06/21/2011 12:31PM

Ascot Envy


At first glance, it seemed as if the news about the latest addition to the Breeders' Cup program was purposely and very effectively buried during a week in which the Mavs reigned marvelous, Rory saved golf, and the Bruins ruined life as we know it for Western Canadians.

Then the genius of the timing became clear. Word about the new Juvenile Sprint came down from on high (Lexington, Ky., elevation 978 feet) at the beginning of the Royal Ascot meeting in Great Britain because the Breeders' Cup was sending a message, and that message is clear. Over the next decade, give or take, the Breeders' Cup will be positioning itself to become nothing less than an American version of Royal Ascot.

To the grand planners of an event like the American Breeders' Cup, an event like Royal Ascot is potent catnip, with its stranglehold on horse racing coverage and its 30 races spread over five days, each one of them stamped with the "Royal Ascot" imprint, whether or not that race has a true Group 1 glow or is simply an eight-furlong handicap for 28 runners. If it happened at Royal Ascot, it was royal indeed.

Same deal goes for the collection of "Breeders' Cup" races launched in the last few years. Two races on the grass for 2-year-olds, a female sprint, a grass sprint and something called a marathon have nothing to do with determining the best of the breed at a particular Thoroughbred discipline. If anything, their addition accelerated the further dilution of the idea of what is excellent in Thoroughbred competition -- but I stopped worrying about that when the Academy Awards went to 10 nominations for Best Picture. The new races, far removed from the original mission statement of the Breeders' Cup to determine traditional champions, at least made for interesting competition. And they were, in fact, Breeders' Cup events. It said so right there on the saddle towels.

Of course, no one given to practical considerations of safety and aesthetics would think a 14-horse race for 2-year-olds going 6 furlongs around a 180-degree bend is a good idea. On paper, the Juvenile Sprint looks like a dangerous joke, put in place by people who play way too many video games. Even making the field for the race creates a ripple effect of potentially dicey decisions made by owners and trainers torn between a $500,000 pot hanging out there ripe for the winning by a one-hit wonder or managing the career of a talented 2-year-old who may have a future. Prediction: 10 years from now pundits will be amazed that no winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint has ever made the field for the Breeders' Cup Regular Sprint.

A race like the Juvenile Sprint also adds weight to the message that American racing is heavily reliant on 2-year-olds for quality sport. At the 2008 Breeders' Cup, 49 of the 156 runners over the two days were 2-year-olds (31.4 percent for those keeping score). In 2009, 2-year-olds numbered 49 again of the 147 Breeders' Cup starters, or one in three. Last year, of the 151 horses going postward at Churchill Downs, 48 were age 2 (for 31.7 percent), and if a 12-horse Juvenile Sprint had been added to those numbers, the 2-year-old share of the population would have risen to 36.8 percent.

Breeders' Cup officials David Willmot and Clem Murphy made no bones about the inspiration behind expanding the Breeders' Cup in the direction of 2-year-olds, and it had nothing to do with the improvement of the breed. Willmot was quoted in the release of the news as saying, "Our goal in the Wagering Committee focused on creating a Breeders' Cup race that would generate not only betting interest for the public but also provide an additional opportunity for the two-year-old crop from which our owners and breeders could benefit."

Although tone deaf in terms of show business, such sentiments are refreshingly transparent when it comes to who's running the show and for whom. Did anyone really believe Major League Baseball expanded its playoffs with wild card teams for any reason other than revenue enhancement? You did? Sorry.

But that's okay, because the modern Breeders' Cup is going places the original version never dreamed. If the event realizes its full potential, and expands over three or four days (ideally with fewer races each day), a race like the Juvenile Sprint will find itself modified to suit the conditions and absorbed into the greater wash of sport that could come to include, say, a grass race at 9 furlongs, a main track race for Group 2 types at a mile and three-sixteenths, races for horses who've managed to win listed but not group or graded events, and while your at it, how about a quarter-mile dash for all comers and a purse of half a million that could be billed as the richest thoroughbred race in the world...per yard.

The only tough chew remains the Breeders' Cup site. In a perfect world, the Breeders' Cup would have its own home -- like Royal Ascot, or the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass -- built and dedicated to the greatest racing show the U.S. could offer. In terms of climate, the best place to be that time of year, at least for man and horse, is either South Carolina or Santa Barbara. Suggestions are welcome.

In the meantime, we'll hold our collective breath through that first Juvenile Sprint in the hopes and promise an emboldened Breeders' Cup will continue to expand and fulfill its potential.