Back in 1983, when it was announced that November of the following year would bring the inauguration of a richly endowed programme of seven Grade 1 races, to be contested annually and known as the Breeders’ Cup, I was not among the cheerleaders.
There had long been a well-established pattern of racing in North America that readily facilitated the identification of the best horses, and I didn’t see the point of disrupting it, which was what offering an obscene amount of money for such an occasion would inevitably do. A lot of traditionally important races were going to suffer for the sake of this hugely expensive innovation, and it was surely a moot point whether it would achieve its principal objective.
The reverence once granted to the winner of the Kentucky Derby is now a thing of the past
What was the principal objective, as stated at the time by those involved in its creation? That has been largely forgotten over the years. It was all about trying to reverse the decline in numbers attending the tracks nationwide. The thinking was that a gala day, staging a series of championship events, especially if televised live on one of the major networks, would help to widen the fan base for the sport as a whole. I considered that to be pie in the sky.
I was correct in that judgement. Whatever the Breeders’ Cup has done in its 31 years – and let’s grant that it has provided plenty of top-quality racing and a number of outstanding performances – it has done nothing to broaden the fan base for the sport. But why would it? The fact that Chelsea v Manchester City might fill Stamford Bridge and attract television viewers in their millions doesn’t mean that my club, lowly Exeter City, can expect a bumper gate for the visit of Hartlepool. It may be the same game, but the stark difference in quality counts.
Most US racing under-publicised
Most racing in North America is mundane, as is most football in England. But even mundane football here gets some TV exposure. The US media do go to town over the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup, but all that achieves is to give the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup high profiles; the rest of racing in the States is woefully under-publicised by media who recognise the want of interest, while the likes of baseball, basketball and America’s perversion of football receive blanket coverage. There is a certain irony in the fact that Hollywood Park, scene of the first Breeders’ Cup, is no more.
Remember how, a few years ago, excitement about the Breeders’ Cup was exemplified by all those spectators waving banners in support of Zenyatta? The images were accompanied by the familiar assertions from commentators that a great horse was always good for the game. Up to a point, perhaps. But the fans of Zenyatta were doing no more than expressing appreciation of one individual. There was no reason to assume that because they liked Zenyatta they had become converted to racing and would in future be regular attendees at their local track.
Still, we must acknowledge that the Breeders’ Cup, long since expanded from a one-day event to occupy two afternoons of highly competitive racing and to carry the erroneous sub-title ‘World Thoroughbred Championships’ has succeeded on some levels. It has diminished the importance of certain other races, and even killed off the Washington D.C. International, which a generation ago was held in much the same esteem as the Arc, at least from a European perspective, but it has found its own niche in the calendar and it is arguable that it now ranks above anything else in the US season.
The reverence once granted to the winner of the Kentucky Derby is now a thing of the past, and not until one goes on to add victories in the Preakness and Belmont will that return. These days the highest accolade in North American racing goes to the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.
You’ve got one, we want one
The Breeders’ Cup’s conspicuous success in having provided a late-season series of championship races for all ages and over a variety of distances has resulted in everyone wanting one. The French were in first with the Arc weekend, and a first-class job they made of it, with minimal disruption to its own and Europe’s traditional calendar. With four Group 2s on the Saturday, followed by seven races at the highest level on the Sunday, the first weekend in October is all about Longchamp, clashes with Ascot and Newmarket notwithstanding. The purses are rewarding, even if the prize for the Arc itself might seem irrationally high, given it means that just by getting the winner of that one race a stallion acquires the title of France’s champion sire.
I commented in this space a couple of months ago on how Ireland’s first stab at a Breeders’ Cup emulation had worked well in September. There had been some inevitable switching of dates for some races, but nothing so drastic as to have Irish trainers up in arms about them. The changes had no discernible impact on the racing programme for horses in any age-group, and if we had thought that splitting the occasion between Leopardstown and the Curragh was less than ideal, in practice there were no complaints. It was not as though the venues were at opposite ends of the country. What complaints there were – beforehand – came from Doncaster, upset that the Irish innovations had become a fait accompli without any consultation. But there was a bumper crowd on Town Moor for St Leger day, and the Sunday clash with Arc trials day at Longchamp was never going to be affected.
It is not possible to be so positive about Britain’s version of the Breeders’ Cup, staged in mid-October and divided between Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course on Friday and Ascot on Saturday, and styled as Future Champions Day and Champions Day respectively. This was the first time the cards had been presented on consecutive days, emulating the BC format. As many had predicted, it was not a great success.
Of course, there had been widespread dissatisfaction over the decision to move the Champion Stakes from its natural home in Newmarket, where it had thrived from 1877 to 2010 and was unique in the world as the only major race contested over a straight mile and a quarter. It could be only a different race at Ascot. At the same time the decision was taken to stage the two top juvenile events in the HQ calendar, the six-furlong Middle Park and seven-furlong Dewhurst, formerly run two weeks apart and both won by Diesis in 1982, on the same Future Champions Day card. Recognition by the authorities of that folly remains lacking.
In 2014 we were supposed to link the Newmarket and Ascot programmes as some kind of united festival, though the courses are over 100 miles apart. In addition, they were ludicrously fixed for Friday and Saturday, when any reasonable individual would have realised that Saturday and Sunday represented a much more sensible option. Either day would have served Ascot equally well, while Newmarket would inevitably have drawn a bigger crowd.
It has long been common knowledge that Newmarket is a suitable course for autumn racing because it drains so well, and that the same cannot be said for Ascot. For the third year out of four the ground at Ascot on Champions Day was more suitable for winter jumping than for staging championship Flat contests and, unsurprisingly, there were significant withdrawals.
Sure, there was a stirring contest for the main event, with Noble Mission and Al Kazeem engaging in a tremendous tussle, and I could concur with those who noticed a resemblance to the Grundy-Bustino clash over the same course and distance in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes of 1975. But that was a race run in record time on proper summer ground, plus this year’s principals were not in the same class as their illustrious predecessors.
I remain unconvinced that Britain needs a counterpart to the Breeders’ Cup. We always knew how to identify our best horses before the meddlers got to interfere with the schedule, and I strongly doubt whether the changes we have witnessed have recruited more than a handful to become regular racegoers.