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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why the Breeders' Cup is Bad for Horse Racing

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.


Celeste said...

Thank you! You make a very good case and I couldn't agree more.

rather rapid said...

nice job! identifies a legit problem!
My take would be that the BC preps that seem in fashion--does OP exaggerate the reality a little are the product of the sport marketing itself to the wrong type of owner. We are selling horses to people more interested in ripping the sport off for money than they are in athletics and horse racing. That statement too is a generality, but what is absolutely true is that horse racing is hardly ever marketed in terms of horse ownership to that unlimited potential market of ex jocks that would be interested in racing a horse as a sport. If u had this type of owner--and that's other than to denigrate owners in the sport for other reasons--they'd be competing in races instead of looking to make a buck. Additionally, the BC should be integrated with the NTRA. What sense does it make to have the biggest aspect of the sport out there doing its own thing and promoting itself at the expense of the rest of horse racing?

sunnysunrise said...

Thought Provoking Article--in the 80s and 90s we had a small farm with 3 mares and were successful breeders. Correct me if I am wrong, but back then the Breeders Cup was formed to help the breeders!! Races were held specifically for BC nominated horses and if the breeder didn't race their nominated foals, they could still reap a monetary reward…similar to the state bred programs. The majority of our yearlings sold at Keeneland and lucky for us were trained by the likes of Charlie Whittingham, Buddy Delp, Noble Threewitt etc. BC also provided us with the opportunity to buy special BC packages offered only to nominators to go to these annual November soirees. All those perks are gone with the wind…no profit in that I’m guessing and I’m not sure John Gaines envisioned it upstaging sentimental races won by past racing legends!!

Lisa said...

Wow, well written. It seems more and more in the horse industry things are getting to be more about profit than actually improving/helping horses.

Bill Daly said...

Couldn't agree more. As someone who has been going to the races for 5 decades I am saddened at the current state of racing. All of the heretofore significant races of the past have been diminished and serve as nothing more than preps for the BC. As you say, the BC is always eagerly anticipated as a great event, but at what cost?
Great races such as the Washington DC International have been eliminated due to a scheduling conflict with the BC. Other races such as the Laurel Futurity, Selima, Champagne, etc. have been so diminished as to lose all relevance. It is difficult to remain interested in racing on a year round basis - as I once was - when competition seems to be avoided and owners cherry pick sweet spots for their stakes horses so they aren't overtaxed and peak too soon. It all adds up to a markedly inferior product. Something has to change in order for the sport to resurrect itself and the change should come from a diminished or discarded BC. A new model is needed.

Bill Daly said...

Couldn't agree more. As a longtime follower of the sport I feel that the damage done by the BC outweighs the benefits. Formerly, there was a racing schedule which attracted the fan's attention for most of the year. I eagerly awaited such events as the Washington DC International as the best turf horses in training would show up to do battle. John Shapiro would pick up the tab for foreign owners in order to encourage them to enter the race. It worked and the race was an international phenomenon. That all ended with the advent of the BC Turf. Not only were traditional fixtures like the International scrapped, but the racing calendar in general has been altered in order to focus on the BC. I won't rehash what we already know has happened any further, but it simply appears that what we have here is a classic study of "opportunity costs". Do the benefits of the BC outweigh the benefits of a series of significant races held throughout the year? Don't think so.

Steve Zorn said...

Wasn't the idea of a "campaign" behind failed efforts to establish a thoroughbred racing "tour," etc.? All those efforts have been blocked by the inability or unwillingness of the tracks to cooperate on scheduling. This is a problem that goes back at least as far as Spend A Buck's skipping the Preakness to run in the $2 million Jersey Derby in 1985. The Breeders Cup just brings these pressures to new heights.

Solution: a commissioner's office with real power over scheduling, incorporating the work of TOBA's Graded Stakes Committee. Likelihood of that happening: I'd make it 100-1 against. :(

Bono's Blog said...

I repectfully disagree. A series of races awarding points has already been tried. It didn't even work on the Triple Crowns races. If the BC would spread the races thru the year I don't see it making anything better. If the the purse from the BC classic was split into 3 $2 million races(Say each one replacing the the Big Cap(Spring), Foster(Summer), JC Gold Cup(fall)), I would see one of 2 things happening. Either they would draw similar fields as they do now. They would possibly attract a few shippers but it would not "force" the best horses to face each other. Or they draw horses from all over the country which would dilute the races in that division ran during the same period of time. Which is the problem that the proposed system is trying to fix. Also, the Breeder's Cup label is vital to bringing the best horses togther to compete. More vital than the purse money (The Delta Jackpot draws a mediocre field dispite a huge purse). It would also dilute the gambling product because it would force the casual better that drive the larger pools on BC day to pay attention more often, which they would likely not do, because if they did the sport would be in better shape and we probably would not be having this conversation.

Bill Daly said...

I'm not sure what ever happened to the ACRS. Anyone know? I do know that when it was in existence the Pimlico Special was really special. It did draw the best handicap horses in training. The same could be said for other races around the country. I thought this was a much better model than the BC since it made bettors focus on a series of events spread over time rather than focusing on one or two days.

whitecamry said...

I agree, the Breeders Cup has hurt the sport more than it's helped. But let's face it: it's all about television. Most other big-money sports have their championship dates which they hype ad nauseam. Without a Breeders Cup horseracing wouldn't have an autumn date to throw at the general public.

Also, I agree, the sport needs an effective governing body. It also needs to bring back crucial races and series like the Triple Triara and the Handicap Triple. Also, stretch the Jockey Club Gold Cup back to two miles - were you aware that the Eclipse Awards are the only major horseracing award in the world which doesn't recognize stayers? And let's not neglect steeplechasing.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but I think this Breeders' Cup think goes both ways. If it wasn't around we would still have the "fall championship" races around, and many of the nation's top horses would most likely face-off more in person and traverse the country to win the best races.
On the other hand the Breeders' Cup offers a great way for each division to be settled in one race with all the players (most of the time). Also we would never have seen amazing horses like Goldikova come over 4 consecutive years without the Breeders' Cup Mile.
Pro's and Con's, but all things considered I don't think the Breeders' Cup is a problem, it just radically changed the way the game is played.


Walt Gekko said...

There are some good points made on the Breeders' Cup, but the problem is, without the BC, we might not see anything big in the fall because of the explosion of popularity in college football just since the time the BC moved from NBC to ESPN in 2005.

It needs to be remembered that when the the Breeders' Cup was conceived in 1982, the NCAA had a monopoly on College Football broadcast rights (restricting for example how many times a school could be on television per season) that would be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1984. That ruling led to over time more and more college football being shown to where it's now wall-to-wall football from Noon until past midnight most weeks in the late summer and most of the fall, something John Gaines could not have foreseen when he created the BC. The increased popularity of college football and bigger TV ratings have led to games in prime time, as it is one of the few events that does well in the TV ratings in what is TV's "black hole."

What really is needed is changes to where racing more recently and more often is required for the BC, with a points system perhaps in place that puts a premium with the intent of having horses race at least 10-12 times in the year leading up to the BC. Another change I would make is to lengthen the BC Classic and Ladies Classic to 1 5/8 Miles. That would allow NYRA to return the Jockey Club Gold Cup to 1 1/2 Miles and also run the Beldame at that distance, which would have the Beldame as a natural progression from the Personal Ensign at 1 1/4 Miles and perhaps the same for the Woodward, also returned to 1 1/4 Miles.

The other change that would also have a positive effect on strengthening the breed in my opinion is (aside from a ban on Lasix that I would implement over a five year period) would be to follow the lead of new Meadowlands (Harness) owner Jeff Gural, who is implementing a new rule beginning with foals of 2012 that mandate that any horse conceived by a then-four year old stallion would NOT be eligible for major stakes races at The Meadowlands and his other tracks, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs. This includes the Hambletonian and Meadowlands Pace, the most important events in all of Harness Racing beginning with the 2015 editions of both races as well as stakes for two year olds beginning in 2014. I would take it further and expand it to include five year old seasons with thoroughbreds.

Even if only Breeders' Cup, Ltd. and Churchill Downs implemented such a rule, it would force major changes in the way horses are bred since suddenly, horses would have to be durable enough to withstand the rigors of racing through their five year old season, and with that that not being bred for precociousness as we have increasingly seen in recent years.

It's a mess we didn't get into overnight and won't get out of that easily.