Getting Intimate - By Evan Hammonds

Major league sports—and the way we experience them—have changed dramatically since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984. Larger stadiums have given way to smaller venues. What was once a game is now a multimedia spectacle with music, short-burst entertainment, and advertising filling the void between quarters, innings, matches, and time outs.

The Breeders’ Cup went “big” in the beginning, calling on the stadium-sized tracks in Southern California and New York to get the ball rolling in its first four events before adding Churchill Downs in Kentucky and Florida’s Gulfstream Park to the mix. The World Championships played in those four states for 12 years before spreading the wealth around the continent from Woodbine in 1996 to Monmouth Park in 2007.

The Breeders’ Cup hasn’t left California or Kentucky since the waterlogged weekend on the Jersey Shore, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed things up. Breeders’ Cup went small in 2015, drawing on the charm and intimacy of Keeneland Race Course and adding the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club last year. So successful were these events, they are heading back to Keeneland in 2020 and Del Mar in 2021. 

Both Lexington and the San Diego area have proved up to the task, and the “smaller” metropolitan areas made special efforts to expand the two-day racing spree to a week’s worth of events. So important to the city of Lexington is the Breeders’ Cup that the announcement of its return was front-page news—not once, but twice—in the city’s Herald-Leader.

What once might have been considered “scale” of the Breeders’ Cup—the voluminous grandstands of the old Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Churchill, and Belmont—is now boiled down to an “experience.” Higher-end customers—corporate sponsors, and of course, owners and breeders—have different expectations these days. Chalets, suites, special areas, and food and beverage upgrades are expected. The days of a seat in the grandstand and a hot dog are numbered.

Is a segment of the Thoroughbred audience priced out of racing’s biggest event? Sure, but fans have been priced out of the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and bowl games for some time now. How the event unfolds on an HD screen at home is today’s “scale,” and don’t think for a second with sports betting being added to the mix that our sporting “experience” will not change before the Breeders’ Cup hits Keeneland and Del Mar in two years time.

This past weekend at Del Mar, Hronis Racing’s Accelerate tore through the stretch Aug. 18, winning the $1 Million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (G1) by 12 1/2 lengths, his third grade 1 win on the year.

Jeremy Balan, one of our online news editors, tweeted: “If Accelerate wins the Awesome Again (Stakes at Santa Anita) and Breeders’ Cup Classic—which, granted, is a big ask—he’s got my vote for Horse of the Year.”

He’s not alone in his sentiment.

There is no refuting what Accelerate has already accomplished this year, but he happens to be competing for Horse of the Year honors with a Triple Crown winner.

Of the 13 previous Triple Crown winners, 12 were acknowledged Horse of the Year (official voting began in 1936). The lone exception to date was Belair Stud’s Omaha, who swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in 1935.

In his defense, Omaha won the “Triple Crown” just a few years before the phrase was coined by Daily Racing Form writer Charles Hatton, so the series might not have carried the same cachet as it does today, nor was there an organized forum such as the Eclipse Awards to designate a national “Horse of the Year.”

Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Discovery was the 1935 “Horse of the Year”…and he had a pretty good season, too, winning 11 of 19 starts from May 15 to Oct. 26. All of his victories came in a 13-race span from June 22 to Oct. 22 with victories at eight tracks: Aqueduct (Brooklyn Handicap, defeating Omaha by 12 lengths), Detroit, Arlington Park (Stars and Stripes Handicap and Arlington Handicap), Empire, Coney Island, Suffolk Downs, Saratoga (Wilson Stakes, Merchants and Citizens Handicap and Whitney Stakes), and Hawthorne (Gold Cup).

As much as we like both horses, something extraordinary would need to occur in order for Accelerate to leapfrog Justify at the end of the year.

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