x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fighting at the bitter end

Several American sportsmen have shown an unusual — and unpleasant — feistiness of late.

Jockey Calvin Borel is restrained after exchanging punches with fellow jockey Javier Castellano after their race at the Breeders’ Cup.
Jockey Calvin Borel is restrained after exchanging punches with fellow jockey Javier Castellano after their race at the Breeders’ Cup.

Americans are in a combative mood. The political gulf between the "reds" and the "blues" has widened so much that former US president Jimmy Carter suggested the nation is more polarised than during the Civil War.

Steep unemployment has Americans bickering with the government and big business. Home foreclosures have left them angry with banks. The travails of the Dallas Cowboys (1-7) have constituents of America's Team searching for a surrogate.

The ill will spilled over on to the playing and practice fields over the weekend as three unlikely duels erupted.

At a Minnesota Vikings training session on Friday, Brad Childress, the coach under siege for his handling of the Randy Moss debacle, believed Percy Harvin, the wide receiver, was coddling his injured ankle. Childress urged him to seek more medical testing.

Harvin, eager to play in Sunday's game, took offence. A blow-up ensued that witnesses say would have turned physical had not coaches and players intervened.

Though Harvin, at 80kg, is one of the NFL's lightweights, this would have been a mismatch. Childress is 54, with the mien of a professor, a gig that the coach might be pursuing a year from now if the Vikings cannot get off the mat and stay upright.

A dispute on Saturday did involve fisticuffs, and in a bizarre setting for such histrionics - the winner's circle at the most recognised racetrack in the United States.

As jockeys, Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano are compatible in size. Borel is 11 years older (in fact, it was his 44th birthday, so maybe somebody stiffed him on gifts) but the bulging eyes and flailing fists turned him into a frightening mini-Mike Tyson.

Borel was infuriated at Castellano for allowing his mount in a Breeders' Cup race at Churchill Downs to veer off the rail into the path of fellow rider Martin Garcia, almost causing a pile-up. Castellano's move impacted Borel, who lost momentum on his horse and finished fourth.

Rider scuffles are not uncommon but generally unfold in the privacy of the jockey's room. That Borel could not contain himself on global television indicates that perhaps he should replace those pre-race weight-cutting drugs with chill pills.

Neither are confrontations unheard of in Nascar, the most popular form of motorsport in the US. Drivers reach speeds matched only on a Formula One track, so they do not take kindly at an intentional fender bump.

Jeff Gordon's race in the Texas 500 ended abruptly when Jeff Burton tapped his Chevrolet, sending it into the wall along the back straight. Gordon emerged from his battered car, shoved Burton with both hands and swung at him. Like Borel the day before, a livid Gordon was restrained before damage was inflicted.

There is no singular lesson to be learned in the aftermath of these frays.

While limping, Harvin advanced nine receptions for 126 yards, to say nothing of returning five kick-offs, as the Vikings won in overtime two days after the contretemps with his coach. Afterwards, he declined to voice support for Childress, who angered Zygi Wilf, the team owner, for waiving Moss without informing the boss.

An anonymous Viking was quoted as saying the players enjoyed Harvin's near-assault, wishing they could have done the same.

The moral of this story: a team united, even by loathing of their coach, wins.

Borel and Castellano were fined US$2,500 (Dh9,200) each by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which amounts to a tap on the high-earning jockeys' remarkably strong wrists.

The moral of this story: take it away from the cameras next time.

Nascar will fine Gordon, and maybe Burton, too, but race officials secretly celebrate when feuds develop. A decline in the sport's television audience and attendance has been attributed partly to the lack of easily recognised venom between drivers. Gordon's nice-guy image has long alienated some old-fashioned Nascar fanatics who prefer their drivers to be cut from the same cloth as the cussin' and fussin' Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Those who welcome the antagonistic approach will not want to hear that Burton apologised profusely, even if Gordon deflected it back to sender. And that the pair shared a lift in the track ambulance to the infield care centre.

The moral of this story: have two ambulances handy in cases of road rage.

Mercifully, this Saturday brings a sports event where fighting is not just permitted, but eagerly anticipated. Manny Pacquiao, the world's baddest boxer, dukes it out with Antonio Margarito.

Of course, the bout is at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. The team's cranky players and coaches are advised to stay away, lest they get caught up in the pugilistic ambiance and continue the American sportsman's sudden penchant for making war, not love.