doesn’t need nor deserve. In the Zenyatta v. Rachel debate, (however tiring and ugly it can become at times) the Zenyatta supporters can now say Rachel dodged Zenyatta in the $5 million classic because the owner didn’t like the artificial surface. The Zenyatta supporters can now say Rachel dodged them again in the $5 million Apple Blossom. And now – never mind the competition in Zenyatta’s grade 1 wins in California, at least she shows up. Rachel’s critics now have her dodging grade 1 competition in their arsenal.
And I’m not sure the winner’s share of the extra $150,000 in the Lady’s Secret compared to the Ruffian is enough for a man like Jackson. I would take the barbs for $90,000 as I’m sure many would. But Jess Jackson can spend $90,000 at a concession stand if he sees a hot dog that he thinks is worth it. Jackson could probably lose $90,000 miscalculating a few tips.
Jackson has every right to take his filly anywhere he wants and run her anytime. And we as race fans are lucky she is even running this year at all. Most owners would have retired the Horse of the Year to the breeding shed. So don’t mistake me for looking a gift Rachel in the mouth.
As Lon Babby said, all things being equal between two teams, money comes into play making a free agent decision. But all things are not equal between the grade 1 Ruffian the Lady’s Secret. So we can only deduce that money is trumping every other factor for Jackson – at least in this instance.
I just don’t know why.
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