Stewart says a lot without saying much

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Ask Tony Stewart a question, and he begins roughly half his answers with some variation of “I’ll be honest.”

It’s more than just a verbal tic. It’s also an acknowledgement that he always wears his heart on his sleeve.

Stewart did just that when pressed about the worst slump of his career for 27 minutes Tuesday morning on the semi-weekly NASCAR media teleconference.

He seemed downtrodden at best discussing the results of his No. 14 Chevrolet, which has one top 10 in 18 starts and is ranked an eye-popping 28th in the standings.

“It’s been a disappointing year,” Stewart said. “We’re desperately trying to figure out what it’s going to take to move the needle.”

The mediocre results have meant precious few media opportunities this year for Stewart, whose 48 wins and 298 top 10s in 572 starts have made him a frequent face on media center dais around the circuit. Before Tuesday, the last time he spent significant time facing a plethora of reporters was in the preseason, and his mood was far different.

After a turbulent 18 months that included missing 15 races in 2013 with a broken right leg from a sprint car crash and skipping three races last year while grieving after his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., Stewart was embracing his buoyant and impish side heading into the 2015 season.

An encouraging and refreshing offseason had cleared the mental and physical cobwebs, and Stewart strutted through the preseason Media Tour in late January and Speedweeks in February with the vigor of anticipating a return to championship form.

Tuesday’s sullen tone was markedly different, and Charlotte Observer reporter Jim Utter asked Stewart if the wind had been knocked from his sails by the struggles early this season.

“Yeah, it did,” Stewart said. “I wish I could say, ‘No, it didn’t.’  But it did.  I mean, the whole year’s been frustrating. It just seems like everywhere we go, we seem to fight the same balance. That’s the part that’s been frustrating for the whole 14 car.

“We’re trying a ton of things and just can’t seem to find anything that moves the needle and seems to make significant change. Just seems like the further we go into the year, the more frustrating that gets, too.”

The weariness was plainly obvious Tuesday.

His answers were mostly clipped and rote as he eschewed the big-picture eloquence he can provide with unique authority. “Smoke” always will be known as the guy who slapped away a tape recorder and kicked at a photographer, but he is a bright and thoughtful soul who is the best interview in NASCAR when he wants to play ball.

In the same media teleconference a year ago, Stewart waxed poetic for nearly an hour about the plight of youth seeking rides in racing, the sanctity of the Brickyard and the safety initiatives he had spurred in sprint cars.

That expansive rumination was missing Tuesday — a telling indicator of where things stand for a superstar who stunningly has seemed lost on the track much of the year despite a reputation as the most versatile driver of his generation.

During a brilliant and beguiling career filled with amazement, statesmanship and petulance, Stewart has been called many things, but one label never has applied: insincere

He has a wicked sardonic streak — his deadpan interview lauding wrecks at Talladega Superspeedway three years ago was comedic performance art that rivaled Andy Kaufman — but he always expresses how he feels, even when he isn’t painfully blunt. Sometimes, his tone and choice of words speak volumes instead.

And that brings us to what might have been the most important question he faced Tuesday.

Jeff Gluck of USA TODAY Sports asked whether, given Jeff Gordon’s impending retirement at 44 and Mark Martin’s decision to race into his mid-50s, Stewart had considered how much longer he would race.

The subtext was clear: Does being mired in your third consecutive nightmarish season have you pondering the end of your career?

The answer took 18 words.

“Right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to get my car working better,” Stewart said, “to be honest.”

He always is.

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Breeders’ Cup Preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

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The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

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Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

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Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alcaraz loses to Goffin in 1st match as No. 1

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Carlos Alcaraz’s first match as the No. 1-ranked player ended with a straight-set loss to David Goffin at the Astana Open.

The 19-year-old Spaniard lost 7-5, 6-3 in his first tour match since winning the U.S. Open and capturing the No. 1 ranking.

“David was playing really, really well. To come back to competition is never easy,” Alcaraz said. “It’s really tough for me, for my confidence.”

Alcaraz came from 5-2 down to level the first set at 5-5, only to be broken again by his Belgian opponent.

“When you play against the World No. 1 on a big stage, big crowd, the fire inside gives you so much power to play your best tennis because you don’t have any choice,” Goffin said. “You have to fight and give your best and that was the case today.”

Second-seeded Daniil Medvedev and No. 3-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas both avoided similar upsets. Medvedev beat Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain 6-3, 6-1 and Tsitsipas ousted Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin 6-3. 6-4.