Cup Cuts - by Dan Liebman

The first Breeders’ Cup was held at Hollywood Park Nov. 10, 1984. But in January of that year, long before the first event day, nominators began receiving checks from another of the fledgling organization’s programs, the $10-million Premium Awards.

Calder Race Course was the first track to run a stakes enriched with supplemental monies from the Breeders’ Cup, with 428 stakes at 85 racing associations in North America designated to receive funds to boost their stakes programs.

An examination of the percentage of non-restrictive stakes at each track determined the allocations, with Breeders’ Cup and track officials then determining which races would have their purses increased. Nominated horses would run for the entire purse; non-nominated horses only for the money from the racing association.

In addition, foal and stallion nominators would receive awards, a way to earn back a portion of the dollars breeders pay to fund the Breeders’ Cup.

Over the ensuing decades, the Premium Awards program has been worth a varying number of dollars, enriched different numbers of stakes, and was even sponsored for several years by Budweiser. Now, it has been discontinued.

In a memo to racing officials Dec. 11, Breeders’ Cup senior vice president Pam Blatz-Murff cited “anticipated losses in nominations revenue and the worldwide economic downturn” as causing a decrease in Breeders’ Cup revenue in 2009 of more than $10 million. The stakes program was cut, as was, the memo said, “more than $5 million in television and marketing spending.”

With premium stakes allocations now withdrawn, racing offices, Blatz-Murff said, should “rewrite your condition and stakes books to reflect this change.”

What a week for racetracks. In addition to the Breeders’ Cup bombshell, Santa Anita announced a 10% across-the-board purse cut and Calder was forced to eliminate three grade III $100,000 stakes races. This all comes on the heels of November’s significant drop in handle.

When the Breeders’ Cup began in 1984, its championship event day consisted of seven races with purses totaling $10 million. In 1999, the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) was added, and the purses rose to $13 million. In 2007, flush with money from rising stud fees and profitable investment accounts, Breeders’ Cup expanded, adding three races and changing the event to stretch over two days. This year, the program expanded to 14 races featuring purses worth $25.5 million.

Now, with the stock market in turmoil and stud fees falling, Breeders’ Cup officials were forced to make some hard decisions. But it is difficult to know the full financial picture, because though funded for 25 years by breeders, the Breeders’ Cup does not issue an annual report to the industry.

Unfortunately, in deciding where to cut costs, the Breeders’ Cup has opted to cut a program that stretches across North America and rewards more nominators and horsemen in favor of two days of racing and a total of 14 races.

The Breeders’ Cup is one of the few ideas in racing that has actually endured, but it has not caught on with general sports fans. Few know it by name and the television ratings have never taken off. The Classic (gr. I) will never replace the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) as the race non-racing fans can identify with.

On the other hand, the stakes program was a way to enhance stakes at large and small tracks alike. Whether the race was increased from $20,000 to $25,000 or from $200,000 to $300,000, it was a chance for eligible horses to earn more and for owners, breeders, jockeys, and trainers to be rewarded for supporting the program.

Racing secretaries and stakes coordinators are understandably disappointed by the decision. Many breeders will be, as well. Tough times lie ahead for breeders. Now they have fewer chances to recoup some of their nomination money.

Scaling the event back to one day to save the Premium Awards would have helped more horsemen.

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