One for the Road - By Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the November 6, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds

 It’s impossible to separate the greatest Breeders’ Cup races from the venues in which they occurred. We recall indelible moments in time and place: Personal Ensign’s remarkable rally on a cold, rainy afternoon at Churchill Downs; Sunday Silence holding off Easy Goer’s late charge in the growing darkness at Gulfstream Park; Tiznow running down the long Belmont Park stretch to defend his Classic title in post-9/11 New York; and Zenyatta on a resplendent late afternoon at Santa Anita Park.

Horses and tracks are inextricably linked in the moveable feast that is the Breeders’ Cup. And that’s just what John Gaines envisioned when he proposed the idea of racing’s championship event. Gaines wanted the Breeders’ Cup to rotate among tracks and locales around North America each year, much like the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, or the PGA Championship. What better way to create excitement than to tantalize racing fans and entice general sports fans with an ever-changing location? Some diehard Breeders’ Cup fans have traveled to every venue. What better way to let each participating track show off its best attributes to the racing community?

Obviously, some tracks have met the challenge better than others over the first 27 years. Nine tracks in all have participated and it is safe to say just a trifecta are legitimate contenders to host the Breeders’ Cup these days. They are the landmark tracks accustomed to handling big-event days, having the personnel, infrastructure, and resources to do the job well: Churchill Downs with its iconic Twin Spires, Santa Anita Park with its majestic San Gabriel Mountains backdrop, and New York’s venerable Belmont Park.

Monmouth Park in New Jersey gave its best shot in 2007, but miserable weather in late October at a facility built to close after Labor Day undermined its efforts. Arlington Park in Chicago was a close second and has been the best performer to date with the use of temporary stands.

Lone Star Park, the little track that could, really couldn’t in 2004. The original Gulfstream Park was a solid player in 1989, 1992, and 1999, but the new racino version can’t cut it. Woodbine performed admirably in 1996, but Canada in late fall, plus the track’s loss of space to slot machines, makes it a less than ideal candidate. Aqueduct, home of Breeders’ Cup II in 1985, is poised to become a racino as well. And Hollywood Park doesn’t really want to be a racetrack.

Perhaps former Blood-Horse editor Kent Hollingsworth’s toes were still frozen after returning from Aqueduct in 1985 when he wrote in this space that “the Breeders’ Cup should stay in Los Angeles, at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, whichever track operation can do the best job of promoting Breeders’ Cup Day, at the track and on television.” His assumption was television viewers would prefer a venue that would “be bright and sunny rather than cold and rainy” with “no overcoats in the crowd,” when tuning in racing’s big event.

Twenty-six years later we believe it’s proven the sport and the horses are the show on TV, not what’s happening in the grandstand.

Breeders’ Cup had hoped to make Santa Anita the permanent home of the World Championships, citing the prospect of long-term sponsorship deals, good weather, and proximity to the entertainment community.

A permanent home does not make sense for a lot of reasons, not the least of which are questions about the long-term stability of the ownership entity. Lest we forget, Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment Corp. went bankrupt. It was succeeded by Frank Stronach’s MI Developments. California racing is, in a word, unstable.

The Breeders’ Cup also has always been in need of a back-up site. Amazingly, Belmont Park was able to pull off an emotionally charged Breeders’ Cup in 2001 just weeks after 9/11. But just in case, Churchill Downs was ready to pinch hit.

The Breeders’ Cup returns to Churchill Downs in 2011. But after two years we’ll miss the freeways of L.A. and the Manhattan skyline. Let’s hope Breeders’ Cup takes its show on the road in 2012 and beyond.

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