06/17/2011 2:35PM

No harm in adding Juvenile Sprint to Breeders' Cup lineup


The announcement last week that a six-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds will become the 15th Breeders’ Cup race starting this fall has prompted some hand-wringing over the expansion of the Cup lineup in general and an emphasis on speed and precocity in particular. While it’s reasonable to raise such concerns, the new Juvenile Sprint seems on balance like a healthy addition to the program, so long as people keep it in proper perspective.

With a purse of “only” $500,000 – the Marathon is the only one of the other 14 Cup races worth less than $1 million – the Juvenile Sprint is clearly being positioned as a minor event among Cup races, as it should be. There are no season-ending honors for juvenile sprinters, and no aspirant for the 2-year-old Eclipse Award is going to be withheld from the $2 million Juvenile to race for 25 percent of that purse in an ungraded race. It takes at least two years for a new race to be awarded graded status, so for now purse money earned in the Juvenile Sprint will not help a horse qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

There has often been some kind of stakes race for 2-year-old sprinters as part of a Breeders’ Cup week or weekend, just without the Breeders’ Cup as part of its name. Once the Cup program expanded beyond seven or eight races on one day to 14 or 15 over two, it was inevitable that stakes races considered “undercard” or “supporting” events would pick up the Cup brand. As a business move, it’s a no-brainer: If you call the same race the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint instead of the John Doe Memorial, it will attract a lot more attention and handle.

So what’s the harm? It’s not even costing them anything in the way of purse money: The $500,000 Juvenile Sprint purse will cleverly be funded entirely by a reduction in the bloated purse for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, which will not draw one less entry for being worth $1.5 million instead of $2 million this year.

The larger concern is about dilution of the Breeders’ Cup brand. The first 15 Breeders’ Cups had just seven races until the Filly and Mare Turf became the eighth in 1999. Eight years later, the expansion of the program to two days brought the additions of the Filly and Mare Sprint, Juvenile Turf, and Dirt Mile in 2007 and the Marathon, Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Turf Sprint in 2008.

Despite the Breeders’ Cup’s insistence on calling them all “World Thoroughbred Championship” races, they clearly aren’t, nor do they have to be. Racing has its narrow specialists like turf sprinters, and there’s nothing wrong with having a Cup race for them as long as no one gets carried away and suggests that every one of these divisions should have an Eclipse Award.

A race for juvenile sprinters is actually a more accurate extension of American racing than the more debatable addition of two grass races for 2-year-olds was in 2007 and 2008. There is still very little meaningful grass racing for American juveniles and a very limited menu of stakes races for such horses. If they deserved two Breeders’ Cup races, the vastly greater number of 2-year-olds who are best at six furlongs on the dirt deserved one, too.

One hopes that Eclipse Award voters will not take the presence of the Cup logo on a race to give serious consideration to the Juvenile Sprint winner as an automatic contender for the 2-year-old championship. The Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies are not necessarily the final word on the title every year, but should remain the closest thing to it. The juvenile grass races have correctly had no impact on these awards. Last year’s Juvenile winner, Uncle Mo, outpolled the Juvenile Turf winner, Pluck, by a tally of 235-1. The Juvenile Fillies winner, Awesome Feather, got 234 votes to 1 for More Than Real, the Juvenile Fillies Turf winner.

The announcement of the new race said that the Juvenile Sprint will be contested on Friday, Nov. 4, meaning that two Cup races not restricted to fillies will now be run on what was widely called “Filly Friday” when the races were reorganized starting in 2008. That makes now a good time for Cup officials to rethink the lineup of races over the two days and discard the increasingly untenable sex distinction. It was particularly silly to have a filly-themed Friday last year when the two best fillies in the world, Goldikova and Zenyatta ,were running against males on Saturday.

There are several realignments that would work better, such as emphasizing juveniles or sprinters on Friday. My personal preference would be to run the seven newest races on Friday and the original eight on Saturday. Any of these schemes, or others, would work better than “Filly Friday Except for the Juvenile Sprint and Marathon and the Fillies Running Tomorrow Day.”