Hand Cupped - by Dan Liebman

I watched parts of the Indianapolis 500 May 25. But I wonder how much less of it I would have viewed had the first 75 laps been on one network and the last 125 laps on another.

Just a small inconvenience? I don’t know. I might have just tuned out because of the silliness of making me—or is it asking me or expecting me—to do such a thing.

If you decide to watch the Saturday portion of the 25th Breeders’ Cup World Championships—formerly Breeders’ Cup, formerly Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships—this year from Santa Anita, you will have to do just such a thing. If you tune in on Friday, a third network comes into play.

You can argue an event with extremely low ratings should try anything new. Well, its organizers are.

So, on Friday, Oct. 24, five races for female horses—formerly distaffers—will be aired on ESPN2. The following day, the first 2 1⁄2 hours will be shown on ABC before the action switches to ESPN for another 3 1⁄2 hours.

(The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC as well as 80% of the ESPN family of companies.)

The Breeders’ Cup switched networks two years ago after a long run with NBC, apparently in an attempt to woo younger viewers, more of whom are attracted to ESPN programming. So far, that effort has been unsuccessful. The 2006 and ’07

ratings were nearly identical, last year’s 0.75 rating equating to roughly 1.05 million viewers.

The Friday card has been strengthened, in the view of some, but with poor previous ratings on Saturday, it is hard to imagine many new viewers tuning in on a Friday afternoon.

The Breeders’ Cup has made many announcements since last year’s event was held at Monmouth Park: last December that there would be three new races in 2008; in mid-February that Santa Anita would play host again in 2009; and later that month, that Friday would consist of five races for females and the Distaff (gr. I) would be re-named the Ladies’ Classic.

It became apparent a deal could not be worked out with Churchill Downs to play host in 2009, but waiting just a few weeks would have allowed Belmont Park to have been considered once the New York Racing Association was awarded a new franchise agreement.

As for the addition of new races, this writer must be among the minority who preferred the old model of the Breeders’ Cup, when a larger slice of the organization’s funds went to stakes races around the country throughout the year. More nominators and more horsemen were rewarded by pumping up stakes, many at small racetracks, where the odds of coming up with a horse good enough to compete in a championship race are high.

Now, with branding playing a larger role, Breeders’ Cup officials have opted to create more races to make the championship event stretch over two days. In 2008, we will be introduced to the Turf Sprint, Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Dirt Marathon. This comes on the heels of the first two-day Breeders’ Cup in 2007, when the Juvenile Turf, Dirt Mile, and Filly & Mare Sprint were run for the first time. This year’s two days will feature 14 races worth a record $25.5 million.

Many in the industry have criticized the grouping of the five races solely for fillies and mares on the Friday card, and the change from the distinctive name Distaff to Ladies’ Classic, akin to changing the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) to Ladies’ Derby. If both days are of equal importance, why have the fillies and mares competing when fewer people are watching?

While several announcements have been made, there has been no word yet on race sponsorships for this year. Interestingly, a check of the Breeders’ Cup Web site does not show Dodge as a corporate partner, meaning it may have powered its last Classic (gr. I).

Though celebrating its 25th anniversary, Breeders’ Cup 2008 will contain many firsts. Only time will tell if the new  features make a difference.

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