06/02/2017 3:06PM

Hovdey: Filly and Mare Turf gets short shrift

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The Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf came onto the scene in 1999 under pressure from owners and breeders who were frustrated that they had championship-quality horses with no place to run on racing’s most important day.

They were right.

The race has tested some of the best females in the world over the turf courses of eight different American tracks. Of the 18 runnings, 11 have been offered at 1 1/4 miles, seven at 1 3/8 miles, and one – the Keeneland running – at 1 3/16 miles.

There have been some memorable encounters along the way, with gut-wrenching finishes at the end of races that asked and answered serious questions regarding both stamina and speed.

Soaring Softly came out on top of the inaugural running, in which five runners hit the line at Gulfstream Park just a length apart. At Arlington Park in 2002, Starine beat defending champ Banks Hill, future winner Islington, and eventual division champion Golden Apples. Shared Account led the cavalry charge in 2010 at Churchill Downs in a clustered finish that included previous winners Midday and Forever Together. Just last year at Santa Anita, Queen’s Trust caught Lady Eli on the line at the end of 10 nerve-wracking furlongs.

Now all that has been rendered ancient history. The announcement this week by Breeders’ Cup Ltd. that the 2017 running of the Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar will be run at nine furlongs effectively cuts the legs out from under a tradition that seemed safe from meddling.

So, why the change? To hear the explanation from Dora Delgado, Breeders’ Cup senior vice president of nominations and racing, the decision was recently made after a deep data dive into the potential talent pool for this year’s Filly and Mare Turf.

“We have to write races for the Championships that will attract the highest-rated horses in the world,” Delgado said in an e-mail. “We looked at races on the turf for fillies and mares at one mile or over around the world that were graded/group and whether or not those races had supported the BC F&M Turf by sending the winner on to the Championships.”

Delgado added that interviews with horsemen, both foreign and domestic, found no consensus in opposition to shortening the race.

“All the American trainers were overwhelming in favor of running the race at 1 1/8 miles if we could not run at 1 1/4,” wrote Delgado. “The European trainers were divided, with the younger trainers … being in favor of a shorter distance.”

Apparently, the class is now writing the curriculum.

The configuration of the Del Mar turf course accommodates a 1 3/8-mile race but not a 1 1/4-mile race. This has been a common situation whenever the Breeders’ Cup was staged at a track with a seven-furlong turf course inside a one-mile main track.

Delgado noted that the original intent of the Breeders’ Cup was to offer the Filly and Mare Turf at 1 1/4 miles whenever possible. Original intent evaporated quickly when the first two editions – at Gulfstream and Churchill Downs – were offered at 1 3/8 miles, as were subsequent renewals at Lone Star and Monmouth Park. Santa Anita’s 1 1/4-mile grass races start partway up the hillside course.

The 11-furlong race at Del Mar starts on the backstretch, just around the clubhouse turn. There is a generous run-up to the first of three conventional turns, a by-product of the inward widening of the course three summers ago. Delgado suggested that Del Mar’s 1 1/8-mile races, starting at the end of the diagonal infield chute, offer fans the dramatic perspective of a field rushing right at them before linking to the main course.

But is that the point of the exercise? A field of 14 funneling helter-skelter down the Del Mar chute quickly confronts a half-turn elbow and then a short run to the beginning of the clubhouse turn, increasing the potential for bad trips. For that matter, the Del Mar Handicap has been run at 1 3/8 miles on the grass since 1986 with little complaint about aesthetics.

It has been more than two years since Del Mar was tabbed as the site for the 2017 Breeders’ Cup. Until this week, it was understood that the 1 3/8-mile option for the Filly and Mare Turf would be used. The announcement that the race would be shortened reverberates in ways not yet known.

For instance, what does Santa Anita do with its 10-furlong Rodeo Drive, a Grade 1 qualifier for the Filly and Mare Turf? Ditto for the Flower Bowl in New York. Rick Hammerle, the head of Santa Anita’s racing department, could only answer, “I don’t know. I just heard about it.”

The Rodeo Drive and Flower Bowl are two of 11 international Win and You’re In races for the Filly and Mare Turf. Of the 11, seven are longer than nine furlongs, including the Prix de l’Opera and the Yorkshire Oaks. And yet the defining race for the division requires the best of them to shorten up.

Delgado added that the nine-furlong version of the race should not be interpreted as permanent, although Churchill Downs, the 2018 site, is perfectly capable of running 1 1/8 miles on grass. In the words of one veteran racing official, “Mile and one-eighth? That’s just another race.”

And that is the last thing a Breeders’ Cup race should be.