Updated on 09/16/2011 8:33AM

Cup belongs at big-facility site


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - As a third straight day of raw, damp weather surrounded Arlington Park on Friday, ticket holders for Saturday's races began to wonder whether having a Breeders' Cup here would turn out to be such a good idea. Track operators and Cup officials were already wondering the same thing for entirely different reasons.

Even if Saturday were to bring a change of climate to make Chicagoland feel more like Antigua than Antarctica, Arlington's hosting of this Cup figured to be a watershed in deciding where future Cups will be run. There's not only the old question of whether the Cup should be held only in warm-weather cities, but a new one of whether modern tracks such as the rebuilt Arlington are big enough to accommodate a Breeders' Cup.

For the most part, major-market American tracks built more than a generation ago are coliseums, designed for an era when daily crowds were 20,000 and special events might draw three times as big a crowd. Think Aqueduct, Belmont, Churchill Downs, Gulfstream, Hollywood, and Santa Anita - between them, hosts of 17 of the 18 previous Breeders' Cups. Those daily crowds are gone forever, and it can seem either comical or depressing when only 3,000 people rattle around majestic Belmont Park on a rainy Thursday, but those extra seats and acres sure came in handy when more than 100,000 people wanted to watch War Emblem go for the Triple Crown.

Arlington is a gorgeous facility, an opulent labor of love for the game by Dick Duchossois and as pretty a place to spend an average day at the races as you will find anywhere. But when Duchossois rebuilt Arlington so beautifully after a fire ravaged the original plant in 1985, he also designed it for the new economic realities of the game: 10,000 permanent seats would be more than enough.

It was not enough, though, to keep Arlington and the Breeders' Cup from having to institute a unique and uninviting policy for this Breeders' Cup: no general admission. Apologists tried to argue that this somehow classed up the event - hey, you can't just walk into the NBA Finals or the Super Bowl either - but it left a bad taste among locals and seems counter to the history and spirit of big American race days.

Unlike NBA or NFL games that are routinely sold out and are not supported by the betting of customers roaming the grounds, racetracks are supposed to be places you can head out to on a whim when there are a few dollars burning a hole in your pocket - even, if not especially, on the day of a big event. Generations of college students and others have had their first exposure to racing by piling into a car the morning of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont to be part of a little piece of history.

Racing's greatest strength is that it's a participatory as well as a spectator sport, but at this Breeders' Cup, the public was told that without an expensive reserved seat, they were not welcome to participate.

This Breeders' Cup seemed to be surrounded by less local promotion and civic boosterism than any in memory - and understandably so. Why promote that there's a world championship being run in town if anyone who gets the urge to attend in the two weeks leading up to it can't get in the front door?

If every major track in the country could handle a crowd including general admissions, it's a charming idea to move the Cup around as much as possible. Those that can't, and prove to be both cramped and exclusive, may simply have to be taken out of the rotation. Perhaps there are less drastic solutions, such as creative use of infields or adjoining property, but one way or another no eager novice should ever have to be turned away from a racetrack gate.

Weather, on the other hand, should not be a factor. This is an outdoor and year-round sport, and confining Cup Day to California or Florida would not only permanently remove the flavor of fall from a fall championship but also be unfair to Kentucky and New York, deserving regular hosts with ideal facilities. By the same token, California and Florida should not be removed from the mix for being too tropical, as some European horsemen have arrogantly suggested.

Horseplayers are a rugged breed and don't mind being a little hot or cold. They just don't like being left out in the cold, as some unfortunately were at Arlington this year.