09/19/2013 12:50PM

Lawrence of Arcadia


Oooh, a mystery. How we do love us a mystery. Item No.4 on the agenda for the Thursday, Sept. 19, meeting of the California Horse Racing Board was a request from Santa Anita Park management to amend its license application for the upcoming autumn meet “to permit the conduct of a non-Thoroughbred race on the Breeders’ Cup undercard on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.”

A call to Santa Anita before the meeting elicited a polite response that racing on that day was a Breeders’ Cup show, start to finish, and that comment about the “non-Thoroughbred race” being requested should come from the Breeders’ Cup. A similar call to the Breeders’ Cup got a polite but uninformative response that they were not prepared to break news about the request until the request was actually made at the CHRB meeting.

The imagination soared.

What could those scamps from Kentucky be up to? Describing something as “non-Thoroughbred” opened up pretty much the rest of the animal kingdom, and then some. They could have been talking about this, or this, or this, or – and we could only hope -- this.

The Breeders’ Cup basically leases the host track for the two-day event and puts on the show they want. This includes the undercard events, which until now have been coordinated with the host track as minor stakes and allowance contests. They are supposed to be the warm-up acts, nothing but races offered as background music while late-arriving fans fight traffic and submit to security checks. They never distract from the Breeders’ Cup events, and never should.

A wiseguy who shall remain nameless suggested that whatever they had planned would replace the now defunct Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, which was just this side of a non-Thoroughbred race anyway, at least in terms of the significance supposedly attached to a championship day event.

As it turns out, the Breeders’ Cup needs to pay off its new business partner, the Emirates Equestrian Federation, by presenting an event on one of the Breeders’ Cup programs for Arabian race horses. Such races are not unusual on the American scene – they’re certainly more common than racing zebras – and they are of some interest to a small circle of investors and gamblers who fancy the intricacies of the breed. The Arabians can be found from time to time at main line tracks like Delaware Park, Churchill Downs, Pimlico and especially Lone Star Park, in the heart of the Texas Arabian breeding industry.

Permission from the CHRB was required because the Breeders’ Cup wanted the Arabians to be presented in a betting race and therefore subject to all the state’s rules and regulations governing such an event. And since Arabian racing is already part of the programs at California county fairs it was no surprise that chairman David Israel and the other commissioners brought out their big rubber stamp and basically said, “Go ahead, Breeders’ Cup. It’s your brand.” Also, offered the chairman, “Someone named Israel voting against the Arabians might cause an international incident.”

Nit-pickers will point out that all Thoroughbreds descend from one of three Arabian stallions, way back when, so why not celebrate the heritage, and secure a sponsor in the bargain? As for Santa Anita Park, which still clings to its rich history as a Thoroughbred mecca, its reputation managed to survive a one-time trauma of racing mules in the 1970’s and a Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred match race in the 1980’s. This too shall pass, but with a fundamental change in landscape. From now on, for purposes of identification, Santa Anita Park = county fair.

What the Arabian race means for the Breeders’ Cup is of more concern. Sponsors should get loads of credit for backing the sport. Plaster their names high and low. Name races in their images and shower them with love. Encroaching on the field of play, however, should be out of bounds. Breeders' Cup founder John Gaines has spent the last decade spinning in his grave as the Cup has added non-championship races, bent over backwards to cater to Europeans, and expanded to a two-day event. The presentation of another competing breed under the auspices of a Breeders’ Cup program, no matter how profitable for the home office, could set a new precedent that threatens what's left of the hard-earned integrity of the event. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s okay if some things are simply not for sale.