View From The Eighth Pole: A Breeders’ Cup Derby?

by | 01.23.2018 | 2:24pm

Should the Breeders' Cup expand again?

That's a question the organization's board of directors is expected to ponder at an upcoming meeting, when a proposal to add a “Breeders' Cup Derby” for 3-year-olds and push the Breeders' Cup Classic to a separate date in December will be discussed. Craig Fravel, Breeders' Cup president and CEO, declined to comment on what he called “matters that may or may not be considered by the board of the Breeders' Cup.”

Before examining the proposal, a quick timeline:

The Breeders' Cup was inaugurated in 1984 with a seven-race, $10-million program at Hollywood Park. An eighth championship race, the Filly & Mare Turf, was added in 1999, when the Breeders' Cup was held at Gulfstream Park.

The first two-day Breeders' Cup, hosted by Monmouth Park in 2007, included three new races: the Juvenile Turf, Filly & Mare Sprint and Dirt Mile. The following year, when the Cup moved to Santa Anita Park, three more races were added – the Marathon, Juvenile Fillies Turf and Turf Sprint – bringing the total to 14. In 2011 at Churchill Downs, officials added a 15th race – the Juvenile Sprint, which lasted only two years. Its removal reduced the number to 14 Breeders' Cup races when the event was held in 2013 at Santa Anita. The Marathon lost its Breeders' Cup designation the following year at Santa Anita, and from 2014-'17 championship weekend consisted of 13 Breeders' Cup races. Purses and awards now total $28 million.

The push by some industry stakeholders for a “Breeders' Cup Derby” might be a case of Triple Crown envy, based on ever-growing interest – as measured by attendance, wagering and television ratings – for the Kentucky Derby. That interest increases when a horse also wins the Preakness and enters the Belmont with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown – something that captures the attention of non-racing fans in the general public. Since its inception, Breeders' Cup has struggled to attract that non-racing fan.

Can the general public's interest in horse racing on the first Saturday in May (and in Triple Crown attempt years, a Saturday in June five weeks later) be carried over into November and December?

That's what Breeders' Cup officials are grappling with, along with questions about the feasibility of a race restricted to 3-year-olds so late in the year. They retained a consulting firm to interview trainers and racing officials to see what they thought of adding a Derby to Breeders' Cup championship weekend and moving the Classic to a date in December.

Among the questions asked, according to a trainer who was interviewed by the consulting firm and spoke to the Paulick Report: Would a trainer with a top 3-year-old prefer to run against other 3-year-olds on Breeders' Cup day rather than go against older runners in the Classic? (Spoiler alert: Of course they would. It would be an easier race to win.)

Next question: Would that trainer run in both a “Derby” on Breeders' Cup weekend and the Breeders' Cup Classic against older runners in a standalone event in December? This event presumably would be held after the regular college football season is over and before the NFL begins its Saturday telecasts, giving the Classic a more favorable television window than it currently has.

A trainer's answer to that question is far more complicated, since horses aren't machines. Currently, the Breeders' Cup represents the end of a demanding year for top 3-year-olds that may have contested the Triple Crown, and we have seen the trend of fewer starts and more time between races for these horses. Will an extra race on the calendar help reverse that trend? Doubtful.

The premise that the non-racing public will show more interest in Breeders' Cup weekend because it has a race designed to attract Triple Crown horses competing against each other seems questionable, at best. If that were the case, wouldn't races like the Haskell, Travers and Pennsylvania Derby – all Grade 1 events with big purses during the summer – have greater brand recognition outside of core racing fans?

For the horseplayer, my assumption is that a Derby on Breeders' Cup weekend would be less attractive as a betting race than the current Classic pitting the best 3-year-olds against the best older horses. It would almost certainly have a negative impact on field size and quality for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, which in 2017 had 10 runners, including a trio of 3-year-olds led by the race winner, Battle of Midway.

All of that could make the existing Breeders' Cup weekend less attractive and less profitable. And if the 3-year-olds who contest the proposed Derby don't come back in the Classic in December, what does it do to that race?

Another issue to consider: Are racing fans and the core supporters of a two-day Breeders' Cup in late October/early November going to show the same enthusiasm and commitment if the Classic is moved to December?

That's a question I can't answer with any degree of certainty, but I would think for many who annually spend thousands of dollars to travel to the Breeders' Cup, a split Breeders' Cup would become an either/or event – not both.

Many things in horse racing may be broken, but the Breeders' Cup Classic isn't one of them. It is the crescendo for two spectacular days of racing, a chance to see the best 3-year-olds against the best older horses at the classic American distance.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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