10/23/2013 2:21PM

Jay Hovdey: Nerud suggests way Breeders' Cup can stir things up

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Barbara D. Livingston
John Nerud has strong opinions about changes that could be made to make the Breeders' Cup races more meaningful.

The stage is set for another orgy of good racing, with a list of 172 horses pre-entered for the 14 races of the 30th Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships to be run at Santa Anita Park on Friday, Nov. 1, and Saturday, Nov. 2.

This year, with domestic stars Wise Dan, Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar, Little Mike, Point of Entry, Beholder and Palace Malice in the mix, a memorable event is all but guaranteed. Betting will be offered and encouraged.

For some reason, however, the folks who market the Breeders’ Cup are not content in offering the single most satisfying two days of sport on the U.S. racing calendar. They continue to cling to the misleading label of “world championships,” as if such an event could be held anywhere on the planet.

There are simply too many regions with highly developed, self-sustaining Thoroughbred industries, where conditions differ considerably as to how horses are bred, raised, trained, and raced. Once in a while a special animal will emerge who is able to transcend time zones and playing fields to be truly a world champion, but they are very few and far, far between, and if you find one they usually answer to names like Singspiel, Ouija Board, Deep Impact, Black Caviar, or St Nicholas Abbey.

International participation in the Breeders’ Cup has ebbed and flowed through the years. This time around, a light sprinkling of global good will is provided by 20 horses pre-entered from Europe and one from Argentina, compared with the 2012 Cup, also at Santa Anita, when 25 imports competed and won three of the 15 races.

The invaders include Declaration of War, The Fugue, and Olympic Glory – all three of championship caliber – plus such stalwarts as Dank, Flotilla, and Planteur. In addition to the familiar faces of Aidan O’Brien, Richard Hannon, Michael Stoute, Dermot Weld, and John Gosden, European trainers Marco Botti, Mikel Delzangles, Charlie Hills, Phillip Sogorb, and Charlie Appleby will be appearing for the first time, so thank you gentlemen for taking a swing. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen.

Fortunately, it’s easy to ignore the world championships portion of the Breeders’ Cup label. From the moment in 2002 that it was integrated with the already established brand, the Breeders’ Cup “World Championships” always was an awkward calling card, full of hubris and hope, but vulnerable to mockery, especially by the part of the world that did not include the various places where the Breeders’ Cup was held.

Then again, if you really want to be called a world championship, don’t pussyfoot around. So says John Nerud, a Breeders’ Cup founder, who helped shape the original design of seven defining races and ran the powerful marketing committee through the Cup’s nascent years. Reached at his Long Island home, Nerud was asked if anyone in charge ever asks him for advice anymore, since he is an emeritus member of the Breeders’ Cup board.

“I’ve talked to a couple people,” Nerud said. “I told them you’ve screwed up the Breeders’ Cup. You’ve got two days of fancy racing, but you can’t make champions of all those horses. They run the same old races and try to tell us the winners are champions when a lot of times they’re nothing more than million-dollar allowance races, with the same horses running for a little bit more money. I mean, you’ve had times when the winner of the Classic wasn’t even mentioned for Horse of the Year.”

From the start, Nerud’s passion was to make the Breeders’ Cup mainstream.

“When you made two days of racing with so many races that mean nothing you have no big thing to attract attention for each of those days,” he said. “If you’re going to do two days, why don’t you copy something like Churchill Downs has done with the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby? The Oaks will never be as big as the Derby, of course, but that day has become a pretty big deal in its own right.”

And since Nerud never has been the kind of man to lob criticism unencumbered by a positive idea, here’s what he would do.

“The horses who draw people to the Thoroughbred industry are the 3-year-olds, and by this time of year they’re already picking the 2-year-olds who are going to be those 3-year-olds everyone’s going to follow next year,” he said. “You want to make that first Breeders’ Cup day a big deal? Get rid of all those million-dollar allowance races and put up three million for a 2-year-old race everybody will need to run in, and everybody will talk about the winner.

“Now you’ve got a lot of money left,” Nerud added. “So you make the Classic worth 10 million, and don’t be shy about it. The horse who wins that race, you call him the Horse of the World. Then you’d really have something to sell.”

Nerud trained Dr. Fager, the greatest all-around American champion, during his Hall of Fame career, then later bred Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Cozzene. He will be turning 101 next February. Someone ought to listen to this guy before it’s too late.