By Valerie Grash
As a fan, call me underwhelmed. The Breeders’ Cup returns to Churchill Downs in 2010 (but perhaps only if the state of Kentucky can be extorted into extending a pari-mutuel tax exemption), and, once again, horse racing has missed the boat in terms of updating what has become, unfortunately, “the” defining event of America’s thoroughbred industry. The time has come to either totally rethink the Breeders’ Cup event or eliminate it altogether—for the good of the sport of horse racing.
Once upon a time thoroughbred owners actually campaigned their horses throughout the year, with major stakes races as targets and champions decided by the sum total of their achievements, not a single race. Sadly, as the breeding industry in this country as evolved into a nearly out-of-control entity—breeding horses to breed, not to race—the all-too-appropriately-named Breeders’ Cup has become nothing more than a much-desired notation on sale catalog pedigree pages. It is truly a group of races for breeders, not for fans, as star horses often run as little as possible as they aim for the BC, resulting in a litany of historic races with short fields light on talent and with very little actual competition.
To make matters worse, the Breeders’ Cup does not even do a good job marketing itself. Calling itself the “World Championship of Horse Racing” is a complete public relations snow job (not to mention a tad jingoistic) as very few of the truly great overseas runners show up, unlike the Dubai World Cup which provides financial incentives for genuinely international fields. The so-called “Win-and-You’re-In” races (which guarantees a spot, but not payment of hefty entry fees) are neither well-planned out over the course of the racing year, nor complete enough in every category (such as female sprinters, etc.) to guarantee even a casual interest by fans—and key races are not broadcast on a national television channel. Come October, the offensive “Filly Friday” not only segregates a race card by gender to a day not traditionally associated with stakes-quality racing, but also is relegated to lowly ESPN2. Only four of Saturday’s races (the ill-named Marathon, Turf Sprint, “Dirt” Mile and Turf Mile) are worthy of ABC; the much-lesser watched ESPN gets to air the crème de la crème races—from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. ET. Do not even get me started on the marketing geniuses who indicate that their “research” finds people do not know the meaning of “distaff”, yet agree that anthropomorphizing horses by calling them “Ladies” is somehow inoffensive.
I know the sport of horseracing is no longer an integral part of the American psyche as it was in its heyday, replaced by “sports” such as poker, BMX racing and ultimate fighting in broadcast and print media. That does not mean it has to remain so. Tinker with the Breeders’ Cup format from top to bottom, or abolish it altogether, because as it exists now it does very little for the sport beyond filling the pockets of breeders, bloodstock agents and pinhookers. The aging fan base is not being rejuvenated with enough younger fans as things stand. It is time to think outside the box, to shake up an institution that has, to be honest, lost its way.
From BC-specific to broader industry changes, here is what I propose:
• Instead of holding the event at only one track every year, spread it over several weekends and several venues. Share the pageantry, the carnival-like atmosphere with as many racing fans across the country as possible. Have dirt races on dirt tracks, like Churchill, Belmont, or Oaklawn. Hold turf races run over the magnificent courses at Arlington or Woodbine. Allow artificial surface specialists to run over their preferred surface, at Santa Anita, Hollywood or Keeneland. Three meets, spread over three weekends, at three different venues. Thus, no one could worry that a Classic run over Pro-Ride puts dirt horses at a disadvantage—and neither Jess Jackson (and Curlin) nor IEAH (and Big Brown) would have any legitimate reason to avoid one another due to concerns about the surface. Run horses on the surface that best suits them, whether turf, dirt or the artificial stuff.
• Establish a point system and chart standings for horses racing throughout the year. Award points for racing in graded stakes, and continually publish rankings based on accumulated points. The BC races would be part of that system, and establish an agreement that end-of-the-year awards such as the Eclipse be based on total yearly performances, not a single race. Members of the TBA (http://thoroughbredbloggersalliance.blogspot.com/) and individual bloggers such as Kennedy’s Corridor (http://kennedyscorridor.blogspot.com/) have advocated the use of standings for years. Let us think seriously about it as a method of sustaining fan interest—emotionally invested fans draw in family members, friends and acquaintances as new fans through their enthusiasm for the sport. Give them something to invest themselves in more than just a couple days a year.
• Additionally, there must be a consolidated effort throughout the year to schedule properly races nationwide, both by date and by post time. Not only do fans crave this, but so too do bettors. Bigger, more competitive fields result in bigger pools worthy of risking one’s money against other horseplayers. How many times this year did major stakes races go off with fields of five or less horses? A better job needs to be done to ensure large fields, even if that means lessening the number of races, race dates and even racetracks. Mies van der Rohe’s adage “less is more” is so apropos to horseracing. More quality racing, from bottom-level claimers to Grade 1 stakes, will result from lessening the number of races run, thus leading to bigger fields and better competition overall.
• The “less is more” concept should apply to the Breeders’ Cup races themselves. For example, are there enough races run at 12 furlongs and above to warrant a “Marathon” race? In Europe and Australia perhaps, but American racing appears to favor 8.5 to 9 furlong races. If you want to continue to have a “Marathon” race, then make it a real marathon—two miles at least. True stamina needs to be reintroduced into American bloodstock, and rewarded. I recognize that if my first suggestion were implemented—scheduling three meets of races at three different venues—it would result in an increased number of BC races, and that is justified. Tossing in juvenile turf races just because you can hardly appears rational when so few juveniles are tested in graded turf stakes.
Conceptually, the Breeders’ Cup should be a series of races that serve as a platform for displaying the sport’s best horses for the racing fan instead of a monolithic self-indulgent money-grab for the breeding industry. If the sport does not once again focus itself on breeding to race—and actually race those horses—then the sport dies. It is as simple as that. Maybe the Breeders’ Cup needs to go the way of the dinosaurs as well.