Harry King is a columnist for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, he has covered sports in Arkansas since the 1960s, including 35 years for the Associated Press. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy, has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year seven times and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
King: Briles has until Derby Day to evaluate QBs
Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles speaks to reporters Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Fayetteville.
LITTLE ROCK — Pairing Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles with thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
For example, both have until Sept. 5 to sort out several athletes competing for the same prize. Both followed their parents in the business. And, both must navigate never-traveled paths as diverse as their sports where a 25 percent winning percentage is a bona fide success in one and abject failure in the other.
Specifically, Briles must evaluate four quarterbacks before the scheduled season opener vs. Nevada, while Asmussen has at least five 3-year-olds for owners thinking Kentucky Derby, moved from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Particulars of their jobs vary widely.
On the job for only a few months, Briles has never seen his candidates compete in person. When and if the SEC gives Arkansas and the other 13 conference schools the go-ahead for the 2020 season, he will be forced to cram his lessons into a relatively brief period because the Razorbacks never began spring practice.
Clearly, the SEC will have to tailor any practice schedule so the UA and other schools that were to start in mid-March will be given an opportunity to catch up with conference teams that practiced a number of times before activities were suspended.
Even then, there is a question whether Arkansas and the other late starters will have the luxury of practicing three times per week as originally scheduled. Arkansas planned to start out doing Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then switch to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday after Spring Break. On off days, there would have been meetings of some sort and/or lifting.
Playing catch up, the quarterbacks will be pushed hard daily to prepare for 12 games.
On the other hand, Asmussen will back off his training at times, allowing some runners to wind down after the May 2 Arkansas Derby, and then crank up again for one or two prep races between the Oaklawn finale and the race in Louisville, Ky. Peaking on Derby Day is the goal. For those horses passing on Oaklawn, he could look at the 100-40-20-10 points available in major Derby prep races that are to be rescheduled in Kentucky, New York and California. .
Originally, all three races were scheduled last Saturday.
Also in stark contrast are the resumes of the football players vs. the thoroughbreds.
Florida transfer Feliepe Franks has accumulated decent stats vs. quality opposition, but there is little to be gleaned from the limited snaps taken by KJ Jefferson, Jack Lindsey or John Stephen Jones.
Franks threw 622 passes in 28 games at Florida. Compare that with Jefferson’s 31 passes in three games, Lindsey’s 30 attempts in three games and Jones’ 34 passes in six games.
On the other hand, all of Asmussen’s four-legged athletes raced last year — some of them as many as a half-dozen times — and, undoubtedly, he was present for many of the important races.
Each of his five 3-year-olds has won a stakes race and none are worse than 26th in the points needed to qualify for one of 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby:
—No. 14, Silver Prospector, 21 points.
—No. 15, Excession, 20 points.
—No. 23, Shoplifted, 13 points.
—Tie for No. 26, 10 points, Basin and Gold Street
Silver Prospector, Shoplifted and Gold Street racked up points winning stakes races. Excession and Basin were two-three behind highly regarded Nadal in the Rebel last month at Oaklawn.
Usually, it takes about 30 points to secure a spot in the Derby field and Asmussen will enter more than one in the Arkansas Derby
Since many of his horses have gone head to head, the trainer has a pretty good idea how they stack up. With football, there is only one quarterback per snap and identifying the starter involves much more than comparing attempts and completions from practice.
Asmussen’s assignment is to qualify as many horses as possible for the Kentucky Derby, prepare them to the hilt and let them sort things out on the track. Briles’ job is to identify a No. 1, not waver and relegate the others to lesser roles.
The verdict on Briles’ job performance will be weeks in the making; judgment of Asmussen’s work will be available in slightly more than two minutes late on a Saturday afternoon.
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