Flat RacingHorse Racing

Steve Jones: “The Breeders’ Cup’s future importance is in doubt….and it only has itself to blame”

November 6, 2019

THE organisers proudly declare the Breeders’ Cup as the World Championships of thoroughbred racing.

Even allowing for the usual American arrogance (after all this is the country that holds the baseball World Series with a load of US teams and the odd Canadian) that takes some swallowing.

In the days when racing was far less global those claims of Olympic-style deciders were much more credible.

Now the great Stateside jamboree is in danger of slipping down the pecking order and it has only got itself to blame.

As racing authorities across the globe toss their hats – and cash – into the ring, the competition to attract the world’s greatest horses has stepped up a level.

Australia, Dubai, Qatar, Japan, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia are all pushing for a slice of the new age of worldwide racing while the Breeders’ Cup, it seems, remains stuck in the past.

America’s refusal to step into line with other countries over the use of race-day medication and the continued reliance on the outdated dirt surface is, perhaps, putting the mega bucks meeting’s future importance in doubt.

Like the landlord of a failing pub, it shuns change so not to upset the locals when moves to modernise might save it from being forced to call time.

It could be argued that American racing has buried its head in the sand so far you can only see its toenails poking out from the dirt.

The fact that Santa Anita was chosen to host the Breeders’ Cup for a record tenth time was entirely predictable. The location at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains offers a stunning backdrop but the layout of the track is less memorable.

It’s seven-furlong round turf track is tighter than Chester and means the stalls draw and early position is often more important than ability in what are meant to be championship races.

The decision to stick with the picturesque venue was also a major gamble after more than 30 horses had lost their lives at the course since last Christmas.

Racing had even been stopped for several weeks in March as the animal welfare spotlight fell firmly on the California track.

After the first 13 races went off drama-free, American racing started to exhale the heaviest sigh of relief in the closing stages of the final Breeders’ Cup contest, the Classic, when disaster struck.

Mongolian Groom, a 14-1 shot for the meeting’s greatest prize, suffered a leg injury so bad he had to be put down.

An army of vets had been drafted in to carry out strict screening of intended runners. Irish Oaks runner-up Fleeting was among those ruled out by officials in measures brought in to try to minimise race injuries.

Similar veterinary tests have been in place in Australia ahead of the Melbourne Cup amid high-profile animal welfare scandals ‘Down Under’. While such measures are now crucial to appease the anti-racing campaigners, they can, sadly, never be foolproof.

In an age where aggressive animal rights organisations campaign for the end to all horseracing, this was the worst possible ending to America’s biggest meeting.

When the value of perception has never been so high it gave fuel to those who want to see all courses closed.

The common factors behind the latest Santa Anita death, and those that preceded it, might never truly be pinned down but American racing had fallen into a trap it had potentially set itself.

The Breeders’ Cup was run on something more similar to the British all-weather tracks of Lingfield, Newcastle and Kempton in 2008 and 2009 after Santa Anita replaced the dirt surface.

It coincided with a glut of European winners. Raven’s Pass was the first British winner of the Classic and it was hardly a surprise when the dirt surface returned with some blaming the melting of the wax in the synthetic Cushion Track surface due to the hot weather.

With the majority of American racehorses bred for the dirt the ripping up of decades of pedigrees was a step too far.

It hasn’t stopped the Europeans from travelling to the Breeders’ Cup but, this year, the wandering stars were absent.

Most of that is, perhaps, coincidence with Crystal Ocean and Too Darn Hot missing purely due to injuries and Enable never likely to repeat her trip to last year’s Breeders’ Cup.

There were Classic winners among this year’s raiding party but it’s not been a vintage crop for champions and their presence hardly heightened the levels of excitement to the days of Dancing Brave, Daylami and High Chaparral.

Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden appear to be still among the keenest European supporters but, if it wasn’t for the mammoth prizemoney, it might only be those with the longest barge poles that retained their interest in a meeting that is in danger of becoming stale.

With other countries upping the ante in the global game to lay claim to the world’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup no longer has the biggest stack of chips.

There are now more players around the table. Next year the Saudi Cup, Florida’s Pegasus World Cup, the dirt-based Dubai World Cup, and Australia’s richest race the Everest are all likely to offer more prizemoney than the Breeders’ Cup Classic. With a new contest seemingly being created every year the stakes could continue to rise.

Breeders’ Cup chiefs need to be very careful how they play their hand in the coming years or the brightest stars of international racing could well be shining elsewhere and their claims of hosting the World Championships could become little more than a busted flush.