Thursday, October 30, 2008

Belmont Park vs. Breeders’ Cup: Act II

ARCADIA, Calif., October 28, 2008--The rumors began to surface in Saratoga about a week or two in advance of Breeders’ Cup 25. Racetrack rumors can be especially viral, so my first thought was to place it on my pay-no-mind list.

But when the same rumor resurfaced in California, twice, and from different sources, it deserves an airing.

If it turns out to be untrue, I’m sure it will denied at length and in detail sometime in the near future by an official spokesperson. And so we’ll pose it in the form of a question.

Is the New York Racing Association planning to stage a Fall Championship Day at Belmont Park in direct competition with Breeders’ Cup?

It’s useful to recall that on the final day of the Saratoga meeting in a press box news conference, NYRA President Charlie Hayward revealed that the Breeders’ Cup had backed out of a handshake agreement that the 2010 Breeders’ Cup program would be held at Belmont Park.

Subsequent to that statement, Breeders’ Cup Chairman William Farish was quoted in the media, saying only “that may be [Charlie’s] version of the story. I’d rather not comment.”

At the time Hayward made his statement, he announced that Churchill Downs would be awarded the 2010 Thoroughbred World Championships.

One month later, the heads-up turned out to be fact. In a joint press conference widely attended by Kentucky officials, Breeders’ Cup announced jointly with Churchill that Louisville would be the site of the event two years hence.

Both organizations left the door open for hosting the event back-to-back, as was the case for the first time this year and in 2009 at Santa Anita Park.

The question is was the “agreement” with NYRA a wedge by Breeders’ Cup to bring Churchill Downs back to the bargaining table? Churchill Downs has drawn six of the largest seven crowds in Cup history.

The publicly held CDI made no secret that it wanted a larger share of Breeders’ Cup revenue. Apparently Churchill got its wish in return for lobbying the Commonwealth to waive the tax imposed on outside events held at the Downs, the equivalent of a licensing fee.

The track, in conjunction with the city of Louisville, successfully argued that the fee, approaching six figures, in no way compensated for a projected loss of $50-60 million in tourism revenues. Indeed, the “Breeders’ Cup waver,” about to sunset, needing extending before the 2010 event could be staged in the bluegrass.

The back-story doesn’t end there. HRI sources claim also that Breeders’ Cup management was put off by having to negotiate with Gavin Landry, the NYRA Vice-President of Marketing and former president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, knocking heads over sponsorship issues. Landry recently resigned under pressure.

Landry’s failed marketing policies and personality left the NYRA with little recourse with respect to his responsibilities. Indeed, his departure was deemed imminent late in the Saratoga meet, but didn’t occur until after racing returned downstate to Belmont Park.

Sources tell HRI that the 2009 NYRA stakes schedule, which will be formulated next month and subsequently submitted to the new state mandated Board of Directors will be incomplete with respect to the fall stakes schedule.

It is anticipated that NYRA will counter-program against Breeders’ Cup, either by putting major races in direct opposition on the same weekend, or by scheduling them so close to the event that high-profile Grade 1 horse flesh couldn’t possibly run back on such short rest.

The domination of European and California-based horses at last weekend’s silver anniversary edition of Breeders’ Cup would be a large temptation to have Eastern-based runners remain close to home, next year or any other in which championship races are scheduled on a synthetic surface.

For many dirt horses, all-weather tracks present a tremendous challenge, as Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen would attest. Shipping Eastern horses to West Coast racetracks was a daunting obstacle even before all-weather surfaces were mandated in the Golden State.

This tack would strike at the already tenuous balance of power within a fractured Thoroughbred industry that lacks a central authority. It would seem now that the ball is in NYRA’s court, and Hayward picked it up.

“We have no intentions to schedule against the Breeders’ Cup in 2009,” Hayward said. “There are some interesting questions about the prep races, and we might make some adjustments to our stakes schedule prior to getting it approved by our board in December.”

If the NYRA eventually decides to pay the Breeders’ Cup back in kind, the association would inflict serious damage to an industry on the brink, undermining one of the sport’s defining events. “We‘ve gotten a lot of suggestions to run against the Breeders’ Cup,” said Hayward.

Does that mean it‘s on the table, or off? “We have to make this industry healthy. We don’t root for each other enough.”

Written by John Pricci - Comments (26)


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