Wednesday, July 7, 2004
The space between
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
There's another feeling of nothingness in the air as racing trudges its way through this summer. Smarty Jones is resting, and the sport has again disappeared from the sports pages. Few know and few care who wins races like the Suburban Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the United Nations, the Arlington Million or any of the Grade I events that dot the summer schedule.
The Triple Crown has never been hotter and the Breeders' Cup is doing just fine, but the other 361 days of the year struggle mightily to generate any enthusiasm among the general public.
It's a problem racing has had to deal with since the long lost days when there were 40,000 people at the track on any given Saturday and the sport trailed only baseball as America's favorite past time. Those glorious days may never be fully back, thanks in large part to the industry's failure to embrace television. But a group of influential owners and breeders who are part of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association have come up with the best plan yet to nudge the sport back closer to the mainstream. They're the ones behind the Thoroughbred Championship Tour, something racing has never had: a structured schedule of races designed to ensure that the best horses, jockeys and trainers compete against one another in a series of races built around an easy-to-follow format that can hook the public.
Think of it as racing's answer to the PGA Tour. There will the same familiar names and faces showing up month after month to compete against one another and there battles will lead toward year-end prizes and championships.
"We tend to create a paradigm where we compete against ourselves," said John Phillips, the managing partner of Darby Dan Farm and a co-chair of the Thoroughbred Championship Tour Committee. "We have good horses running on the West Coast, the East Coast or maybe the South, but not against one another. It would be like Phil Mickelson playing in one tournament, while David Duvall plays in another and Tiger Woods plays in still another. There might be great storylines out there among the horses, trainers and jockeys, but they get diluted when they're not all put together. We understand that owners want to run for the most amount of money against the least amount of competition. That's basic economics. We have to reorder the incentives for owners to enthusiastically compete against one another in the most significant races. We know that can be done."
The TCT, which could debut as early as next year, is still in the planning stages, but the foundation is in place. It will be made up of monthly events that include races for every division but 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, and will culminate with the Breeders' Cup. Each race will have a substantial purse (a minimum of $500,000) and, on a TCT event day, most of the races will be held at the same track. The effect will be to have eight or nine mini-Breeders' Cup Days spread across the calendar.
There will be numerous incentives, including the rich purses, in place to see to it that the top horses run in TCT events and TCT events only. The perks will also include a lucrative reward system that will pay additional money to the horses who prove to be most successful on the tour.
The idea to have a cohesive schedule of races that will attract the best horses in racing month after month. No more will there be a glut of similar races for the same division on the same weekend, each one drawing watered down small fields that make for unattractive betting races dominated by a 3-5 shot.
"If you get the top horses together the storylines are more interesting, the competition is more keen and the races will be more interesting betting propositions," Phillips said.
The TCT planners are so determined to keep the top horses competing in their races that any horse that goes outside the TCT to race in a competing major stakes event will not remain eligible for any of the award payments.
The one flaw in the proposed TCT schedule is that it will not include races restricted to 3-year-old males, racing's glamour division. But including races like the Triple Crown events and the major Kentucky Derby preps is probably unfeasible. The Triple Crown already has its own structure and is much too successful on its own to need to attach itself to a startup project. And it would be nearly impossible to coordinate the multitude of preps or alter the schedules. Keeneland is never going to scrap the Blue Grass so that more of the top 3-year-olds will meet instead in the Wood Memorial.
There have been numerous good ideas in this sport that got mired in infighting and never got off the ground. Racing still hasn't learned how to work toward the common good. The TCT won't make it without the cooperation of the major racetracks, particularly the NYRA, Magna and Churchill Downs tracks, the Breeders' Cup and the large majority of the sport's top owners. Phillips says that he's gotten little negative feedback and senses that most everyone in the industry understands the positive impact such a project will have on the sport. The Breeders' Cup has already pledged $3 million annually to the TCT.
"Universally, the response has been that we need to do something like this," Phillips said. "There's been almost no suggestion that, conceptually, this is a bad idea. On the contrary, there is a lot of enthusiasm out there. The pullback is that some people are worried what impact this will have on them. While we are trying to create this huge enthusiasm for the sport for the future, racing secretaries and local horsemen are worried about how this might impact them tomorrow, which is understandable. Our job is to get out there and lay out an incentive program that inspires people. This will be a win for people and might be a huge win for them. If we don't do something of this magnitude the future might not be as bright as we want for thoroughbred racing."
Perhaps it will all come together and perhaps next year's post-Triple Crown season won't seem so dreary and forgettable. One can only hope.