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Monday, July 8, 2013
Racing needs a championship series

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

The Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park.
Could horse racing thrive with a monthly Breeders' Cup-like event?

They just got done with Wimbledon, and it was a pretty good show, highlighted by Andy Murray's winning one for the home team. But imagine if they played the U.S. Open at the exact same time and some of the good players showed up in England and some took their talents to Flushing, Queens. Had that happened, both tournaments would have been watered-down, uninteresting contests beating each other into the ground.

No sport, it would seem, would be so foolish to have its biggest events conflict with one another, but horse racing does it virtually every week. And the results were what we got this past weekend when the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Suburban went head to head. It started with a snoozer in the Suburban, where even-money shot Flat Out beat four others and continued with an even more dreadful betting race in the Hollywood Gold Cup, where Game On Dude beat four at 1-5.

Between them, two tracks gave away $850,000 in stakes races for older male route horses on the dirt and the result was two races that had customers wondering what they had done to deserve such unappealing betting fare. Then again, the horse player has grown used to this. Fields are small all over the country, the product has never been less appetizing and far too many stakes races, especially on the dirt, threaten to bore us to death.

There might have been a time when it would have worked to run the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Suburban on the same day. Belmont and Hollywood Park are some 2,600 miles apart and each area of the country has its distinctive horse populations. But those days are long gone. There aren't nearly enough good horses around to be able to have so many major stakes at so many different racetracks and hope to attract the type of fields with quantity and quality that customers demand.

The answer is to create a roving championship series of races and race days, similar to what they have in tennis, golf, NASCAR.

The answer is to create a roving championship series of races and race days, similar to what they have in tennis, golf, NASCAR. That may be a case of stating the obvious, but this dysfunctional sport shies away from the challenge of getting it done. The result is that it continues to try to sell its customers something they don't want to buy (five-horse fields with 1-5 shots), and that's a guaranteed recipe for failure.

But just in case someone in a leadership role wants to step up and fix this problem, here is the blueprint for how to do it:

Once a month and once a month only from January through October, racing will have a mini-Breeders' Cup Day. November will be saved for the actual Breeders' Cup and there's no need to have this take place in December. Through June the 3-year-old males won't be involved since they have the Triple Crown season to worry about, and obviously you can't start with championship events for 2-year-olds until, say, August.

There will be one championship race per month for every division but the aforementioned exceptions. The races will all be Grade 1's and no one will be allowed to schedule any other major races with big purses to compete with the championship events. (If you want to have a Grade 3 with a $150,000 purse, that's fine.) The sport will work in unison (good luck) to promote these championship days and make sure they are a success. The races will all be linked in multiple race wagers like a Pick Six or maybe a 10-cent Pick Eight.

The championship events will be held on the same day but at two racetracks. For instance, had last Saturday been a championship day, Hollywood could have had the Gold Cup, a race for older fillies on the dirt, a male sprint and a grass race. Belmont could have hosted the other races, but the Suburban would have had to go. By getting rid of the Suburban and so many other stakes races across the year, NYRA could afford to make all of its races on championship days with huge pots.

Had the Hollywood Gold Cup been the only lucrative opportunity for male handicap horses for a month, the race likely would have had eight or nine horses and included a Flat Out vs. Game On Dude showdown.

After Hollywood and Belmont had their turn, no one would be allowed to hold something important until August, when maybe Del Mar and Saratoga would have a chance to hold a championship day.

This isn't perfect and not everyone would be happy. But what the sport is doing now isn't working. You cannot, week after week, put out a product that your customers keep telling you they despise, and expect to do anything but fail.