Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Breeders Cup 2008 Preview Part I: Unchanging the Changes

This year celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Breeders Cup, popularly known as thoroughbred racing's championships. For exactly 23 of those years, the Breeders Cup was a well-functioning enterprise that offered a great day of racing with de minimus controversy or issues. In the past two years, however, the braintrust in charge of Breeders Cup Day has tried to remake something that was perfectly fine by making four decisions that have elicited a fair amount of controversy in horse racing circles:

(1) 3 new races were added in 2007 and run for the first time on the Friday before the main event: the Dirt Mile, the Juvenile Turf and the Filly & Mare Sprint. This winter, the BC committee added three more races: the Turf Sprint, the Marathon, and the Juvenile Fillies Turf.

(2) This year's races were awarded to Santa Anita, a track that has a non-dirt synthetic surface that's currently untested.

(3) They awarded next year's races to Santa Anita once again, despite having never gone back-to-back at the same locale and the same synthetic issues existing.

(4) The committee jumbled up the now fourteen races, and created a "Ladies' Day" card on Friday with all five races that feature runners of the fairer sex, and put the rest on the Saturday card.

We'll get to the issues raised by the synthetic track and California locale in the coming previews. For now though, I'd like to focus on the Breeders Cup decision to add six more races and to jumble them oddly into two days. This has already been skewered in various locations, but it's worth taking a step back and asking two questions: what's the point of Breeders Cup weekend, and what's the best way of achieving that goal while maximizing everyone's enjoyment?

The Function of the Breeders Cup

When formed in 1984, the Breeders Cup consisted of seven races, six of which directly tied to an Eclipse Award championship (Classic: Older male/3yo male; Distaff: Older female/3yo female; Turf: Male Turf; Sprint: Sprint; Juvenile Fillies: 2yo filly; Juvenile: 2yo colt), and a seventh (the Mile) that was a staple of international turf racing. An eighth race (the Filly and Mare Turf) was added in 1999 to fill in the "hole" for female turfers that was missing from the card. With the addition of this race, a card of 8 Grade I races was created, all of which corresponded directly with a championship (there's nothing stopping a Mile winner from winning the Eclipse for a turf horse, it just doesn't happen that often). The races became new endpoints for the best in America and some stables in Europe and Dubai, and represented the best racing the best.

Five of the six new races, however, are not championship races. While the Filly & Mare Sprint does correlate with a new Eclipse award for girl sprinters, the other races have no bearing on any championship. This isn't to say they're without merit. The areas that they encompass (turf sprints, juvenile grass racing, longer routes, middle distances) are areas that are either growing or common parts of the modern game. They're perfectly fine to be part of the Breeders Cup experience. However, they do not belong on the main racing card. They're strictly undercard material, and should all be on Friday.

And as undercard material, they have to be treated as such, which means they can't detract from the 8 major races that made up the traditional Saturday card. This brings us to the second big issue with the shift: the new races diluting the card and appeal from the Big Eight. A huge part of the appeal of the Breeders Cup card is the diversity of the horses that enter the big races. For example, the Sprint traditionally gets horses that are 7 furlong or mile specialists trying to shorten up, fillies taking on the boys for the first time and Euro turf demons. Sometimes this works (Gulch, Silver Train), sometimes it doesn't (Forestry, Wild Rush). The Mile frequently got turf horses shortening from 9 or 10 furlongs or dirt horses trying the turf, not to mention shippers from all over. Adding the Dirt Mile and F&M Sprint detracts from all of these fields. If you're the owner of a female turf horse, why bother taking on the males when there's a $1 million purse against only your own sex? And if you're a bettor and a fan, do you really want these second-tier races reducing the fun and betting opportunities abound?

The Solution

So how to solve these issues and ensure that Breeders Cup weekend is a great one? A few simple measures basically solve everything:

1. Go back to the Big Eight being the Saturday races. It's okay to have the order of the races determined yearly when the fields are released, so long as Turf-Classic is the final two races every time.

2. Put the other six races back on the Friday card. And while you're at it, add a pair of races that would also attract nice fields:

a. A filly & mare turf mile. Yes, we do every couple of years get a Euro turf filly like Miesque or Six Perfections that comes over for the Mile. This isn't to compete with that. This is to give nice horses like Vacare and My Typhoon, who haven't a prayer against the big guns and aren't stout enough to go 10 furlongs, something to run in.

b. A juvenile sprint. Put it at six furlongs, and make it for the fleet two year olds that aren't going to go longer.

3. To show that the Friday races are a different beast, stop calling them the "Breeders Cup XXX". Instead, let's name them after some of the great horses of recent history, who have either made history in the Breeders Cup or Triple Crown.

4. Adjust the purse prices so the best horses run on Saturday. The easiest way to make sure that the Big Eight races aren't diluted is to make it financially worth a horse's while to run in the bigger races. For example, there's no reason for Intangeroo to run in the Sprint this year ($2 million purse) when she can run for $1 million against a much easier field. But what if the spread was $2.5 million versus $500k?

To summarize, here's the proposal that encapsulates everything, including a necessary change of the "Ladies Classic" back to the Distaff and the rectifying of the odd distance of the filly sprint:

Friday's Card
  1. The Sheikh Albadou. (nee Turf Sprint): 3yo+, 5 furlongs (turf), $500k.
  2. The Favorite Trick. (Juvenile Sprint): 2yo, 6 furlongs, $500k.
  3. The Six Perfections. (Juvenile Filly Turf): 2yof, 1 mile (turf), $500k.
  4. The A.P. Indy. (Marathon): 3yo+, 1 1/2 miles, $500k.
  5. The Miesque. (Filly & Mare Turf Mile): 3yo+f&m, 1 mile (turf), $500k.
  6. The Arazi. (Juvenile Turf): 2yo, 1 mile (turf), $500k.
  7. The Safely Kept. (Filly & Mare Sprint): 3yo+f&m, 6 furlongs, $750k.
  8. The Gulch. (Dirt Mile): 3yo+, 1 mile, $750k.
Saturday's Card
  1. Juvenile Fillies: 2yof, 1 1/6 miles, $2 million.
  2. Juvenile: 2yo, 1 1/16 miles, $2 million.
  3. Filly & Mare Turf: 3yo+f&m, 1 1/4 miles (turf), $2 million.
  4. Sprint: 3yo+, 6 furlongs, $2.5 million.
  5. Mile: 3yo+, 1 mile (turf), $2.5 million.
  6. Distaff: 3yo+f&m, 1 1/8, $3 million.
  7. Turf: 3yo+, 1 1/2 miles (turf), $4 million.
  8. Classic: 3yo+, 1 1/4 miles, $6 million.
Much better. Coming in the next few weeks: thoughts on the Breeders Cup races, the Curlin-Big Brown debate, and some actual race analysis.

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