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Breeders' Cup continues to evolve
ARCADIA, Calif. - It is only a 28-mile drive to Santa Anita from Hollywood Park, where the Breeders' Cup had its first running 24 years ago. But the Breeders' Cup will have come a lot farther than that for its 25th event here next Friday and Saturday.
Some changes slowly evolved, while others hit with the force of a 7.0 earthquake down the San Andreas Fault. The Breeders' Cup has morphed from a one-day, seven-race event into a two-day, 14-race festival. Purses were $10 million; they now total $25.5 million. Handle in 1984, before the explosion of simulcasting, was a quaint $16,452,179. Last year, when the Breeders' Cup encompassed 11 races over two days, it totaled $129,197,262.
But while the Breeders' Cup has been an unqualified success, it has been buffeted by the challenges facing the sport of Thoroughbred racing as a whole.
Concern over catastrophic injuries, to which the Breeders' Cup has not been immune, has led some tracks, including Santa Anita, to switch to a synthetic surface, the theory being they are safer. As a result, this Breeders' Cup will be the first run on a synthetic surface, a decision that has been praised by some trainers and viewed with circumspection by others. The synthetic surface resulted in a record number of European pre-entries in the richest race, the $5 million Classic.
Racing this year in particular has been criticized for its liberal rules regarding steroids, and both the Breeders' Cup and the California Horse Racing Board have responded, resulting in this being the first Breeders' Cup in which steroids will be illegal. In addition, all runners pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup this past week are subject to random, out-of-competition testing.
Breeders' Cup officials have made other decisions that have been controversial.
Santa Anita was also awarded the 2009 Breeders' Cup, marking the first time a track will play host to the event in consecutive years. While other potential host sites decried this development, Breeders' Cup officials defend the move as an attempt use a major media market to raise the profile of the sport's championship event.
The five races exclusively for female horses all will be run Friday, and the name of that day's biggest race has been changed from the Distaff to the Ladies' Classic. Breeders' Cup officials defend the name change as being more understandable to non-racing fans.
"If you walk down the street and ask someone what a 'distaff' is, they'll think it's an infection," said Peter Land, the chief marketing officer of the Breeders' Cup since October 2007.
Tickets for this year's Breeders' Cup largely required the purchase of a two-day package, Oct. 24-25, and the cost for reserved and premium seats, in the midst of a plummeting economy, gave some fans sticker shock. The highest price for two days tops out at $1,800, which includes food catered by Wolfgang Puck and unlimited beverages, and there are many more seats in the $1,000 and $1,200 range. Breeders' Cup officials say the price is commensurate with other elite sporting events, and point out that walk-up tickets are available for as little as $15 each day for members of Santa Anita's frequent-fan club, the Thoroughbreds.
Concurrent with the high aspirations of the ticket prices, and the recruitment of a celebrity chef like Puck, is a desire to turn the Breeders' Cup into an event that becomes recognized beyond the boundaries of an insular sport. Land, whose experience includes a stint with the National Basketball Association, has been the point guard of that drive.
Land, working in concert with a public-relations firm in Los Angeles, has recruited celebrities to attend the races both days, organized a concert with the Grammy Award-winning band Maroon 5, and has formed partnerships with charities like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. The goal, Land said, is to position the Breeders' Cup on a par with events like the Super Bowl or the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
"People look at those events as aspirational properties," Land said. "We are the global championship of our sport, and we should act like one. What we're trying to do is have people look up Sunday, the day after the event ends, and not just look at this as a horse-racing event, but a happening. We want it to have buzz, to get people talking about it. For the first 23 years, the Breeders' Cup did a good job marketing itself to racing and sports fans. But outside the horse-racing community, there was not an understanding of what this really was."
Santa Anita president and CEO Ron Charles said: "People need to understand that this is our World Series, our Super Bowl."
The attempt for crossover appeal into entertainment media is ambitious. Beginning Thursday night, there is an invitation-only party at the Hollywood Paladium at which Maroon 5 will play and rocker Joel Madden will DJ. The band is not scheduled to hit the stage until 10:30 p.m.
"They'll get a big crowd, but not a big racetrack crowd. That's a little late for them," said Sherwood Chillingworth, the executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, which leases Santa Anita during this fall meet. "They're trying to make a happening out of the Breeders' Cup. With this economy, you need all the pizazz you can get."
On Friday at Santa Anita, according to Land, attendees will include actors Allison Janney and Cheryl Hines, chef Bobby Flay, Olympians Misty May-Treanor, Jennie Finch, Crystal Bustos, and Shannon Boxx, and Candace Parker of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.
Saturday's guest list is scheduled to include actors Kurt Russell, Michael Clark Duncan, Rebecca Romijn, and Jerry O'Connell, sports broadcaster Jim Rome, and Jeff Probst, the host of "Survivor."
"This is a little bit of a message to the sports and entertainment community that we should be treated like the Super Bowl," Land said.
There were 11 Breeders' Cup races last year. The three races added last year all were run on Friday. This year, with three more races added, the lineup was reconfigured, not only to group the female races, but to have an attractive card that includes traditional Breeders' Cup races like the Juvenile Fillies. The Ladies' Classic has a sensational lineup, with the unbeaten Zenyatta taking on Cocoa Beach, Hystericalady, Music Note, and last year's winner, Ginger Punch.
"We wanted to have two championship days, like at the U.S. Open tennis tournament," Land said. "There used to be complaints when the women's final was sandwiched between the men's semifinals. We didn't want Friday to be an appetizer."
Land said he "completely stands by the decision to rename the Distaff."
"If you have to explain the name, you're behind the eight ball," he said. Land admitted, though, "It might have been more acceptable to call it the Filly and Mare Classic," which would have made the race consistent with races like the Filly and Mare Turf and the Filly and Mare Sprint.
Both Land and Greg Avioli, the 44-year-old president and chief executive officer of the Breeders' Cup, said the high ticket prices are consistent with other major sporting events, but both admitted, in separate interviews, that they might not have been as aggressive in setting the prices had the recent roiling of the economy happened months earlier.
"If we find we're high in some areas and low in others, we'll adjust for next year," said Avioli, who took over his post in April 2007 after serving as the organization's interim leader for nine months.
Land said: "Nobody predicted the economy would go into free-fall. If we'd have known, we might have priced things less."
Not everyone is convinced the Friday card will be embraced as enthusiastically as the Saturday races.
"This isn't the Oaks and the Derby," said Louisville, Ky., native Amy Ellis, the wife of trainer Ron Ellis and a passionate horseplayer. "Only die-hards can handle the Oaks and the Derby."
While Avioli has worked with Land regarding marketing, his greater focus has been on the racing side. Avioli is a strong proponent of synthetic surfaces, has aggressively backed the steroid rules, and made several recruiting trips to Europe this year, most recently at the end of September.
"On a personal basis, there's no doubt in my mind that synthetic surfaces significantly reduce catastrophic injuries," Avioli said. "The Breeders' Cup and the racing industry cannot afford catastrophic injuries on major racing days."
Nothing regarding this year's Breeders' Cup has been more debated within the inner circles of racing than having the sport's championship races run on a synthetic surface. Santa Anita has Pro-Ride.
"I'm not crazy about synthetic tracks," said trainer Nick Zito, who has no horses in this year's Breeders' Cup "They say it's like dirt. It isn't dirt. It's like dirt, but it isn't dirt."
Since this will be the first Breeders' Cup on a synthetic surface, "it's the most difficult one to analyze going in," trainer Todd Pletcher said.
"The real question," Pletcher said, "is whether to run the Breeders' Cup on a synthetic surface at all, and the Breeders' Cup committee decided it should."
"It's a big question mark for everybody," said John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta.
Where a trainer stands on the issue might depend on what's in his barn.
"With Go Between, I'm perfectly happy it's on synthetic," said Bill Mott, whose Go Between won Del Mar's Pacific Classic on a synthetic surface in August and will face Curlin in the BC Classic. But, Mott added, "I don't think it makes a more level playing field. I think it makes it better for certain horses. Each horse has his best distance and favorite surface.
"I don't think it's a cure-all," Mott said. "I don't think it will eliminate all physical issues with horses. It eliminates some problems and exacerbates others."
Mark Casse, who is based at Woodbine, which has a synthetic surface, said: "I love it. I absolutely love it. With synthetic surfaces, it's pretty much the same every day."
Avioli said he found European interest keener than usual this year.
"As much as the surface, it's the steroids," Avioli said.
Banning steroids "makes for a level playing field," said Oak Tree's Chillingworth. "And it's a good public-relations move."
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said: "I don't think anabolic steroids make a horse run faster or perform better, but I'm glad they're being stopped so that going forward everyone will be on a level playing field,"
"I'm happy they changed the rules on it," Mott said. "I think the majority of the trainers and owners I know are pleased."
Count trainer Bruce Headley, and his assistant and daughter, Karen, among them.
"He's excited about running nice horses against horses not running on steroids," Karen Headley said of her father. "He's hay, oats, and water. He doesn't want to run against syringes."
Avioli said the expansion to 14 races is enough for now.
"I don't anticipate adding new races for the next few years," he said. "After expanding this much, we want to see how the roots take, on the chance that one doesn't work. We want to make sure if the aggregate is right. We want three things - size, quality, and betting handle. We want full fields, but full fields of world-class horses."
Even with 11 races last year, overall Breeders' Cup handle was down from the record $134,357,846 on eight races at Churchill Downs in 2006, though the dreadful weather at Monmouth certainly had an impact. Still, this year's handle, now encompassing 14 races, will be closely watched. The impact the economy may have on handle is of concern to Avioli.
"It's definitely the most trying economy of my lifetime," Avioli said. "I've kept a keen eye on betting trends in California and overall nationally, and big days are holding up better than other days. We're not seeing the precipitous 10 to 15 percent drops of other days. But we're very concerned because this will be the last week at the end of the month, and people generally have less money than at the beginning of the month."
Everyone in management at the Breeders' Cup, Santa Anita, and Oak Tree admits that the event must live up to the ambitions.
"If we put on a really great show, and people see that this is a great sport, it can only help for next year," Charles said. "If this event is successful, it can create interest in coming back next year and jumpstart interest in the Breeders' Cup."
Land said: "We have a global championship event. The Super Bowl. Ryder Cup. Wimbledon. A premium seat at a premium event, with food and beverage, there's a price tag that goes with that. So the customer service, the mutuel clerks, everything can't be like a normal day. The food has to be better. The lines have to be shorter. The parties have to be great. We want people to leave saying, 'Wow, that was something.'"