There are many ways to look at this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships from a business and sporting standpoint, and not all examinations are going to lead to the same destination.
The most important question is whether or not the 2008 Breeders' Cup was a success or failure. Was the decision to hold the Cup at a racetrack with a synthetic surface a wise move? Has the expansion of the world championships from eight races in one day to 14 races in two days helped or diluted the event?
How is success or failure of the Breeders' Cup measured? Is it attendance, pari-mutuel handle, revenue, TV ratings, racing results, international participation?
It's difficult to measure some of these factors because the circumstances of the Breeders' Cup have changed so much between 2008 and previous years, rendering it an apples to oranges comparison. Making those comparisons even more challenging are the current economic conditions that have hit all levels of society this year, from Wall Street bankers to blue-collar workers. Virtually every industry is feeling a severe impact.
Putting that aside, last year's Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park was the first time the event was stretched over two days, and handle totaled just over $147 million ($31.5 on the Friday program and $115.7 on Saturday) despite poor weather and messy track conditions (a near monsoon came through New Jersey during Friday's program and the track was very sloppy on Saturday). This year's two-day handle increased by only 5.5%, to $155.5 million ($47.9 million on Friday, $107.6 million on Saturday), despite perfect weather and the addition of three new Breeders' Cup races. Comparisons are for the whole cards, including non-Breeders' Cup races run at Monmouth Park last year and Santa Anita this year.
Steve Crist's weekend blog at DRF.com (Friday, Saturday), which detailed the race-by-race betting figures for the last three years of the Breeders' Cup, shows that handle dropped sharply on the races moved from the Saturday card in 2007 to Friday (Filly & Mare Turf, Juvenile Fillies, Ladies' Classic) this year. That makes perfect sense, since there were fewer people betting Friday's program this year than there were betting Saturday's program last year. But there were five Breeders' Cup races on Friday this year, when the all of the filly and mare races were packaged as “Filly Friday” or “Ladies Day,” compared with three in 2007, leading to the increase in Friday-to-Friday comparisons.
Handle dropped virtually across the board on Saturday's races this year, with the day's total handle declining by 7%, from $115.7 million in 2007 to $107.6 million in 2008. It was the lowest handle on a Saturday Breeders' Cup since 1999, when $100.3 million was bet on the races from Gulfstream Park.
Santa Anita's on-track handle of $11.8 million was down almost 10% from the $12.7 million wagered on-track at Monmouth Park in 2007 and a steep decline of 33% from the 2006 Saturday Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, when $18.3 million was bet on-track during the one-day event.
Saturday's on-track business was the lowest for a Breeders' Cup since 1997, when $11.2 million was wagered at Hollywood Park. The last time the Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita, in 2003, one-day on-track handle totaled $16.3 million. This year's two-day on-track handle was $18.7 million.
The economic climate has not been good for racing in 2008. Most major race meetings have experienced double-digit declines in business. For the Breeders' Cup to increase handle from 2007 is an accomplishment, though not a major one when considering both the additional races and superior weather conditions.
It is difficult to say there has not been a dilution of the event based on the early evidence. Do the positive benefits outweigh any negatives? I think it's too early to tell.
Attendance was up this year from 2007, but that should have been a no-brainer following the poor weather at Monmouth Park. Breeders' Cup officials got greedy with ticket prices and, to their credit, have admitted as much. The increase in prices was outrageous, especially for the Friday program, and it is hoped they will be scaled back considerably next year.
The racing was spectacular on both days — and safe. More than a few people commented at the conclusion of the Breeders' Cup that no one died or suffered any serious injuries, a sad commentary on the bumpy road the sport has been traveling in recent years. The Pro-Ride synthetic track was fast and safe, though it appeared to compromise some horses who had only raced on conventional dirt tracks and help those horses with synthetic track or turf experience.
Synthetic surfaces have increased the difficulty of handicapping, and running the traditional Breeders' Cup dirt races on the Pro-Ride track may have led some big players to downsize their bets. The Classic, according to Crist's figures, handled $24.3 million in bets this year, down from $30.1 million at Monmouth Park last year and $37.7 million at Churchill Downs in 2006.
The dominance of European horses was widely embraced by Breeders' Cup officials, including president Greg Avioli, who sees international participation as the last, best hope for further growth in pari-mutuel handle. The success of Raven's Pass and four other European-based winners on Saturday's program will ensure enthusiastic participation from European horsemen when the races return to Santa Anita in 2009, but there is no guarantee that's going to mean greater interest among horseplayers outside of North America. There is a conceivable backlash among American breeders who provide the financial foundation of the Breeders' Cup program through foal and stallion nominations. Some of them view this as an American event, and they would be happier if the considerable purse money stayed in this country. On the other hand, those breeders who want to reach an international audience with their sale yearlings may cheer the success of European-based runners.
The Breeders' Cup will conduct a post-mortem on the event to determine what worked and what didn't. Many have said the Oak Tree Racing Association and Santa Anita did a terrific job from a logistical standpoint, and there may not be a more telegenic racing facility in America in late October than the “Great Race Place.” There were many people critical of the decision to hold the event at Santa Anita in consecutive years, but those critics surely are fewer in number following this year's Breeders' Cup
Provided that no major changes are made in the format, holding the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita next year will be more of an apples to apples comparison, allowing Cup officials to assess whether or not the expansion from one day to two was a sound decision.
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