07/30/2013 12:54PM

Dick Jerardi: Racing loses an ambassador in sportswriter Ireland

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Barbara Weidl/Equiphoto
Big Feat won last Saturday’s $76,000 Crowd Pleaser Handicap by 1 1/2 lengths for his second straight victory on Parx Racing’s turf course.

Jack Ireland was a throwback to a time when sportswriters just told stories and were a good bit less cynical. It was not about him. It was about the people whose stories he recounted.

Anyone who spent any time at Delaware Park over the last quarter of a century knew Ireland, a writer who covered little league, high schools, and colleges downstate and Nascar in Dover before being assigned to the horse-racing beat at the Wilmington News Journal in 1989.

Five years after he got a heart transplant, he was able to chronicle the amazing saga of the Delaware Park-based Afleet Alex in 2005. He loved covering the locals in the sport and reveled when Wilmington’s Rick Porter had one top horse after another.

Whenever I saw Jack, he was unfailingly polite. The best word to describe him may be “earnest.”

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Ireland retired in 2011 after 36 years at the News Journal. He lasted almost 13 years with that replacement heart until he died of cancer last week at 66.

“He was brought up on harness racing,” said Rich Glazier, the longtime TV host at Delaware Park.

So, Thoroughbreds were relatively new to him when he took over the beat at the News Journal. “But he stuck with it,” Glazier said.

Wilmington, Glazier said, is “kind of a small-town place.”

”We’re kind of always pushed aside by the Phillys and the Baltimores,” he said. “We’re the minor leagues, but whenever somebody did good, [Ireland] would really play up the local angle.”

With Porter, Bayard Sharp, and Afleet Alex’s trainer, Tim Ritchey, he certainly had some significant local angles to cover.

“Jack would always ask me, ‘Who do you like? Who do you like?’ ” Glazier said. “Once in a while, I’d give him a horse, and he might pay $3.80. He’d be just as excited as if the horse paid $30. He just wanted to cash a ticket.”

Jack Ireland may have been a bit late to Thoroughbred racing, but in asking the eternal “Who do you like?” question, he certainly understood its essence.

Son of a Bear still running hard

Son of a Bear won his first time out Aug. 2, 2009, at Charles Town. The West Virginia-bred went on to win three stakes that fall as a 2-year-old. He has never won another stakes race, but he never stopped running hard in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

By the end of 2012, the horse had raced 31 times, all at Charles Town, with 8 wins, 10 seconds, and 4 thirds. From May 2010 to November 2012, his Beyer Speed Figures almost always were in the 75-to-85 range. He just kept trying, race after race.

Then, after a seven-month layoff and a fading sixth-place finish June 26, it appeared as if Son of a Bear might finally have hit the wall. The Charles Town fans who had made him the favorite 11 times let him go at a career-high 19-1 in a tough allowance race last Friday.

Son of a Bear dueled for the lead all the way around and held on to win by a head, getting a 78 Beyer. That win pushed him past $400,000 in career earnings and suggested that the winning is not close to over yet.

Big Feat makes big turnaround

Big Feat arrived at Parx Racing from his Fair Hill base July 16 with seven starts, all at Penn National, no wins, and career earnings of $29,460.

Exactly 11 days later, the gelding was a stakes winner with two wins. First, he won his maiden at 47-1. Then, trainer Elizabeth Merryman brought him back last Saturday in the Crowd Pleaser Handicap, and the horse went wire to wire at 15-1.

So, what changed? Well, the horse had just been sprinting at Penn National. In his final race there, Merryman outfitted the horse with blinkers and tried him on grass for the first time. He made an ineffective late rally to finish a distant fourth at five furlongs. It also was the first of three straight races in which Josean Ramirez rode the horse.

The Parx maiden race covered 1 1/8 miles on grass. The stakes race was 1 1/16 miles on turf. The horse showed great speed in both races.

Big Feat got a big Pennsylvania-bred breeder’s bonus for owner and breeder Ellendale Racing in the maiden win. The $76,000 Crowd Pleaser was restricted to statebreds. Big Feat took great advantage of both situations and racked up $82,800 in the two wins.

◗ David Cora is closing in on 100 wins at Penn National in 2013 and had a 20-win lead over William Otero in the jockeys’ standings entering Wednesday’s card. From 496 mounts, Cora had 95 wins, 76 seconds, and 92 thirds. With the season past the halfway point, he is going to be very difficult to catch.