03/17/2010 11:00PM

Breeders' Cup finding options are limited


Several weeks ago, executives at Breeders' Cup and several influential board members were ready to recommend that, starting in 2011, the Breeders' Cup year-end event be held at Santa Anita Park for the next five to 10 years. However, they backed away after it became clear industry stakeholders would have concerns about the plan, according to officials involved in the discussions.

Though the recommendation remains well supported, the episode illustrates the sensitivities surrounding the Breeders' Cup's plan to hammer out a long-term schedule for host sites. Breeders' Cup is weighing whether to select a single host site on a long-term basis or devise a long-term rotation. They are hoping to announce the plan in April, according to Breeders' Cup chairman Bill Farish.

The organization is set on determining a long-term schedule despite the uncertainty surrounding the racing industry, both on the national stage, where handle and bloodstock prices have plummeted over the last two years, and on the circuits Breeders' Cup typically targets. As a result, Breeders' Cup has limited options, and none appears ideal.

According to several officials involved in the discussions, Breeders' Cup backed away from the Santa Anita plan after some stakeholders raised concerns about the track's synthetic surface and a desire to bring the Breeders' Cup to New York, which last hosted the event in 2005. Although Santa Anita is expected to play a significant role in the Breeders' Cup's future in any plan, officials say they have gone back to the drawing board.

"I don't think anything is off the table right now," Farish said this week. "We're still looking at all the different options and simultaneously taking the pulse of the industry's stakeholders."

As a result of site qualification refinements by Breeders' Cup, changes on some circuits, and the tightened economy, only a handful of tracks remain as possible hosts - Santa Anita, Belmont, Churchill, and a couple of outliers, Keeneland and Del Mar.

Despite criticism of its synthetic track and the bankruptcy of its parent company, Magna Entertainment, Santa Anita retains the top recommendation from influential members of Breeders' Cup management and its board. Supporters point to the sunny and mild fall weather in Southern California. They also contend no management team makes it easier on Breeders' Cup.

If weather is a major factor, then Santa Anita may be the strongest option. Because of renovations, Gulfstream Park outside Miami is no longer physically qualified to host the event, and Breeders' Cup is not willing to return to Lone Star Park near Dallas because of difficulties in accommodating large crowds and the small fan base in the area. And despite offers from its management team, Del Mar outside San Diego is not qualified unless it widens its turf course to allow more than 10 runners.

The Pro-Ride main track at Santa Anita continues to provide the most debate, criticized as a surface that favors one type of horse over another. The most compelling evidence in this criticism is the 0-43 record of horses whose last race was on dirt before running in any of the main-track Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita the last two years.

Barry Weisbord - a trustee of the organization, an owner and breeder, and the publisher of a racing newsletter - said he believed Breeders' Cup was failing to provide opportunities for the entire horse population by running its main-track races on synthetic surfaces.

"If they decide to go in that direction, then I would hope that they find some way to support people who are still racing on dirt," Weisbord said.

Sherwood Chillingworth, the executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, the non-profit company that runs the fall meet at Santa Anita, said that he agrees with some of the criticisms but that the surface is not getting any credit where credit might be due.

For example, 306 horses have started at the two Breeders' Cup events at Santa Anita, and not one has had to be pulled up because of an injury.

In addition, Chillingworth said, complaints among horsemen about surfaces predate the installation of synthetic tracks. Since the Breeders' Cup was established in 1984, some East Coast horsemen have complained about the speed-favoring surfaces out West, and West Coast horsemen have complained about the tiring surfaces out East.

"There have always been horses for courses," Chillingworth said. "It's all in what you are accustomed to."

The argument over Santa Anita's surface may soon become moot. Because of drainage problems and discontent among some horsemen, the track may revert to a dirt surface by the end of this year. That would remove one public-perception obstacle in naming Santa Anita as a permanent host site, but it would leave others, including strained relationships.

Officials of the New York Racing Association have said Breeders' Cup reneged on recent promises to hold the event at Belmont Park. It hasn't helped that Breeders' Cup brings a certain amount of prestige to the host and that NYRA has been fighting off political attacks for the last several years. Playing host to the Breeders' Cup could give NYRA a boost by demonstrating to New York politicians that the association remains highly regarded on the national racing landscape.

"If I had a vote, I'd give it to New York in 2011," said Nick Nicholson, the president of Keenelend. "They deserve it more than anybody."

Aside from the unpredictability of the New York weather in the fall, the local politics make it a complicated choice. NYRA officials have said the association will run out of cash this summer because of the state's failure to select an operator for a planned casino at Aqueduct. The officials said the association will need the legislature to fund its operations based on an agreement that allowed the association to emerge from bankruptcy in 2008 and that deeded Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga to the state. Yet no legislator is promising anything.

Meanwhile, New York City Off Track Betting Corp., the largest bet-taker in the U.S., is in bankruptcy, and its officials say they need the state to approve a legislative package that would rewrite the state's racing laws if the corporation is going to survive. Those financial and statutory uncertainties could present problems in naming Belmont as a host site.

That leaves Churchill, a cold-weather site in the middle of horse country that is scheduled to host its seventh Breeders' Cup later this year. Unfortunately, Churchill and Breeders' Cup fail to see eye-to-eye on several financial issues in the host-site agreement, according to several officials involved in negotiations and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivities in the relationship. The agreement is structured as a profit-sharing deal, and that can sometimes mean little to no profit to share.

To some Breeders' Cup officials, the financial disagreement translates into a lack of enthusiasm to host the event, according to one official close to the host-site discussions. "If [Breeders' Cup] felt like Churchill was really interested and wanted to do it, they might be happy with a two- or three-track rotation," the official said. "But it doesn't even seem as if Churchilll wants it."

In comments on a recent radio show, Breeders' Cup board member Satish Sanan said that Churchill was the "worst organization" to host a Breeders' Cup and that Santa Anita was the "best site."

Farish later apologized for the comments, saying they did not reflect the board's official position. In a statement, Sanan said, "I regret my poor choice of words."

John Asher, a spokesman for Churchill Downs, said the company has not had substantial discussions with Breeders' Cup about its place in a permanent rotation. He declined to comment about the host-site agreement between the two companies, but he said the success of the six previous Breeders' Cup events at Churchill provided ample proof the company embraced its role as host site.

"We love having the event here," Asher said. "And I know that if you look at the numbers, we have had six very remarkable events here in the past, and we are looking forward to a seventh."

With all the problems surrounding potential host sites, why commit to a schedule that looks so far over the horizon? According to Farish, it's because continuity in the host site schedule would allow Breeders' Cup to focus its marketing efforts and give racing fans, trainers, and owners an adequate amount of time to make plans leading up to the event.

"We believe very strongly that a permanent site or a fixed rotation would benefit Breeders' Cup and the racing community substantially," Farish said.