01/23/2014 2:05PM

Steven Crist: Jockey Club Tour on Fox a missed opportunity

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When the Jockey Club announced last August that it was sponsoring nine one-hour racing telecasts on Fox Sports 1 this year, and that “the race series spotlights many horses that previously competed in Triple Crown races,” fans, including this one, began looking forward to something resembling the American Championship Racing Series of a generation ago: an organized series of America’s most important dirt races for older horses leading to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at season’s end.

When the list of races was finally released this week, the lineup was something completely different – a mishmash of nine disconnected races in various divisions, most of them on the grass and few of them among anyone’s candidates for a meaningful series of the sport’s important races for older horses.

The lone common denominator among the ACRS of 1991-93 and the Jockey Club Tour on Fox of 2014 is the Donn Handicap, the kickoff leg of both series. The ACRS then wended its way, with a few year-to-year variations, through the most important nine- and 10-furlong dirt events on the calendar: the Santa Anita Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, Pimlico Special, Hollywood Gold Cup, Iselin, Pacific Classic, and Woodward.

This time, things get curiouser and curiouser after the Donn, without a single other dirt race for older males on the entire calendar. Instead of ever seeing the likes of Will Take Charge or Mucho Macho Man again after the Donn, we instead will take a magical mystery tour through the Dubai World Cup, the Blue Grass, the Man o’ War, United Nations, Eddie Read, Saratoga Special, Sword Dancer, and Woodbine Mile. If you’re keeping score, that’s five grass races, two on synthetic, and just two on dirt – the Donn and, believe it or not, the Grade 2 Saratoga Special at 6 1/2 furlongs for 2-year-olds.

That imbalance may or may not be addressed when the rest of the schedule is released – there will be a secondary race added to each telecast – but it’s clear that this tour will not include any of the sport’s important dirt races for older horses beyond the Donn.

If the idea was to showcase the variety of racing in different divisions, that hasn’t happened either. There’s nothing for older fillies, a shame in a year when Beholder versus Princess of Sylmar could be a great storyline. A taste of the Triple Crown is fine, but why the Blue Grass, the weakest Grade 1 Derby prep, a race that has lost most of its significance since being switched to Polytrack, and one that rarely attracts any Derby favorites?

The closest thing we get to continuity is in the less-than-compelling bracket of midseason long-distance turfers that runs in the Man o’ War, United Nations, and Sword Dancer, none of them as important as the absent Arlington Million. We’ll doubtless be told that these are important international events when the reality is that they are opportunities for American turf horses to rack up Grade 1 credentials before the superior Europeans show up at Arlington or in the fall to win the most important grass prizes.

The problem is not that anyone is saying with a straight face that this is the best possible series of races, but that the ever-dysfunctional racing industry could not line up its own ducks. With Fox airtime available only on pre-football Sundays, tracks would have had to move signature races from Saturday to Sunday. Gulfstream agreed, moving the Donn from Saturday, Feb. 8, to Sunday, Feb. 9, but the proprietors of other races such as the Santa Anita Handicap, Arlington Million, and Whitney declined to do so.

It’s unclear whether the project got started too late to make schedule adjustments or whether tracks are being unreasonably stubborn. Either way, it’s the same depressing story of an industry that can’t seem to work together to put its best foot forward and accomplish its real goals.

Nine additional hours of any nationally televised racing is better than nothing, but the way this inaugural lineup turned out is a massive missed opportunity. The same needs exist today as when the ACRS was formed: to showcase the nation’s best older horses in the most important races, to incent horses to stay in training with enhanced bonuses and purses, and to foster competition among the same group of horses throughout a season so that more casual fans might begin to follow them.

The inaugural Tour schedule does none of those things – but there’s always next year.

Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
ps...But anything beats a blank...
Pat More than 1 year ago
The Jockey Club is probably the biggest liability facing racing today. They have no vision only vested interests. They're totally insular and such have no concept as to how the real world views horse racing, it's perceived rampant and condoned drugging of horses and perception of on track dishonesty. It sticks it's head in the sand and comes up with these silly ideas that have show little or no thought or understanding of the general public, the very people they are supposedly trying to attract. A total disgrace.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Totally agree Pat. The Jockey Club lacks the individual who is expert at promoting an important event. The Jockey Club fails in all areas. We need someone who has that expertise to shake up the TV industry, so that the racing fans, and new fans, can see what a great sport, thoroughbred racing truly is. Why did they eliminate the Arlington Million.? Dumb and dumber.
joseph More than 1 year ago
Hey Steve, when are you going to do something about the company lines in the print edition of this paper???????
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
The Jockey Club is a broke joke from top to bottom...Period...
Walt Gekko More than 1 year ago
This is where tracks really need to realize they have to work together and go into non-traditional time slots for the sport. A perfect opportunity would be for Del Mar to work with NBC to create a "Summer at Del Mar" series very similar to the "Summer at Saratoga" series we have seen the past three years on NBC and NBCSN (Vs. in 2011). A Del Mar version could air for five consecutive Saturdays in prime time on NBC with the first four from 10:00-11:00 PM ET/7:00-8:00 PM PT and the last one headed by the Pacific Classic that could be two hours from 9:00-11:00 PM ET/6:00-8:00 PM PT. There would be two races on the first four telecast and two races in addition to the Pacific Classic on the last one (the Pacific Classic would be run one week earlier than it is now to accommodate this). As Del Mar often runs past 7:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays anyway, this would not be that big of a deal, and it would be a great way to showcase the sport at a time when NBC would love to have live sports lead-in to the late local news (in the east) on Saturday nights during a time when Saturday prime time ratings are an absolute joke. This sport needs to make its own breaks and such would be the best way to do it, being aggressive and going into time slots that may not seem the most attractive for the sport, but would help in bringing in casual fans.
David Crossley More than 1 year ago
Walt--DM doesn't go past 7pm ever on Saturdays. Even a 10 race program would be over by 6:30-6:45.. I doubt that DM would change their start time on Saturday to 3pm, as that is what would be needed to fit races into your proposed timeslot, although it is an interesting idea.
Drew More than 1 year ago
terrible management of horse racing once again.
Buzz Nottingham More than 1 year ago
Jay Stone is correct, too many groups with their own agenda. Unfortunately, there will never be a unified group or concerted effort.
soroka More than 1 year ago
Fox gave nothing. The JC purchased the dead airtime. They should have planned it out. At least the heads can get an idea how late Sunday afternoon in the spring and summer fares against magic bullet and proactiv infommercial's.
Walt Gekko More than 1 year ago
Now, what should happen is The Jockey Club, Del Mar and NBC (as noted above) should work on a Saturday night "Summer at Del Mar" series that could air from 10:00-11:00 PM ET/7:00-8:00 PM PT (9:00-11:00 PM ET on Pacific Classic day) that can for five weeks serve in the east as the lead-in to late local news and I suspect would do very well.
Jay Stone More than 1 year ago
Each track and organization representing the horsemen is a separate entity with their own agenda. This is why you have a weak group of muddled race to show. If there was a unifying group controlling this mess of an industry there would have been a concerted effort to showcase a group of races representing the best the industry has to offer. The fox people that have given the industry valuable airtime on a new channel don't really know what races will draw or die a slow death so it was left to the powers that be who failed miserably like usual.
Dennis More than 1 year ago
Maybe Breeders' Cup can sponser a series in their various divisions instead of this follish Win and You're In program. It can be similar to the current points system used for the Kentucky Derby.