03/18/2010 11:00PM

Cup needs more than one home


NEW YORK - Change is coming to the Breeders' Cup, and necessarily so. The organization paid out more in purses for its 14 races last year than it took in via fees and handle commissions, and the contraction in the bloodstock market will further reduce revenue from foal and stallion nominations.

Over the last six months, the organization has wisely undertaken a thorough review of all its operations and begun to formulate a long-term strategic plan, expected to be announced next month. One possible component of that plan, however - permanently relocating the Breeders' Cup to a single site - is so radical, so rooted in highly questionable assumptions, and so potentially damaging to the event and the industry, that it demands much closer scrutiny and reconsideration.


This isn't about East vs. West or Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta or even dirt vs. synthetic racing surfaces. It wouldn't matter if the Cup chose California, Kentucky, New York, or North Dakota as a permanent site: It's a drastic and unnecessary idea that could destroy the balance and fairness that have been the foundation of the event's integrity and success, and have made it one of the few unifying forces in an otherwise fractured industry.

The alternative - an ongoing rotation among California, Kentucky, and New York, with a separate discussion about whether to include another wild card site every fourth year - seems far preferable, and perhaps essential to the Cup's future.

Even to consider a permanent site, the business rationale would have to be overwhelming, and it is not. The arguments that have been mustered by Cup officials, and by the European consulting firm guiding its strategic planning, are highly debatable at best.

The idea that championship sports events need permanent homes is nonsense, contradicted by the fact that every major one in this country is decided at a variety of sites: The Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup, and NCAA basketball and football titles are held at variable or rotating venues. (On an international level, you can add the Olympics and the World Cup to that list.)

All of these sports do this to expose their events to as wide a swath of the public as possible, to reward more than one city's fans, and to keep the events free of a permanent home-court advantage - all commendable goals that the Breeders' Cup should be embracing, not discarding.

Another supposed advantage is that a permanent Los Angeles site would guarantee ongoing "major media market" exposure. This seems like murky marketing jargon with no real application to this situation. New York is an even bigger media market than Los Angeles, so it seems a swipe solely at Churchill Downs and Louisville, Ky. - where previous Breeders' Cups have garnered just as much coverage, and where the Kentucky Derby draws significantly more media attention and television ratings than the Cup year after year. The Breeders' Cup at Churchill also have attracted six of the seven largest crowds in the history of the event.

Cup officials also keep talking about how successful the last two years were at Santa Anita, but they seem to have been blinded by the sunshine and lovely surroundings. While Santa Anita is indeed a wonderful venue for a Breeders' Cup, and the last two editions included some terrific racing, neither the handle nor field sizes support the proposition that it is any more successful when held there.

Commingled-pool handle on the Saturday Breeders' Cup card was $136 million at Churchill Downs in 2006; $112 million despite horrific weather conditions at Monmouth in 2007; $102 million at Santa Anita in 2008; and $95 million last year. While there are dozens of footnotes and exceptions to those numbers - depending on how you factor in the addition of Friday Cup races starting in 2007, the national economic downturn, the impact of Pro-Ride, various lineup changes, and relative strength of undercards - it's pretty obvious that there is absolutely no case to be made that the Cups at Santa Anita outperform those held elsewhere.

There also were some alarmingly small fields last year: There were just nine in the usually oversubscribed Breeders' Cup Sprint, eight in the Filly and Mare Turf and the Ladies' Classic, and seven in the $3omillion Turf - a total of just 32 starters, down from 45 in the same four races at Churchill in 2006. In total, the eight Cup races at Churchill in 2006 had 100 starters, as opposed to 80 at Santa Anita last year. In fact, every one of those eight races had a larger field in 2006 than 2009.

When Cup officials talk about business success, they really are talking about the ease of striking deals. The nonprofit Oak Tree Racing Association has cut the Cup better revenue splits than Churchill Downs, part of a public company with stronger bottom-line concerns. It is also, however, disingenuous for the Cup's board to suggest it has no other options when it has not had any recent substantial negotiations with Churchill or virtually any communication at all with the New York Racing Association.

That there is bad blood between the current management teams at the Cup and the New York Racing Association - stemming from the Cup's failing to award the 2009, 2010, or, as yet, the 2011 Cup to Belmont, despite repeated assurances the races would return there - would be the poorest possible reason for making this decision. Churchill and NYRA are on record as very much wanting to host future Cups, positions their officials have reiterated in recent weeks.

Essentially telling the fans and horsemen of Kentucky and New York that they are no longer worthy of hosting the Breeders' Cup is a slap in the face that could only deepen existing rifts. Kentucky, New York, and other venues that had hoped to host the event again may well pull out of all the Cup's supporting programs, and stop scheduling their own major events to complement rather than compete with the Cup. Having two sets of year-end championships is something the sport can neither support nor sustain.

The sweetener being privately offered up to potentially disenfranchised racing centers by Cup officials - that they will help support some major preview days of Cup prep races - is inadequate if not insulting. Belmont will continue running its traditional fixtures with or without the Cup's involvement, and Churchill does not even open until a week or two before Breeders' Cup Day.

Some of the Cup officials championing a permanent host site seem to have either short memories or short histories in the industry: Racing faced this same question a generation ago, and answered it differently and successfully.

Three of the first four Breeders' Cups were held at Hollywood or Santa Anita, and there was a mini-revolt at that imbalance for the 1987 Cup, when some leading Eastern owners and trainers kept their championship contenders at home. Cup officials at the time, including the visionaries who had conceived of the event, quickly reversed course.

Only one of the next nine Cups was held in California, and the event then began to assume an irregular but balanced rotation with regular stops in the nation's three major racing centers. There was constant debate about where the Cup should go next, but the very idea of its being a moveable feast was essential to its being embraced by the entire industry. No one could really complain about having to ship horses from one coast to another, or to points in between, because there was an underlying fairness to the system.

Especially amid all the recent acrimony and confusion caused by having back-to-back Cups at Oak Tree and introducing some questionable new races to the program, now is the time for the Breeders' Cup to shore up that kind of broad-based support - not risk compromising it by abandoning the majority of the nation's fans, horsemen, and racetracks.