Let me preface my comments by saying that, like many of you, I’ll certainly be tuned in to the upcoming Breeders’ Cup—it’s two solid days of horse racing, and as a true fan, I appreciate seeing full, competitive fields as well as enjoying the expected (and, especially, the unexpected) results. That said, I firmly believe that the Breeders Cup as an entity—not to mention conceptually—has done far more damage to the sport than it has done good in recent years, and nothing would make me happier than to see it end. Strong words, I know, but born from frustration knowing what the sport once was—and where it unfortunately seems to be heading. Yes, it creates a clear focus, an unambiguous public relations event, a “world championship” (although that’s a highly-suspect claim, and not in the least bit accurate) for the sport, its fans and the general public, at a time when horse racing’s popularity is plummeting. Thus, one could argue that any exposure is a good thing. I beg to differ.
The crux of my argument: by focusing entirely on getting a horse to the Breeders’ Cup and the subsequent promise of an Eclipse award for winning, the traditional concept of a “campaign” for the best horses has been dumped in favor of a “preparation.” During the year, instead of conditioning and building stamina and fitness through racing, horses are strategically placed in relatively widely-spaced races, often resulting in being less raced overall—and thus resulting in subsequently smaller fields for graded races, much to the chagrin of fans. While not being able to see the best horses race more often during the year may be frustrating, it’s also corrosive to the sport overall as there are less compelling reasons to watch (and wager on) big races. Fans and horseplayers want to see competitive races year-around, not just over the course of two days. And “Win-and-You’re-In” races hardly fit the bill, as they too are tragically underwhelming in most cases.
From my point of view, most lamentable of all is the loss of importance once placed on traditional contests like the Brooklyn Handicap and Philip H. Iselin Stakes—races that were once revered as the tests of champions, but now hardly attract “B”-level horses. We may no longer be the agrarian America where farmers gathered to race their steeds against one another, and breeding was truly about improving the breed, not about making as much profit as possible by producing brilliant yet fragile young speedsters. However, that narrative about who we were—mixed with the pure visual sensory experience of watching racing in person—is exactly what makes horse racing exciting and unique as a sport.
There are those that may scoff at such sentimentality, or veneration for history; certainly, in the rush to the future, it’s convenient these days to ignore the past. However, it is the sport’s history that is, arguably, its strength. As much as baseball (apple pie and Chevrolet) defines us as a country, horse racing fills our collective psyche with nostalgia. Urban dwellers going to the track to breathe in nature, seeing and touching our equine heroes, glimpsing the rich and famous enjoying the races, collectively celebrating great performances and compelling stories—these are what once made the track a great place to be, and still could today. Of course not to the same degree as in the past as technology makes it far easier to watch and wager from home, but shouldn’t we be concerned about improving the on-track experience as much as the at-home experience? It starts with better quality racing throughout the year, not just one weekend in November.
Instead of focusing so much money and attention on the Breeders’ Cup and a singular race, wouldn’t it be more beneficial (not to mention compelling) to invest in developing a series of championship races? Once there was the Triple Tiara for 3-year-old fillies, and New York once recognized the Handicap Triple Crown. I’m sure some entity could sit down and come up with a series of races in each category of dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces that would serve as a truer championship, forcing owners to actually run their horses against the best on a more regular basis rather than dodging the competition. Appropriately high monetary prizes would be awarded for those horses accumulating points from racing in each series, much like the Global Sprint Challenge does. As there already exists plenty of high-quality year-end races, we could just do away with the Breeders’ Cup races altogether too.
Besides, hasn’t the Breeders’ Cup already lessened its own “championship” importance, diluted its own racing by adding too many specialty races over the course of two days? We didn’t need a Filly & Mare Sprint, let alone a Marathon (which is barely a staying race at all) or Juvenile Turf races, and we certainly don’t need a Juvenile Sprint. By carding so many races, the Breeders’ Cup is only obliging breeders and owners concerned about gaining that “Breeders’ Cup Champion” label in order to promote a stallion or shuttle their horse off far too early to the breeding shed. It’s not interested in actually hosting the best possible races and it’s mostly certainly not interested in supporting the sport overall. The Breeders’ Cup exists today to promote itself, and that egocentrism needs to end for the long-term benefit of the sport.