...And Then Some By Evan I. Hammonds

Michael Tabor strolled down the apron at Santa Anita Park, shielding the bright California sunlight with a baseball cap and a dark pair of shades. Peering out at the Pro-Ride surface the morning before the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships would begin, the Coolmore principal answered a simple question with a repsonse that was as clear as the day’s view of the San Gabriel Mountains.

“The more the merrier,” he said when asked of the new 14-race format for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships weekend. “It’s more opportunity for the owners to recoup some money. And at the end of the day, we’re the ones footing the bill…and then some.”

While the nation’s economy, and now the global economy, is retracting by the hour, the Breeders’ Cup great expansion of 2008 should be great news for the industry. In 2005, the yearly payout by Breeders’ Cup was $22.5 million. This year, the two-day program alone offered $25 million in purses and the entire stakes program’s payout was $31 million. What segment of any market can boast those kind of figures over the past three years?

With three new races added to the traditional eight grade I events last year, and three more tacked on this year, the theme for the 25th running of the Breeders’ Cup was one of expansion and experimentation. With that certainly came some growing pains, and those were clearly on display.

The draw for post positions on the Tuesday before the event was a case in point. Selecting the posts for 14 championship-caliber races with hundreds of horses requires some order and organization, which was lacking as owners, those who could fit in, were shoehorned into the racing office to draw 10 of the races. Left out in the hallway, many owners and trainers were unable to decipher the proceedings.

If an owner and a trainer have a horse running for $1 million or more in a grade I race, they ought to at least be able to hear where they’ve drawn. Four of the “big” races were drawn later in a made-for-TV event in Santa Anita’s Frontrunners restaurant, with hardly a mention of the other events. It was like relegating the others to the “kiddie’s table.”

The “more the merrier” theme didn’t play out that well for Tabor and associates, as they wound up on the short end of the stick on the track with no wins and three placings. But the European contingent has to be feeling quite merry following their domination of the U.S. horses throughout Day Two. Want more European participation? Wait till next year.

However, some don’t share Tabor’s view of the Breeders’ Cup’s expansion.

A lot of fans were overwhelmed by the volume and overlapping names—Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies Turf, Filly & Mare Turf, Filly & Mare Sprint, Turf Sprint—you get the idea. If horseplayers are confused, it’s going to be a tough sell to the public. But what you can sell to the general sports fan is a great day, or two, of racing, and the athletes on the field over the two days more than delivered. From top to bottom, Breeders’ Cup ’08 was perhaps the best racing ever; dazzling and dizzying all at the same time.

Too much?

One owner/breeder looked away from a replay monitor late in the day Oct. 25 and said, “I’m about ready to pass out.” It wasn’t from excitement; it was from exhaustion. He suggested one less Breeders’ Cup race a day.

But if you took away one on day one, which would it be? From Ventura’s sparkling win in the Filly & Mare Sprint Friday morning through Zenyatta’s spectacular performance in the Ladies’ Classic (gr. I), the new Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Day format was top drawer.

A race from Saturday? There were bang-bang performances all day, from Desert Code’s strong close in the Turf Sprint to Goldikova’s reincarnation of Miesque in the Mile (gr. IT) to Midnight Lute’s spectacular repeat in the Sprint (gr. I). All of this was capped off by Raven’s Pass’ electric upset in the Classic (gr. I). With Henrythenavigator second, the pair turned Santa Anita into Ascot with a mountain view.

Time will tell if the Breeders’ Cup’s growth spurt is a move in the right direction. From what we saw over the weekend, we can’t wait until next year to find out.

Evan I. Hammonds is executive editor of The Blood-Horse.

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