Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Death Of A Vision

As you've no doubt heard the Breeders' Cup has added three new races to it's menu. When the Breeders' Cup announced that it was adding new races last year there was a far greater reaction, both positive and negative. Many fans and writers were firmly behind the idea while some were firmly against it. I think the majority of us saw both positives and negatives in the addition of the races and were willing to let it play out before passing judgement.

I was personally intrigued by the notion of making the season less Breeders Cup focused. One possible benefit of adding new races that I saw was that it may change the way voters view Breeders' Cup winners with respect the Eclipse Awards. In recent times racing had become quite focused on the Breeders' Cup as the sole determining factor for championship's rendering the rest of the year meaningless. I do want to see the whole year given it's due and while I think the Breeders' Cup Classic is the single most important race of the year I don't think that it outweighs two G-1 races like the Whitney and the Santa Anita Handicap on it's own. The thought was that voters looking to crown the Champion Older horse may not be simply looking for the Classic winner, now the Dirt Mile winner might have some claims.

It was a nice theory but in practice this has had little effect. Part of that was due to the fact that the Graded Stakes Committee refused to give the new Breeders' Cup race G-1 status. Clearly creating a two tier Breeders' Cup. The established races were the "real" Breeders' Cup and the races held on Friday seemed more like under card supporting races. If anything the addition of the new Breeders' Cup races did more to harm racing throughout the year than help it. More horses were attracted to run in the Breeders' Cup and given the preferred preparation methods of trainers this meant that stakes races all over the country lost top class contenders because the goal was to "be fresh for the Breeders' Cup". It is still theoretically possible that the Dirt Mile for instance will take some of the focus off the Classic in terms of year end awards but the effect on the rest of the calender is still the same but to a greater degree. More horses will be campaigned with the Breeders' Cup specifically in mind and the result will be less competing prior to the Breeders' Cup.

As I sought to understand why the Breeders' Cup has decided to take this road I looked carefully at the statements being made by those currently in charge. Statements like "our goal is to reach $200 million in handle by 2010" and “These new races also continue our mission in providing more opportunities for horsemen to compete at the highest levels over the two-days of the Championships.”

I realize that we as fans, or at least I, see the Breeders' Cup in a totally different way than the board of directors and particularly CEO Greg Avioli. It seems as though the goal of the Breeders' Cup is not what it used to be. When John Gaines came up with the concept of the Breeders' Cup it was supposed to be an event where all potential champions met on the same track on the same day. It was to be the Super Bowl or World Series of horse racing. Implying that only the best of the best would be on showcase.

I feel that Greg Avioli has led the Breeders' Cup away from that vision. The goal now is to increase handle not the quality of the racing product and obviously the easiest way to increase handle is to have more races. Since when was a championship day about "providing more opportunities for horsemen to compete at the highest level"? Shouldn't a true championship be exclusive? Shouldn't the bulk of the efforts be geared towards attracting the actual best horses on the planet? The theory that more racing equals more handle is not even a sound one but it seems to be the course that the Breeders' Cup is pursuing. In their statement they mention wanting to make the Breeders' Cup a bigger entertainment product for the fans, the sponsors and television. Notably missing from the mission statement is a commitment to benefiting racing, the sport itself.

I suppose we knew this already, the different factions in racing are primarily concerned with enlarging their own piece of the pie and they care very little about what benefits the sport itself. It's just sad to see it once again put into practice.

As for the specific implementation of the races themselves it seems like the ideas were rushed and half baked. Three new races have been added and none of them have true divisional status in North America. There are no awards to give out for the best 2yo Turf Filly, or Dirt Stayer and although the Turf Sprint division does exist worldwide it does not really exist in North America, beyond the listed stakes race level.

The Dirt Marathon is not even a marathon and the distance of 12f is nearly an impossible one for many of the tracks in North America to host. I believe I'm correct in saying that there are no Graded Stakes aside from the Belmont Stakes that are run at 12f on the dirt. Apparently racing secretaries have pledged to start carding a few more distance races to serve as preps but let's be honest. The Dirt Marathon will be full of claimers and allowance horses. The favorites for the event will be the allowance level horses who happen to win the newly carded $50k overnight stakes races. Any horse who is good enough to run at a high level over 12f on the dirt will attempt to win the Classic which offers 10 times the money.

Europeans are not going to be attracted to this race because 12f is a middle distance in Europe and Turf is clearly the preferred surface. They've already got a 12f Turf race so the only way to attract overseas stayers like Yeats and Septimus is to make the race a true stayers affair, perhaps over the distance of 2 miles. Even then the fact that it's on dirt will not bring the Europeans over in numbers.

I'm all for encouraging long distance racing in North America, but this is putting the cart before the horse. Use the money to create a division first. Then when you do have the basis to create a championship race don't make it's value a measly $500k. The message is clear, there isn't any value in sticking around for Dirt Marathon. It's far better to be a moderately useful 2yo on the grass. You're playing for double the money and it's not nearly as difficult to get there.

It makes sense once you understand the context of the Breeders' Cup mission of getting more handle and providing an opportunity for everyone to run. But for those of us stuck in the past still thinking that the Breeders' Cup is a championship event we have to ask. Which "highest level" horses were not at the Breeders' Cup last year that you think you can attract with the new races this year?

The answer is that there were virtually no healthy G-1 level horses who skipped the BC because they could not find a suitable race. There simply aren't more than 100 G-1 level horses in America. In fact there are probably only around 50 or 60 and the Breeder's Cup already attracts more than 100 horses with its premier eight races. The new races boast $5.5 million dollars in purses. Instead of throwing that money at turf maiden race winners or allowance class geldings how about using that money to subsidize championship level horses who happen not to be nominated to the Breeders Cup? How about using the money to entice foreign participation like Dubai, Japan and Hong Kong do?

You want to increase handle? Then realize that most casual bettors lose money, so by day two of the Breeders Cup their wallets will be lighter and they won't be able to bet as heavily on the main races. How about raising handle by attracting bigger bettors? Since most of the huge bettors on earth are based in Europe and Asia, use your money to attract hometown horses that these bettors will want to back. The Japanese in particular travel in droves to the Arc d'Triomphe when they have a horse with a shot and they bet heavily because betting heavily is a part of their current culture. The handle in Asia is immense, find a way to get those people attending the Breeders' Cup.

These suggestions are far from perfect but they are at least aimed increasing the quality of the existing races instead of diluting the overall quality of the event by attracting horses of ever decreasing quality. They are aimed at preserving the original vision and intent of the Breeders' Cup. Although the Breeders' Cup in its original form was far from flawless, in it's inception it was created with the good of the sport at heart. The intent and vision that Mr. Gaines had for this event is something that should be respected and upheld. Mr. Avioli instead has decided to put that vision to rest. The sport is the poorer for it.

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