Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fixed-site Breeders' Cup loses sight of the point

In the May 15 issue of The Blood-Horse (and online), WinStar Farm co-owner Bill Casner, a board member of Breeders' Cup Ltd., touted the selection of Santa Anita as the sole site to host future Breeders' Cup "world championship" weekends.

Casner isn't wrong on all the facts. Only on the conclusion he reaches.

A fixed-site Breeders' Cup misses the point of holding a Breeders' Cup in the first place.

Casner's opinion piece deftly lays out numerous reasons why settling on one site -- and a warm, dry one, near a major urban market -- makes plenty of financial sense. He cites stability as a reason the U.S. Open Tennis Championships grew its sponsorships from $14 million to $60 million since establishing a permanent site. (Of course, that move to Flushing Meadows -- from Forest Hills a few miles away, where the tourney had finally settled in New York City 10 years prior after being held at various locations for decades -- was made in 1978, and Casner doesn't calculate how much influence inflation has played on that $46 million difference. He also ignores that the U.S. Open Golf Championship is successful despite being moved annually.)

Casner calls staging the Breeders' Cup at different sites each year a "daunting challenge" logistically. This I don't doubt. But that doesn't stop the NFL from moving the Super Bowl (a two-week tourist event these days) around the country every season. ... And the Super Bowl will soon be held in Jersey in February. We can't expect people to watch horse racing in 55-degree weather at Belmont in November?

Casner also thinks selecting Santa Anita as a permanent site will help the Breeders' Cup better compete as a global event with the ridiculously lucrative (for winners) Dubai World Cup held each March. But let's face it; how do you really compete financially against an event run by a guy who owns a whole friggin' country?

Bottom-line, Casner's arguments in favor of Santa Anita as the sole site for future renewals of the Breeders' Cup were about one thing: That is, the bottom line.

In a sport that is also a business, the money side of the equation surely can't be ignored. After all, no purse, no race.

But Casner's sales pitch pays only lip-service at best to a pair of crucial elements that -- without being put at the top of Breeders' Cup's priorities -- will defeat the very purpose of holding the races.

He all but ignores the fans and the "sport."

Casner's nod to the race-going public can be summarized thusly: Santa Anita is a great place to watch racing ("The morning experience of watching horses train at Clocker's Corner is second to none," etc.); and, Los Angeles has great weather, plus plenty for visitors to see, eat and do when the horses aren't on the track.

I can't contest these points. Though I've not yet been to Santa Anita, it's certainly on my racetrack "bucket list." And, presently living in North Carolina -- where no track ever to be chosen as a Breeders' Cup host site will be within "day trip" distance -- holding the event in Southern California, South Florida, Kentucky, New York or anywhere else is pretty much all the same to me. I'm having to book a hotel at least, if not also a flight and a rental car.

But it isn't the same to the Joe Pick-Sixes who are regulars on weekends at Monmouth, or Belmont and Aqueduct, or Churchill, or Calder. Casner's desire to hold the Breeders' Cup every year at Santa Anita would essentially be telling the sport's true fans everywhere in the country except Southern California that their favorite or nearest venue is permanently excluded from hosting what is allegedly racing's biggest weekend. Dyed-in-the-wool race fans in the heart of U.S. thoroughbred country, Kentucky, and in major breeding and racing states like Florida and New York -- not to mention those who patronize sites like Arlington Park in Chicago, Lone Star Park in Texas or Woodbine in Canada, all of which have hosted prior Cups -- would never again be able to buy tickets for both race-days of the Breeders' Cup while enjoying a good rest on Friday night in their own beds.

On the other hand, Casner does contend that siting the Breeders' Cup permanently at Santa Anita would bring back a certain type of fan: Celebrities.

"L.A. is the heart of the entertainment industry," he writes. "Bringing the stars back to the races will be a huge asset in stimulating fan interest and attendance."

I actually agree with Casner that racing could elevate its public profile across all demographics -- even among the People of Wal-Mart hoi polloi -- through greater patronage of the sport by the "People Magazine" set. Americans are notorious for their stargazing. Inquiring minds constantly want to know what's up with the George Clooneys and Scarlett Johanssons of the world.

But that stellar segment of the casual-race-fan set turns out in droves in "little" Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday of every May for what is, without argument, America's biggest race. (And thus America's "race at which to be seen.") If the Breeders' Cup doesn't hold sufficient interest for the occasional (and famous and filthy rich) fan, delivering it to their doorsteps isn't really answer. Don't these people love to travel (for the right event), and can't they afford it?

In the process of making the "world championship" races a backyard-Hollywood affair, Casner and Breeders' Cup would be telling more devoted race fans across the country that they have to pack their bags, use up their hard-earned vacation and buy their plane tickets to see a Breeders' Cup -- no waiting for it to return to your area; it never will -- because the supposed biggest weekend in all of thoroughbred racing isn't a compelling enough event to convince the insanely wealthy Hollywood crowd to spring for a trip to such un-cosmopolitan cities as New York (Broadway) and Miami (South Beach).

And a key element of racing's fan base provides a convenient segue into the other half of the argument against Santa Anita as a fixed site for the Breeders' Cup: Horseplayers.

Racing might not be "nothing" without the men and women who gamble on it. But it would be a whole lot less "something" even than the shadow of its former self that horse racing in America has become. And I can't imagine all that many horseplayers eagerly anticipate handicapping the Breeders' Cup on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. They just aren't honest races.

Take last year's Breeders' Cup Classic: The race was won by Zenyatta, a brilliant mare facing boys who also happened to be a homestanding, Southern California, synthetic-track monster. She was sent off as the favorite, but only at about 2.80/1; she won like she was 2/5. Second place went to Gio Ponti, the Eclipse champion turf horse of 2009. Third place was Twice Over, a British-bred making his first-ever start not on the turf. Fourth was Summer Bird, a Belmont Stakes and Travers winner also making his first start on synthetic.

Where to begin in figuring races that could annually be equal-parts dirt horses trying to cross-over to synthetic, turf horses likewise making a surface-switch, and horses with actual synthetic form from which to judge?

And if handicappers don't have a sporting chance at figuring out which horses might figure in a main-track Breeders' Cup race at Santa Anita, what about the horses and their connections? The fields themselves for the 2009 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita disprove Casner's Blood-Horse contention that "the international racing community has demonstrated over the last two Breeders' Cup events that it will bring its best horses to Santa Anita."

Casner can't be completely right, considering the connections behind two of arguably the three best horses in the world last year, snubbed the 2009 "world championships" altogether.

Where was European sensation Sea the Stars? At home across the Atlantic, considering he'd already done more than enough to prove himself one of the best colts Europe had seen in decades and he didn't need to brave the ship to California and the Santa Anita heat (by British standards, with the horse's winter coat already growing in) to prove himself any further.

Or Rachel Alexandra? It's arguable whether she could've been made fit for the Breeders' Cup, considering how much her September Woodward Stakes win over males seemed to take out of her; she was rested for months after and has come back in 2010 to be narrowly beaten twice in as many starts. But Rachel's aggressive schedule was set out with no intent of being at Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup anyway. Principal owner Jess Jackson refused to run his prized filly "on plastic" (Pro-Ride); she was declared a non-starter for the B.C. months before the race-draw.

And Rachel wasn't the only American horse held out of the 2009 Breeders' Cup because the "dirt" races would not be run on dirt. Although health and other reasons could be argued as part of the decision (especially for some of these who still haven't started since), the Pro-Ride track at Santa Anita was reportedly the reason behind the defections from the Breeders' Cup by at least three potential B.C. Sprint entries (Fabulous Strike, Kodiak Kowboy and Munnings), Filly & Mare Sprint hopeful Indian Blessing (who'd placed in the race over Pro-Ride a year prior), and top juveniles of both genders, Hot Dixie Chick (Spinaway S.-G1 at 2), Jackson Bend (four stakes wins at 2), and Dublin (Hopeful S.-G1 at 2).

Longtime Southern California fixture D. Wayne Lukas says artificial surfaces are, "just too unpredictable." That they, "(make) good horses average and average horses good." Even John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta, has told the New York Daily News that he "hates" synthetic tracks.

Lukas, last fall, on his trainee, Dublin: "If I don't run in the Breeders' Cup, he doesn't have to run on artificial surfaces the rest of his life."

Better think again, D. Wayne. Bill Casner wants to throw your best horses onto that Pro-Ride every year from (not quite) here on out.

Beyond the Pro-Ride itself -- which is more than enough reason to dismiss not just Santa Anita, but any synthetic main surface, as a fixture location for the Breeders' Cup -- the very nature of settling the "championship" weekend in one location, forever, turns up its nose at the notion of fairness in racing. If Santa Anita is the site for all future Breeders' Cups, then every horse in America not based in Southern California becomes a shipper for every Breeders' Cup. (Of course that's the case for foreign horses, but it always will be, hence the trouble with considering this a "world championship" anyway; some connections won't ship to the DWC, either.)

That could be a boon to SoCal trainers, as top horses would have to spend at least part of the year in Cali prepping for the Cup. It could swell the fields of races like the Pacific Classic. But it could causes horses to defect from training stables throughout the rest of the country. And might it eviscerate fields even for Grade 1 races on the opposite coast, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, historically a key prep for the B.C. Classic?

And wouldn't a horse like Lava Man have relished the home field advantage of Santa Anita? One of my all-time favorites, he wasn't able to finish ahead of much of anybody outside of Cali, but would have a short-price shot at two-time Horse of the Year if the B.C. had been run at Santa Anita in 2005-06 instead of 2008-09.

Bill Casner wrote 14 paragraphs on why Santa Anita should be the permanent site of the Breeders' Cup without any mention of equity or quality in the racing, nor even a cursory dismissal of arguments that a synthetic main track could cost the Breeders' Cup a slew of dirt-only horses defecting from its starting gates.

I can only presume that Casner believes locking-down the B.C. at S.A. would force folks like Jess Jackson to race there, whether or not they want to. But that potential conflict is not in the best interests of the Breeders' Cup specifically, nor of American racing on the whole.

Maybe it's time for the Breeders' Cup to admit it isn't the "world championships" of racing. Heck, last year it wasn't even the national championships. Rachel Alexandra (3-year-old filly, Horse of the Year) and Kodiak Kowboy (sprinter) won three Eclipse titles while snubbing the Breeders' Cup because of the venue and its Pro-Ride. Lookin at Lucky was champion 2-year-old despite a close beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Summer Bird was champion 3-year-old colt without hitting the board on Breeders' Cup weekend. Gio Ponti was champion older male despite losing the Classic to a girl, and champion turf horse despite running off the turf in the Breeders' Cup.

That's seven of 11 Eclipse Awards intended for horses running on the flat being handed to horses that didn't win -- or, in three cases, even run in -- a Breeders' Cup race.

If Bill Casner and Breeders' Cup Ltd. want their weekend to be all it can be -- maybe the world championships they hope for, but certainly the weekend every year in American racing for horses of all ages -- then the racing must come first; the fans and handicappers a close second. (And they will follow great racing).

That will never be the case on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.


  1. To name Santa Anita as a fixed site at this point in time would be the catalyst for the demise of the Breeders Cup.

    What is laughable is that the Breeders Cup has failed to attract the best of the Europeans for many years yet the BC continues to persist in calling themselves "World Thoroughbred Championships'.

    How about hosting it at a site where a Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta can meet on a surface that is traditional to American thoroughbreds?

    After all, the Breeders Cup was meant to decide divisional championships before all else. Yet these board of directors can not or do not want to serve American Thoroughbred racing well.

  2. I couldn't have said it any better, Glenn. Well done!

  3. I dunno. I saw a lot of responses over at that were much more concise. But thanks. :-)

    I also think it's ironic that I wrote this on the same day that I became a fan of WinStar on Facebook. I certainly don't harbor animosity toward Bill Casner (whom I've never met, but would like to) over this. I just think that the finances-only approach to the situation is short-sighted.

    I should have entered their naming contest for Super Saver's baby half-brother, too. I realized today that I missed that boat. I think he ended up named Superfection, which I guess doesn't stink. But it's been used before and thus is not entirely original.

    My thought for a Medaglia d'Oro-Supercharger colt: Superioro (or Superi'Oro).

  4. I agree with your main point, but what about that tired synthetic hatred that makes up the second half?

    Results for both SA BCs were easy enough to predict if you work from the premise that a good horse will likely cope with any surface (which btw is true for turf/dirt switches too, another topic where North American handicappers tend to get their knickers wet for very little reason while their Asian or South American brethren somehow get the right result just considering the surface one of dozens of factors and mostly important for determining the pace scenario). It's certainly easier than to predict how the track will play out at a major CD raceday, where the maintenance crew just has to do something special for the big days and rain will turn the whole affair into a muddy mess.

    Then again, this whole Pro-Ride discussion shows American racing in a nutshell: people obsessing about problems that are nonexistent or benign while being largely oblivious to the mountains of problems that really need to be addressed. Thankfully there are a couple of people (Steve Davidowitz for example) who realize that just because a 40 year old handicapping strategy deviced for early-speed-dirt doesn't work there, this doesn't mean a track is harder to handicap.

  5. It isn't "synthetic hatred," it's a very practical argument.

    A good portion of the fan base for these races, want to wager on them. It's confusing and unappealing to wager on a race that is almost impossible to decipher because so many of the horses have never raced over a given surface. Thus, potential disinterest in the fan base.

    I don't think handicapping synthetics is all that difficult if you're dealing with horses who have some sort of synthetic form in their background. When, as the post suggests, every main track race at a Santa Anita Breeders' Cup might be equal parts dirt horses with no synthetic form, turf horses with no synthetic form, and (primarily) California horses who've run over that very track, it becomes a different matter entirely.

    And then we're back to racing fairness. With fewer than half of all main tracks in the States operating with synthetic surfaces, it's unfair to make the dirt horses who still dominate American main-track racing run their supposed "biggest race of the year" on an artificial track surface that many of them have never touched.

    Even among the minority of tracks that do operate with synthetic, the variety of the synthetic varies. Heck, in California alone, the synthetic track of choice isn't the same at any of the four major venues: Santa Anita (Pro-Ride); Del Mar (Polytrack); Hollywood Park (Cushion Track); and Golden Gate Fields (Tapeta). (And can further vary due to maintenance, but so does dirt.)

    In fact, I could be wrong, but isn't Santa Anita still the only American racetrack with a Pro-Ride surface?

    I don't think a single site will ever make sense for other reasons, namely equity in requiring every trainer's horses to ship for the Breeders' Cup once in awhile. (And for fans to be able to see a Breeders' Cup at a venue somewhere in their third or quarter of the country.)

    But until a solid majority of American tracks (at least the major venues) are racing on synthetics of some form, then it's folly to hold the "championship races" every season on a surface over which most of the horses do not routinely work or race.

  6. My personal impression (and non-representative samples) suggest that there is no basis to believe Keeneland Poly to SA ProRide or GG Tapeta to Hollywood CushionTrack is any less of a switch than any Turf to any Synthetic (or Belmont to Aqu Inner for that matter). They also suggest a good horse can still be handicapped easily enough on form and scenario if you add the implications of any specific track to the equation as you would do between two dirt tracks.

    It's true that for the business side of the BC it's the perception rather than the true influence of the surface that counts (and there are crtainly some construction sites there), but the synth-is-harder-to-handicap argument is little more than a pure perception issue (except perhaps for Keeneland which I do find hard to 'cap, but I may just be overlooking something there).

    True it would be unfair to run every single BC over a synthetic surface (argument works both ways) if those are the minority, but as I said, I agree that the BC shouldn't have a permanent site for a number of reasons, most of all that the only reasonable candidates would all pigeonhole the BC either as "that Kentucky thing" or as a minor annual event in a suburb of LA or NY when it could be a regional boost to the sport if held on a B-level track every few years. My candidates would be the likes of Pimlico, LS, Woodbine, AP, TB, FG or Oaklawn (why not?). If able to accomodate a crowd, several others from Hastings to TuP, from Canterbury to Colonial seem worth a shot too (I may be getting ahead of myself here, Belmont is steadily on its way to B-level, not sure I'd rate it above WO anymore)


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.