01/23/2014 3:05PM

Steven Crist: Jockey Club Tour on Fox a missed opportunity


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.