Commentary

Oh, Breeders' Cup

The horse racing year culminates with a barrage of great races

Updated: October 30, 2013, 3:58 PM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

ARCADIA, Calif. -- For the uninitiated, the Breeders' Cup World Championships can be a bit overwhelming. In fact, I tend to joke that the Kentucky Derby in May is a prep race for the marathon that is the Breeders' Cup in November.

Imagine if the powers that be in basketball chose to host a tournament for the best high school players from around the globe and then on the same weekend held the championship games for the NIT and NCAA tournament plus Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

A sheer range of talent, from young up-and-comers to old favorites, would be on display. In a nutshell, that is what the Breeders' Cup aims to do for horse racing. In the span of two days, the best of the best from every division are on hand in one place to show their stuff.

This year marks 30 years of the Breeders' Cup, and it isn't a milestone to be taken lightly.

At its heart, that is what makes the Breeders' Cup the Breeders' Cup. I can't even begin to give you an estimate of the value of the horses who gathered at the gap of the track Tuesday morning waiting for it to reopen after a renovation break to freshen surface. From leading lady Royal Delta, to turf star Point of Entry, to Classic hopeful Mucho Macho Man, literally dozens of top-caliber runners passed by.

Then you add in the allure of having foreign runners like Olympic Glory, who comes in fresh off his victory on British Champions Day, and it is a treat for any fan of horse racing.

This year marks 30 years of the Breeders' Cup, and it isn't a milestone to be taken lightly. Race series have come and gone throughout the sport's history, but save for the Triple Crown, few have been as successful on a national (and international) level as the Breeders' Cup when it comes to significance of the event.

History backs this up, as many of racing's legendary moments over the past three decades have come at the Breeders' Cup. While Zenyatta defeating the boys in the 2009 Classic is a frame of reference for many newcomers, people also still speak in revered tones of Personal Ensign's victory over Kentucky Derby heroine Winning Colors in the 1988 Distaff, of the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar in the 1995 Classic, and of countless other moments.

Racing gets a lot of grief for lack of cooperation among its major players for the greater good, but the Breeders' Cup is something it got right. The Breeders' Cup was the brainchild of John R. Gaines, who presented his idea for an international end-of-the-year championship while at the annual Kentucky Derby Festival "They're Off" awards luncheon in 1982.

The concept came to life two years later on Nov. 10, 1984, as seven races featuring some of the world's greatest horses, jockeys and trainers, were contested in back-to-back fashion at Hollywood Park in California. Like all successful things, the Breeders' Cup has changed over the years, but that concept of the best of the best has been the overriding spirit.

In recent years, though, those at the Breeders' Cup have made some decisions that haven't necessarily gone over well with the core fan base of the very event they are trying to grow and expand.

Zenyatta
Breeders' CupZenyatta was the first to win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic in 2008.
Perhaps my favorite is renaming the Breeders' Cup Distaff the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. Most people will grumble about changes and move on, but not in this case. Five years after making the change, the Breeders' Cup reversed its decision a few months back, and the race will once more be contested as the Distaff.

"We restored the Ladies' Classic to its original name due to feedback from our loyal fans who have a strong affinity for the Distaff," said Breeders' Cup president Craig Fravel when the announcement was made. "In recognition of our 30th year, the Distaff has provided us with some of racing's most remarkable moments, personified by such outstanding thoroughbreds as Lady's Secret, Personal Ensign, Azeri, Zenyatta, and our two-time defending champion, Royal Delta. It is a fitting tribute to bring back the name Distaff to honor the rich history of the championships."

The name of a race may seem like a silly thing to get snippy about, but in many ways it is a comedic example of a deeper-rooted issue. The Breeders' Cup thought changing the name would make the race more accessible to new fans, but in doing so, it angered the very people who made the event work.

From a fan perspective, two other changes have become a sore point for some: the sheer number of races and the location of where they are run.

Originally seven races, the Breeders' Cup grew to eight in 1999 with the addition of the Filly & Mare Turf, which has become one of the most popular races of the event. People were content with that growth spurt. Then in 2007, three more races were added and the Breeders' Cup was split into a two-day card. That is when the mumblings started.

This year the Breeders' Cup will feature 14 races. It had gotten up to 15, but after only two years the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint has been discontinued. At some point quantity is always going to hurt quality. There simply aren't enough true divisions made up of top-caliber horses to fill the gate for 15 races deemed championship races. For instance, many felt horses running in the now-defunct Juvenile Sprint were those simply not good enough to run in the esteemed Juvenile.

The other aspect of the Breeders' Cup that makes it so unique is the fact that it does not have a home host site. Instead, historically it moved from place to place every year, much like the Super Bowl. It gave fans across the country a chance to see the event.

However, in recent years it has bounced between Santa Anita and Churchill Downs. Then, earlier this year, it was announced Santa Anita would play host again in 2014, which will mark the third consecutive year it has done so. It is a first in Breeders' Cup history.

"Santa Anita has proven to be an outstanding host for our championships, providing horsemen and fans around the world with a first-class facility and one of the greatest experiences in sports," said Fravel of the decision. "We also value our relationship with the Southern California business and entertainment community, who have demonstrated longtime dedication and support of the Breeders' Cup since our inception in 1984."

That last part, the entertainment part, is something the Breeders' Cup has been promoting and promoting hard. It has celebrity ambassadors for the event, and Hollywood always carries a certain cachet with it. It makes sense. The fact that horse racing needs to get more mainstream again is no secret.

With each passing year, the belief that Santa Anita is going to become the permanent host grows a little bit stronger, although no official word has been given on that subject.

For my part, I do adore Santa Anita. It is a beautiful track that can handle a large crowd. The weather is usually nice -- although for the first Breeders' Cup I attended here, the temperature was officially 99 degrees and it felt like 150 -- and that is something East Coast tracks can't promise in November.

With each passing year, the belief that Santa Anita is going to become the permanent host grows a little bit stronger, although no official word has been given on that subject.

There are some people who would love for Santa Anita to be the permanent home, and I respect their position, but I disagree with it. Horse racing needs to bring in the everyman, and the everyman simply can't afford a California vacation every year on top of whatever else he already does with his free time. Moving the event around has made it accessible, and it has brought more awareness. Leaving it on the West coast limits that severely.

Weather with outdoor sports is always a concern, but Boston seems to be showing up to support the Red Sox during the World Series, and the Super Bowl is being held outdoors in New Jersey this coming February. In short, outdoor sporting events can and do happen on the East Coast in less-than-agreeable months.

Anytime an event grows or changes, there are going to be supporters and dissenters. I am all for anything that can promote horse racing to a larger audience, but it is important to be mindful of the people who have been by your side all along, too. It is a delicate balance, and I am hopeful the Breeders' Cup will get it right.

It is too good of an event with too much history to not be around for its 50th anniversary 20 years down the road.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.

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