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Shark races, Zippy Chippy, Spieth & ridiculous sports scholarships

The much-hyped Discovery Channel race between Michael Phelps and the great white shark would have been much more compelling had man and beast torpedoed through the water side-by-side at the exact same time. Of course, had that been the case, the shark almost certainly would have been distracted by the sight of human bait swimming next to him. The great white probably would have been called for a lane violation well before reaching the finish line, and the most-decorated Olympian in history would have been history, meeting his demise in a bloody dining scene that would have made “Jaws” seem tame by comparison.

To avoid gore and ensure Phelps’ safety, the Discovery Channel filmed him swimming separately in ocean waters off the coast of South Africa, then superimposed footage of a shark swimming the same 100-meter distance. Not surprisingly, the great white beat Phelps by two seconds. The 23-time Olympic gold medalist immediately demanded a rematch—next time in warmer water. Methinks Phelps should stick to racing against Homo sapiens.

It was a fun promotion, and conjured memories of more intriguing man vs. beast competitions between thoroughbred race horse Zippy Chippy and three different Rochester Red Wings players across the outfield at Frontier Field. Zippy was the losingest horse in North American thoroughbred history with a 0-100 record. But he did visit the winner’s circle at Frontier in 2001 and 2002 when he defeated outfielders Darnell McDonald and Larry Bigbee, respectively, in 50-yard sprints.

Those victories were preceded by a loss to outfielder Jose Herrera in the first “Red Wing Derby” on Aug. 17, 2000 in a 40-yard dash.

“If Herrera had to carry a jockey,’’ grumbled Finger Lakes handicapper Dave Mattice, “it would be more fair.”

Zippy owner and trainer Felix Monserrate insisted his gracious horse had allowed his two-legged opponent to win.

Though not as ballyhooed as Discovery’s “Great Gold vs. Great White” race, the Wing derbies attracted plenty of national and international media attention. People magazine named Zippy one of the world’s most interesting personalities in 2000, and Baseball America called the race against Herrera the year’s top promotion in minor-league baseball. ESPN, The Today Show and Good Morning America showed highlights of the race.

Zippy, by the way, is still living the good life at Old Friends at Cabin Creek, a farm for retired race horses, just 15 miles east of the famed Saratoga Race Track. He turned 26 on April 20, and ranch owner JoAnn Pepper said Zippy’s celebrity continues to trump all the other horses, including several who won major races.

“He still gets the most visitors by far,’’ said Pepper, whose ranch is open to the public and recently kicked off its visiting season with its annual “Zippy Chippy Day” last Tuesday. “He’s our star resident.”

***

A few years ago, after narrowly losing the British Open, Jordan Spieth joined winner Zach Johnson for a sip of champagne from the Claret Jug. Spieth was later told it was bad luck to drink from the cup if you weren’t the winner. The way Sunday’s final round of the Open started for him — three bogeys in the first four holes — it appeared that he had indeed angered the golfing gods by defying the victor’s-only tradition.

But after surrendering the lead with yet another bogey on the 13th hole, Spieth staged one of the most riveting comebacks in major championship golf history. His charge featured a birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie on consecutive holes as he won his third different major, just four days before his 24th birthday. Should he win next month’s PGA Championship, Spieth will become the youngest golfer ever to win all four majors, achieving a career grand slam.

He called the Open victory a dream come true. But until he began his charge after smashing his tee shot onto the adjacent driving range on 13, it appeared he was destined to suffer a meltdown similar to the 2015 Masters, when he squandered a final-day, five-shot lead on the back nine.

“This is as much of a high as I’ve ever experienced in my golfing life,’’ he said after a comeback reminiscent of another Jordan, basketball legend Michael.

Spieth is special. He’ll be experiencing many more highs before all’s said and done.

***

If the Bills want to snap their 17-season playoff famine, they’ll need to improve on their 2-11 record vs. playoff teams and their 4-11 record in one-score games the past two years. Close verdicts are common in the NFL, and this is where quality quarterbacking and coaching come into play. Tyrod Taylor has many skills, but winning close games is not among them. Still, I put more of the onus on Rex Ryan’s poor coaching than on Taylor’s quarterbacking for blowing games the Bills should have won; games that would have gotten them into the playoffs.

***

Shortly after Cam Newton’s son was born on Christmas Eve 2015, he told reporters that Chosen Newton “already had received a couple of scholarship offers.” He was joking. At least, we think he was. Given the new, disturbing, publicity-seeking trend of major college football coaches offering scholarships to 9- and 10-year-olds, anything is possible. Heck, the day may be coming when offers are made to future quarterbacks still in the womb.

New Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin reportedly has tendered scholarships to two middle school quarterbacks. He pulled a similar stunt while coaching at the University of Southern California. Kiffin is hardly the only violator. Alabama’s Nick Saban offered a full-ride to an eighth-grader a few years ago.

It’s high time the NCAA puts an end to these shenanigans. I realize the offers aren’t binding until the kids are high school seniors and sign a letter of intent. But this is asinine and yet another indication that big-time sports are big-time out-of-control.

Best-selling author & nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

One comment

  1. Very entertaining stories and well told.

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