02/04/2011 12:21PM

Championship series worthy of reviving

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Twenty years ago this week, a field of 12 older horses lined up for the 1991 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Then as now, it was the first Grade 1 race of the year for the nation’s top older horses, but in 1991 it was the start of something even bigger: It was the first leg of the inaugural American Championship Racing Series, a short-lived innovation that may have been ahead of its time but seems well worth revisiting now.

The ACRS, conceived and administered by Barry Weisbord, was an attempt to organize the year’s major races for older horses leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic into a coherent and meaningful series. A bonus system offered $1.5 million to the four horses who accumulated the most points for 1-2-3 finishes in the Donn, Santa Anita Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, Pimlico Special, Nassau County Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Iselin and Woodward.

A generation later, it looks like a golden year. The series attracted consistently big fields, and what proved to be a deep division had repeated and meaningful matchups throughout the year while criss-crossing the country. Seven different horses won those nine races: Farma Way (Santa Anita Handicap, Pimlico Special) and Festin (Oaklawn, Nassau County) each won two, while Jolie’s Halo (Donn), Marquetry (Gold Cup), Best Pal (Pacific Classic), Black Tie Affair (Iselin) and In Excess (Woodward) each won one ACRS race in a division that also included Unbridled, Summer Squall, Pleasant Tap, and Flying Continental.

Farma Way won a $750,000 bonus for the best record in the series, with $375,000 going to Festin, $225,000 to Marquetry, and $150,000 to Jolie’s Halo. Black Tie Affair, however, won the Eclipse Awards as champion older male and Horse of the Year for finishing his season with five straight wins including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he beat a field full of ACRS veterans including Festin, Marquetry, Unbridled, Summer Squall, as well as the 3-year-olds Fly So Free and Strike the Gold.

The inaugural ACRS was a success on just about every count, and that it happened at all seems remarkable.

“You had almost a dozen different racetracks, who couldn’t agree on what color the sky was, to agree to do this together,” said Doug Donn, Gulfstream’s president at the time.

Weisbord not only herded that gang of cats but also got ABC to televise the series, bringing the nation’s top older horses into homes nine times even before the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic were run. It also was the first time that most horseplayers could bet on out-of-state races other than the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, and the high level of public interest accelerated the growth of the interstate simulcasting that would effectively keep the industry afloat for the next generation.

That success may have been the undoing of the ACRS. Racetrack operators can only cooperate and play nicely for so long, and the initial success of the ACRS led them to cut out Weisbord and the series and try to go it alone in a new age of selling signals. Rather than expanding into other divisions as planned, the ACRS withered and was gone in two more years.

Nothing has replaced it, and the sport to this day lacks any coherent schedule of major races leading to the Classic. The Breeders’ Cup’s “Win and You’re In” series for the division is a mishmash of major and minor events, and there are now big gaps in the racing calendar for Grade 1 older dirt horses. With the downgrading of the Oaklawn Handicap and the disappearance of the Pimlico Special, there are no unrestricted Grade 1 dirt races over a mile between the Santa Anita Handicap in early March and the Stephen Foster in mid-June. Last year, Quality Road didn’t race between the Donn in February and the Met Mile on Memorial Day largely because there were no suitable races for him, much less a series of them.

The Dubai World Cup used to fill that hole, and would have attracted Quality Road last year if the race were still run on dirt, but the switch to a synthetic surface has now made that race a free-for-all among international grass horses. Even a $10 million purse is not attracting America’s top dirt horses.

There have been fitful attempts to resurrect something like the ACRS. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association tried to construct a Thoroughbred Championship Tour in 2002, but industry infighting kept it from getting off the ground. The Breeders’ Cup announced two years ago that creating a series leading to the Classic was a priority, but so far it has offered nothing beyond the flawed Win and You’re In program.

The racing industry understandably bemoans the lack of public interest and media coverage of its marquee events for older horses, but that’s all it can expect amid a continued failure to package and promote those races in a straightforward and accessible series like the ACRS. It’s time for the presenters of those races to sit down, cooperate and work together as they did for one shining season 20 years ago.