Saturday, July 11, 2009

Breeders' Cup cuts would leave series incomplete

With new board members in place, the Breeders' Cup is considering cutting back in the future on its two-day slate of 14 races, suggesting that having so many divisions is just too darned hard to keep up with, for fans and for the series.

The series of win-and-you're-in races and other Breeders' Cup-affiliated stakes also would be culled in the process.

"The concern is, how do we lead into 14 different races, in 14 different divisions," Greg Avioli, CEO of the Breeders' Cup, told The Daily Racing Form. "It's very difficult to do with 14 divisions."

I find myself asking this a lot of the higher-ups in racing's hierarchy, but are they serious?

For me this is just the latest piece of evidence in the growing case that horse racing is being run by people who have forgotten what they're marketing, how to market it, or even to whom they should be marketing.

Ray Paulick was there to blog the whole thing and he seems to like what was said. And the notion of having a strategic plan is well and good. But I'm rarely one to back the concept of addition by subtraction.

Any horse racing fan -- even neophytes -- should be able to grasp that a true championship day of racing will have events for 2-year-olds and for older horses, on dirt (or some facsimile thereof) and on turf, at distances ranging from short, to medium, to long and very long. And, that those races will be held for both males and females.

Done right, that necessitates at least 14 divisions.

Juveniles at present are handed four races: colts and fillies, dirt and turf, all around two turns. There are no short races for 2-year-olds at the Breeders' Cup. And that still leaves only 10 more races over the two days for older horses, male and female.

With an open mile race on both dirt and turf, open dirt and turf sprints, plus the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Breeders' Cup Turf and the new Marathon (lengthened to a more serious distance this year at 14 furlongs), just three races are carded strictly for older females; a dirt sprint, the Don't Call It A Distaff and the Filly & Mare Turf.

Economics aside -- the quality and quantity of racing only being considered -- the smartest move the Breeders' Cup has made in recent memory was the addition of new races to support unrepresented divisions, such as the turf juveniles, sprinting females and horses whose pedigrees faintly hearken to the day when the Jockey Club Gold Cup was run at two miles. (The BC has fouled up the win-and-your in schedule, and by putting all the filly and mare races on Friday, but those are different blog posts.)

For the Breeders' Cup to go back on that commendable decision to serve all breeders and their horses, not to mention fans of distance and turf racing, and to ax races when they only just started to get it right, would be a huge mistake.

But that seems to be the direction the Breeders' Cup is headed. Last summer, the organization pegged Satish Sanan -- board member and owner of Padua Stables -- to lead a team in creating a new strategic plan. Work on the strategy began in January, aided by William Field, a British-based consultant for Value Partners, a management consulting firm.

The strategic plan for the future appears to have been to set up a rear-guard action and plot a retreat -- but a withdrawal so grand that the Breeders' Cup will become "the most prestigious and popular competition in world racing," according to Field.

Let's face it, competition for that title isn't very widespread. Aside from the historic Royal Ascot meeting -- where most American owners and trainers not named Wesley Ward fear to tread -- and Dubai World Cup day, exactly which other events are vying for the title of "most prestigious and popular competition in world racing?"

And considering Sheikh Mohammed has the bucks to drop £45 million on a 3,300-acre British farm with 39 houses, primarily to "use the grounds for shooting" -- and in six months will open the most spectacular new racetrack in the world -- it would seem the Breeders' Cup is already down in the count 0-and-2.

What the Breeders' Cup has going for it that nobody else can touch is the fundamental truth that around the world almost everybody who owns a racehorse -- Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum included -- wants to win big races on American soil. Even if only to win the competition of "us" vs. "them." Sure, they have marquee events in their own countries, and for most of the season those races keep the average overseas connections from shipping here to race. (Of course, Sheikh Mohammed has horses everywhere, all the time.)

But on Breeders' Cup weekend, they're all here, almost anyone who thinks his or her horse has a prayer of winning anything.

Field, the British consultant, concedes that's what it should be all about.

"The important thing is that the event in November is regarded as the event (horse owners) want to come to and there is nothing more that they would treasure than to win a race there," Field said.

So keep giving them races to win.

The fewer races, the fewer opportunities for horse owners to achieve that dream of a Breeders' Cup horse or -- praise be -- a Breeders' Cup champion. And, the fewer people who will be willing to make a downpayment on what for 99.99 percent of us is a pipe dream.

Breeders' Cup officials say the series will run a $6 million deficit this year, on total estimated expenses of $50 million. Of those expenses, $30.5 million is committed to purse outlays. (The Dubai World Cup offers $21.25 million in purses for just seven races and you can expect that to escalate at Meydan.)

Breeders' Cup expects foal nomination fee collections in 2009 to drop to $16 million from a total of $20 million in 2008; that's $4 million of the deficit in itself. But even mentioning the possibility of scaling back the number of races (not just on Breeders' Cup day, but the series' lower-level races nationwide throughout the year, races in which lesser connections have more of a chance) will only further discourage smaller breeders and stallion-owners from paying to nominate -- starting now, and not just when the cuts actually happen.

Face it -- fewer opportunities to win equals fewer people willing to pay the price of admission. I for one was thrilled with the prospect of the Marathon, hoping that as a small breeder it might be my best chance to someday have a Breeders' Cup horse without spending a mint for a fashionable sire who throws million-dollar 2-year-olds.

In the end -- what Breeders' Cup management doesn't even seem to get -- is that it isn't just about the money. It's about the dream. The snowball's chance. The faintest glimmer of hope for getting a horse to a Breeders' Cup race, even if it's "just" the $1 million Turf Sprint or the paltry $500,000 Marathon.

Of course, maybe it isn't about that if you're a millionaire, as I presume the preponderance of board members are, probably several times over. Maybe if you're in that financial echelon, the Breeders' Cup Classic isn't worth winning if it isn't a $5 million race.

But if money were the sole reason for running, wouldn't Jess Jackson be content to let Rachel Alexandra take a bite off that $2 million Ladies Classic apple, even if it's only around $500 large for second place to Zenyatta? Why does she run for the 60 percent winner's share of $300,000 in the Mother Goose, yet Jackson swears his filly will skip the Breeders' Cup at many times the financial reward because it will be run (for the second straight year) on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface, which he thinks puts Rachel at a disadvantage?

Seems to him it's more about the winning.

If money were the primary reason for sending a horse the Breeders' Cup, would the asking price reportedly being bandied about for a gelded Mine That Bird be in the vicinity of $4 million, a third more than the Kentucky Derby winner could even hope to earn from the Classic?

Seems as though posing for the win photo after a Breeders' Cup race is prize enough.

Obviously money makes the world go around, and perhaps no industry is more acutely aware of that than the horse business, where the yearling auctions are broadcast live on the Web and covered as extensively as some college football bowl games. Even so, the prices being paid by the high-end buyers don't correspond in the slightest with what the horse is likely ever to earn back at the track.

I mean, $16.7 million for The Green Monkey?

Sure, the breeding side of the business is where colt-buyers in particular hope to recoup their investment, via sky-high syndication deals.

But if you don't realize that the adventure between that sale purchase and the breeding shed -- the heady prospects of following your horse through 2-year-old maiden-breakers and stakes like the Hopeful and the Champagne, to the Derby Trail, to Churchill on the first Saturday in May, to Saratoga and Del Mar in the summer, to the Breeders' Cup and potentially seasons beyond -- is really what those buyers are purchasing for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, then you have lost sight of what horse racing is all about.

It's hard to imagine that people so deeply involved in the sport could be so oblivious to its aura, but maybe they're too close to the game. Could be they've been around it too long, particularly those who are perennially at its pinnacle. Perhaps the spotlight is bright enough on the sport that the two-way mirrored windows of its ivory towers allow us to see in, but blind the people who run the game to the outside world.

Maybe they really don't know anymore what they're marketing, how to market it, or even to whom it must be marketed.

What you're selling, Breeders' Cup, is what every red-blooded American wants from his life and, in racing, what every horseman worldwide pines for -- just a chance. An opportunity to compete against the best and to show what he's got. An inkling that maybe, just maybe, his horse is in with a shot.

Every race cut from the schedule kills that dream not just for somebody somewhere, but for dozens and hundreds of somebodies everywhere.

I understand that in the eyes of some -- horsemen and fans alike -- not all of the current card's 14 races are created equal. It's O.K. that the Breeders' Cup Marathon will never carry the purse of the Classic. But the race needs to be there as the championship, the season's ultimate goal, for the type of horses it fits. It isn't the biggest race of Breeders' Cup weekend, but it's the biggest race of the year for them.

For the Breeders' Cup to be the championship thoroughbred racing event worldwide, there must be a race for every genre of racehorse: juveniles and elders, male and female, main track and turf, from short distances to the very long.

Anything less must be graded incomplete.


  1. Hi,

    I started writing a pretty long response to your post, then got an idea which eventually lead to an entire post/proposal on my blog. So first of all, thanks for getting me to think about the subject.

    Most of what I wanted to comment is in that post, except for a part about why I dislike the F&M Sprint:
    It's bad enough that the stupid notion of separating F&M's is grandfathered in over the classic distances, but do we have to artificially increase it by adding such races, or quotas for F&M sprint G1's (look at today's Princess Rooney at Calder, what a pathetic excuse for a G1).

  2. Certainly females run against males elsewhere (i.e., not in North America) far more often than they do over here. To a large degree, though, I believe the separation of them makes sense. Most females aren't up to the level of competing against most males, of a similar class. When they can and do, that makes it all the more spectacular.

    As for the Princess Rooney, the scratch of Indian Blessing really cost that race. And unlike the scratch of Fabulous Strike from the Tom Fool last week (which was done only because the connections basically figured he'd lose), Indian Blessing had to be scratched because a shot of penicillin she got for an infection two weeks ago hadn't cleared her system enough to pass the race-day drug screen. ... That's unfortunate.

    Marina Ballerina was scratched with a cough, too, and she was 2-for-2 at this Calder meet, including a stakes win.

    Had Indian Blessing in patricular been in the race, you probably wouldn't be questioning the field as Grade 1, because there would have been a real throwdown in the stretch between her and Game Face. Marina Ballerina might also have figured, so the favorite and another nice horse were out, and the result was a tepid 1:10 and change for six furlongs.

    I do agree, though, that some U.S. graded stakes races have become a joke because of field size. The Tom Fool is a prime example. It was only going to be five horses anyway prior to the scratch of Fabulous Strike, and only two of the five had ever won a stakes race. (One had never PLACED in a stakes race.)

    Where are the owners of halfway-decent local stakes horses? Or even top allowance horses for whom $20,000 or $35,000 for third place would be a really nice payday?

    Back to the colts vs. fillies point, I think that in certain races, the genders merit being kept separate. In the U.S. there are so many sprinters that there's good reason to have one race for males (or females whose connections are confident in them) and another for fillies and mares.

    But note there's no turf mile nor dirt mile for fillies and mares. (And there are plenty of female milers.) No marathon for females. So I don't think the Breeders' Cup has gone overboard in catering to female-only races.

    However, I haven't read your post yet, so I'll probably learn something when I do!

  3. Thanks, I responded on my blog for the most part, but as to the topics discussed here.

    Re: the Princess Rooney - Admittedly it was a bit of a cheap shot with Indian Blessing out. With her, it wouldn’t have been an unusually weak G1 by AGSC standards, but still several levels short of what I’d consider a race of the highest quality.

    This was after all a race for older horses, but half the field had yet to finish on the board in any graded stakes, and IB and Game Face were the only ones that could be considered G1 caliber (with one or two more having fringe ability).

    I’m with Oaklawn Park on this, the AGSC grades are so useless that they should better not be mentioned at all (I only do it on my blog to mock such "highest level"-races as the Mother Goose)

    I think field size is a symptom, not the cause. There are simply far too many G1 and G2 races for a limited number of top horses. If I can add a G1 win to my resume without facing top quality, why would I run against RA to do so. It might be a coincidence, but NYRA (with its 3-horse MoGoose and 4-horse Tom Fool) has for years been worse than anyone else in scheduling glorified Overnights as Stakes races for 70K, to the point of regularly counter-scheduling their own prestigious feature events. No wonder if that shrinks the size and attraction of their scheduled stakes fields.
    Of course I agree with your point that the local horseman should go for an easy grab at those runner-up purses.

    Re: F&M – we really don’t know. G3 level fillies never compete against G3 level colts, so how could we know how they’d do. Still, I’ve read 4 books and quite a bit of www stuff about handicapping, and have yet to find an author who says "female horses that drop from F&M Alw class into open Claiming company stand not a chance against male horses with comparable forms". If F&M races were generally much weaker, that would seem one of the most obvious handicapping principles.


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