Thursday, October 27, 2011

2011 Breeders Cup Preview Part II: Fixing the Race Schedule

The Breeders Cup schedule is an utter mess.  I'm not talking about the prep races--that's a whole other series of posts--I mean the Friday and Saturday cards.  To illustrate, let's go through a little history of what races were in the Breeders Cup and how they were organized.

1984: Creation.  The Breeders Cup is launched with 7 races: the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Mile, Sprint, Distaff, Turf and Classic. The order of races changes occasionally--sometimes the Distaff was first, sometimes the Juvenile Fillies--but the Turf and Classic are always the last two races.  Six of the seven races correspond with Eclipse Awards for specific divisions, and the seventh (the Mile) is a race designed in part to appeal to Europeans and in part to have a second turf race on the card.

1999: First Expansion.  For reasons unclear, the initial Breeders Cup included races that would settle every Eclipse division except female turf horses.  This was solved by introducing the Filly & Mare Turf and making the Breeders Cup an 8-race card.  Despite the awkward name and the fact that there's no set distance for the race (sometimes it's a mile and a quarter, sometimes a mile and three-eighths), the race has been a tremendous success, producing some memorable champions (Ouija Board, Banks Hill, Soaring Softly) and some enjoyable upsets (Lahudood, Starine, Shared Account).

2007: The Two-Day Event The one-day card goes by the wayside in 2007, as the Breeders Cup introduces three new races.  The Filly Sprint comes on to handle the new Eclipse Award for female sprinters; while we're not in favor of this race, most are, and it assumes a good spot on the card.  The Dirt Mile was on a lot of people's short list for races for years, and it finally comes to fruition in '07.  And the Juvenile Turf adds a 1 mile race for 2yos on the grass, partially to stimulate grass breeding and racing in the US, and partially to appease the Euros.

To make the day work, the Breeders Cup inserts the three new races on to the Friday card.  This not only a perfectly sensible move, it's in keeping with prior years, as in most prior years, the Breeders Cup put together a fun card on Friday for horses that weren't good enough to compete on the grand stage.  The new races seem in keeping with that.  Until we get...

2008: The Reconfiguration.  The Breeders Cup doubles down on expansion by adding another three races that are a bit more dubious in their nature.  They add the Marathon in an effort to promote distance racing, first at the 12 furlong distance, which is later expanded to 14 furlongs.  The girls get their own 2yo grass race in the Juvenile Fillies Turf.  And a Turf Sprint is added.

The equally large development, however, is how these races are added to the card.  Most pundits thought immediately that they'd simply add the new three races to Friday's card and leave Saturday intact.  Instead, the Breeders Cup had another idea: Filly Friday.  All the races involving the fairer sex are moved to Friday, including the Juvenile Fillies, Distaff (now stupidly renamed the "Ladies Classic") and the F&M Turf, while all the new "male races" (Turf Sprint, Dirt Mile, Juvenile Turf, Marathon) are slotted on Saturday.  We'll discuss below why this has been a disaster, but first let's note the final steps:

2009 - 2011: Tinkering.  Filly Friday has remained more or less intact, with some additions.  In '09 and '10, the Marathon was moved to Friday to start the card, while this year, a 15th race (the Juvenile Sprint--a concept we advocated 3 years ago) leads off the Friday card.  In sum this leads to the following lineups for Breeders Cup weekend:

Friday: Juvenile Sprint, JF Turf, F&M Sprint, Juvenile Fillies, F&M Turf, Distaff

Saturday: Marathon, Juv. Turf, Sprint, Turf Sprint, Dirt Mile, Turf, Juvenile, Mile, Classic.

*          *          *

We are not fans of the current configuration, whether or not it's called Filly Friday.  Why?  Glad you asked.

1.  It's a misnomer.  For the last 3 years, there have been non-filly races on the Friday.  (Okay, this is not really a big deal.)

2.  It divides up the great races.  Part of the fun of Breeders Cup Saturday was seeing the best horses on the same card.  By commingling the minor races with the big races, we get two decent days of racing instead of one great one with a fun warmup day.  Now, neither seems as special.

3.  The best fillies don't run on Friday.

Let's reiterate this point: the idea of giving the ladies their own day has completely backfired because the best fillies have run in the Saturday races pretty much every year.  For example:

2008: Zenyatta wins the Distaff on Friday, but international superstar Goldikova wins the Mile on Saturday.

2009: Zenyatta and Goldikova win the Classic and Mile...on Saturday.

2010: The three best fillies to run that weekend, Zenyatta, Goldikova and Proviso, run in the Classic and Mile on Saturday.

We're about to see more of the same in 2011.  Goldikova is back for a run at the boys in the Mile.  Havre de Grace is going to run in the Classic.  Even the Filly and Mare Turf is going to get hit this year: European shippers Midday and Sarafina are going to run in the Turf on Saturday.  In sum, almost every filly of note will be running on Saturday, making the "Filly Friday" designation completely meaningless, and making the division of the races look arbitrary.

*          *          *

What to do?  Easy: re-configure the races.  Let's put aside for now the ideas of disbanding the Juvenile Fillies Turf, adding a 16th race (which we advocated a few years ago--namely, a mile on turf for older fillies) or renaming the races, and just work with the 15 races as currently constituted.  We see three ways to do this, with the sidenote that the order of races on a particular day should not be set in stone.

1.  The Classic Format There have been 7 new races added since 2007.  Let's put them all on Friday, and make them the warmup for Saturday's classic championship card.  That would mean:

Friday: Marathon, Juvenile Fillies Turf, Juvenile Sprint, Turf Sprint, Filly Sprint, Juvenile Turf, Dirt Mile

Saturday: Juvenile Fillies, Juvenile, Filly and Mare Turf, Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf Classic.

Advantage: The most logical solution, as it keeps the "old" races together on Saturday and gives the new ones their own date.

Disadvantage: Friday is marginalized in the mainstream media by being truly niche races.

2.  Championship Saturday.  Eight of the Breeders Cup races directly correspond to Eclipse Awards.  How about we just divide the races that way?

Friday: Marathon, Juvenile Fillies Turf, Juvenile Sprint, Turf Sprint, Juvenile Turf, Dirt Mile, Mile

Saturday: Juvenile Fillies, Juvenile, Fillly Sprint, Sprint, Filly and Mare Turf, Turf, Distaff, Classic

Advantage: Saturday is truly "US/World Championship day" as most of the winners will take Eclipse Awards at the end of the day.  This should be the easiest storyline for the mass media to promote.

Disadvantage: Only two turf races on Saturday.

3.  Juvenile Friday If we want to give a discreet group of horses Friday, let's give it to the horses that can't bleed over into other races : the two year olds.  Friday's card could be billed as the "Stars of Tomorrow", which is a lot more interesting than focusing on a horse's gender.  It would give the press a chance to give the Juvenile its due--rather than relegating it to a background story on the same day as the Classic--and start hyping the Kentucky Derby.  It  may even give the Juvenile Fillies winner some actual press.  And from a selfish perspective, it would get some of the traditionally chalkiest races off of Saturday's card.

It wouldn't be completely perfect because we know the BC wants six races on Friday's card so it can have an all-stakes Pick Six.  Fine.  Let's move the least important race to Friday, making the lineups:

Friday: Marathon, Juvenile Fillies Turf, Juvenile Sprint, Juvnile Fillies, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile.

Saturday: Filly Sprint, Turf Sprint, Dirt Mile, Filly and Mare Turf, Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf, Classic.

We initially went into this post thinking we'd want the first option--simple reversion, but have to admit the last card is what we like best.  The lineup for Saturday includes 6 of the original 8 races, adds in the Filly Sprint--a  championship race in its own right--plus the two new races that have been the most chaotic.  It would be a great betting card.

So Breeders Cup, take heed.  Any of the three suggestions above work better than the current slate of races.  We hope to see a new schedule at Santa Anita next year.

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