The Game Has Changed

by Ed Meyer

posted on October 23, 2008 in Breeders Cup, General Discussion | No Comments >>

The biggest shake-up in the 25-year history of the Breeders’ Cup is about to hit the American racing establishment when the bugler gets it rolling at Santa Anita on Friday.

This will be a Cup no one has seen before – 14 races spread over two days, with purses stretching to $25.5 million; making it the richest turf festival in the world.  And that’s just the beginning.

All the non-turf races will be run for the first time over a synthetic track concoction called Pro-Ride instead of America’s traditional dirt surface; a switch that could have Cup founder John Gaines spinning in his grave.

The first five races will go on Friday, reserved exclusively for fillies and mares. Call it Ladies’ Day. The other nine races, climaxing with the $5 million Classic, will be run Saturday.

No one envisioned such radical departures from the original concept of the Cup – a one-day, seven-race $10 million spectacular to crown a group of champions.

And that signals yet another major upheaval in Breeders’ Cup history. The old guard who created the Cup, nursed it through its growing pains and rotated it at tracks all round the country, are out.

Young gunslingers have taken over, headed by Greg Avioli, the 44-year-old president and CEO, and Peter Land, the 47-year-old chief marketing officer. Between them, they have turned the old Cup on its head.

Where the original old boy founders were horse-driven, the new hotshots are market driven. Their goal: to lift the Breeders’ Cup out of its narrow industry groove (with negligible TV ratings) and boom it into a national sports colossus like the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, the Masters golf and the tennis championships.

The task is formidable, but the market is everything. That’s why they have made the unprecedented decision to run back-to-back Cups at Santa Anita. Tap into the big Los Angeles sports and celebrity market.

Santa Anita is also a breathtaking setting with the San Gabriels as a backdrop while the weather is reliably sunny, 80-degree Southern California bliss – a far cry from the eight inches of rain that drowned last year’s Cup at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

The new-look Cup is not universally welcomed. Fourteen races seem unwieldy.

“They’re watering it down a bit,” trainer Bobby Frankel said. “But they’re giving a lot more people chances to make money.”

Running all the female races on the first day looks sexist, Friday is not a major sports day, and the synthetic surface negates all the dirt history of the past 24 years.

Yet the new team might be on to something. This Cup has drawn a record 35 horses from abroad, 10 of them from Aidan O’Brien, the Irish training whiz. The best we could muster are seven each from Frankel and John Sadler.

They have introduced a 1 1/2-mile dirt marathon race, which might encourage breeders to produce horses sound in limb and wind instead of an assembly line of speedy cripples. Long overdue, they have introduced the also-eligible concept.

Most of us resist change but the hard reality is that the Breeders’ Cup, although a fabulous event for insiders, has failed to crash through the barriers and engage the general public.

Avioli and Land are attempting to change all that.

They will not do it all this week, but with a bit of luck, they could be on the way.