Potholes on the road to Breeders' Cup

If this had been the plan, it never would have lifted itself off the ground, but would have lumbered and sputtered down the runway until it collapsed under the weight of its own hubris. If this had been what John Gaines proposed back in April of 1982, there never would have been a Breeders' Cup.

But, of course, this isn't what he envisioned.

Gaines proposed a series of extravagantly lucrative races, each with a purse of at least $1 million, to be run on a single day and to serve as championship events, all packaged together for a national television audience.

Dapper and distinguished, Gaines was a man of powerful intellect and prescient imagination, just the sort of person the sport needed in the 1980s -- and, frankly, desperately needs now. He often wore an ambiguous grin that seemed balanced somehow between disdain and amusement. Depending on events and perspective, you might have thought he was about to swear or laugh. And it's tempting to wonder how he would respond to the more modern Breeders' Cup, extending as it does over two days and anchored, or so it seems for now, in one area of the country.

Gaines had it right. In Louisville, at a luncheon that was to launch the Kentucky Derby festival and, at the same time, honor the revered owner of Gainesway Farm, Gaines revealed his audacious vision. But this wasn't a magician pulling a bouquet from his breast pocket in a vulgar display of trickery; no, this was a scholar with an artistic sensibility, a man who had a degree in English from Notre Dame and who had worked as an intelligence officer in the Pentagon, presenting a thoroughly conceptualized plan. It was a climacteric moment.

Gaines proposed a series of extravagantly lucrative races, each with a purse of at least $1 million, to be run on a single day and to serve as championship events, all packaged together for a national television audience. Horse racing was to have its Super Bowl. And like the host city of the Super Bowl, the host racetrack for the Breeders' Cup was to change from one year to the next. That was Gaines' vision.

But here's the revision. In 2007, two years after Gaines' death, the Breeders' Cup became turgid with accommodation, expanding to 11 races and two days. The races became as numerous and unmanageable as the nursery-rhyme brood residing in a shoe, and fans naturally lost track and interest. The upcoming Breeders' Cup includes another huggermugger of "championship" races, 14 of them, one less than a year ago but still twice the original number and still so many that a single day couldn't accommodate them all, at least not comfortably.

The original races were all run for a title, or, at the very least, they all influenced the Eclipse debate. But today's Breeders' Cup includes races that have no championship implications whatsoever and couldn't excite a debate over anything more important than who's buying the next round of refreshment, the turf sprint, for example, and the Marathon.

Worst of all, this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships -- which is how the event refers to itself, with a somewhat alarming and even laughable lack of awareness -- returns to Santa Anita. That wouldn't be so worrisome if the Breeders' Cup weren't also returning to Santa Anita next year and perhaps the year after that, and maybe the year after that as well, unless it slips down to Del Mar, but, then again, who knows? Some have suggested the Breeders' Cup find a permanent home in Southern California.

For modernity's revision of the Gaines vision, the talent and the significance have been diluted, much of the intrigue that made the Breeders' Cup unique has been siphoned off, and one of the most powerful promotional tools the sport possesses has been planted immovably for the moment, if not irremediably, in Southern California. If that had been John Gaines' proposal back in 1982 -- well, he never would have made such a proposal, but if somebody had, the plan would have lumbered and sputtered down the runway until it collapsed under the weight of its own hubris. If that plan had been proposed, in other words, there would be no Breeders' Cup.

Gaines understood that to succeed, his proposal needed the support of the Eastern racing establishment and the Kentucky breeders, according to Jay Privman's book on the Breeders' Cup. Neither group, it's fair to assume, ever would have considered a plan to anchor the Breeders' Cup in Southern California for three consecutive years or a suggestion to settle the event there permanently.

With the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop, Santa Anita provides an incomparably beautiful setting, of course, and the congeniality can be like the sunshine, both liberal and cozy. Its place as one of the best possible host racetracks for the Breeders' Cup is indisputable. But no racetrack, no matter how beautiful or cozy, should be the host for five out of seven years, which will be the case with Santa Anita after the 2014 event.

Yes, Gaines had it right. The races should be packaged together on a single day, they should correspond to championships, and the event should move from track to track so that hosting it becomes a privilege and an occurrence worth celebrating. Just as the circus is most exciting when it arrives and not so much when it lingers, the Breeders' Cup should always travel, should always be arriving, reaching, emerging and attaining, preferably to the sound of the trumpets, to maximize its appeal and its promotional effectiveness.

It would be fairer for the Breeders' Cup to move around.

-- Trainer Mark Casse

But there's another reason the Breeders' Cup should remain faithful to the Gaines vision and travel: fairness. It's unfair to force the horsemen and horses in the Midwest and East to travel each year to Southern California and race over an unfamiliar and often biased surface. If the Breeders' Cup is to be an international or even a national event, it must travel.

"It would be fairer for the Breeders' Cup to move around," said Mark Casse, who, as Canada's leading trainer, probably has a more objective perspective than trainers who are based in the East or West. "I know the East Coast horses did real well last year at Santa Anita, but there's definitely an advantage if you're able to stay home and race over a familiar track."

Last year, horses that had made their prior start at New York's Belmont Park won six of the 15 Breeders' Cup races. Horses from Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., won three races. For the most part, though, in the six Breeders' Cup championship events held at Santa Anita, going back to the first, in 1986, horses based in Southern California have enjoyed an overwhelming advantage, winning 24 races, one more than all the other North American racetracks combined. In 1993, for example, horses based at Santa Anita won five of the seven races, with Lure being the only winner from New York and Arcangues, from France, famously winning the Classic. Ten years later, five horses based at Santa Anita again won championship races, along with two from France, one from Ireland and one from Kentucky.

The home-field advantage is part of sport, a reoccurring variable in the competitive equation, but it has the potential to be profoundly and relentlessly unfair if the Breeders' Cup remains moored at Santa Anita, where the main track fawns over speed. The early results from the Santa Anita season suggest the track remains as speed-biased, or nearly so, as it was a year ago, when on the two days of the Breeders' Cup, not counting the three-turn Marathon, eight of 12 winners on the main track led virtually throughout. Through the first seven days of the Santa Anita season, 22 of 42 winners, or 52.38 percent, have led after the opening half-mile. The speed bias looms like a rally-eating Godzilla over the sprints, where 26 of the 31 winners either led from the start or raced within a length of the early lead. All four sprint winners Sunday, for example, were front-running. Zoom zoom -- that's the name of the game at Santa Anita, the style du jour, but should it become inherent to the championship profile?

And should John Gaines be looking on with that piercing stare, he's probably wearing that goblin grin, balanced between disdain and amusement. But is there any doubt whether he's about to laugh or swear?