Sunday, November 18, 2018

When It Comes to Championships, Less Is Not More

The most successful trainers on the planet entertain and marvel us with their horsemanship every day. We all know who they are. But based on Europe’s Cartier Awards, John Gosden might have proven he’s the best of them all.

If there were an Elias Sports Bureau for horseracing—all the comprehensive data easily accessible statistical compilations as in baseball—I could say this with certitude. But since I can’t, I’ll live with this claim until proven wrong:

As modern day Thoroughbred racing awards are presently constructed, no horseman ever has trained five champions in a single year, much less one that includes a Horse of the Year.

But that’s exactly what John Gosden has done this year, topping himself when he became the first trainer to have three championship titlists in 2014.

You need not be a Euro Nerd to celebrate Gosden’s success. The Oxford grad has won over 100 Group 1 races on four continents, including this season’s European Horse of the Year, Roaring Lion.

Many horseplayers in Southern California will remember when he took out a trainer’s license. It was in 1979 after he apprenticed in the U.S. with trainer Tommy Doyle, post-graduate work after learning his craft from Vincent O’Brien, the legendary “Wizard of Tipperary.”

Gosden’s first “big horse” won the Santa Anita Handicap four years after striking out on his own. That’s back in the day when it truly was the “Big ‘Cap.” Over 85,000 saw Bates Motel win the 1983 renewal. He was Gosden’s first champion.

One of Gosden's five 2018 titlists was Arc de Triomphe repeater Enable, who beat males again a month later in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. That victory likely won’t earn her an American Eclipse--and not because she raced here only once.

Sistercharlie, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf sealed that honor a few hours earlier by taking her fourth Grade 1 of the 2018 season, an American champion by any measure.

Enable can’t win in the open category either because that Eclipse Award is designated Turf Male, even if she did finish 9-1/2 lengths in front of America’s 10 best turf males in Louisville four week later.

If an award is based on a body of quality work in a single season, shouldn’t one race be enough for Eclipse consideration? By rule it is, but a one-victory championship is not a popular notion with many Eclipse voters. And two of every three racing fans polled agree that one is not enough.

If beating 18 of Europe’s best off a single synthetic prep over three overmatched rivals then ship here to defeat 11 of the best male turf courses America could assemble, why shouldn’t this be an “open class” category? Just askin’.

As long as American breeders and the keepers of racing’s flame want to delineate among disparate sex and age groups then there are, at once, too many awards and not enough.


One of Gosden’s five champions was Stradivarius, Europe’s champion stayer. Of course, America’s game is speed on dirt, not stamina on either surface. But if the U.S. wants to be a serious player on the world stage, shouldn’t it walk that talk?

Just as the burgeoning popularity of turf racing in America has resulted in breeding for more turf success also, why not potentially bring stamina back into the breeding equation?

The Breeders’ Cup Marathon has been demoted to a Grade 2 afterthought with a reduced purse of $500,000. Why? Because it wasn’t popular at the entry box?

Pedigree notwithstanding, could the lack of a meaningful marathon divisional schedule at major venues all season also have something to do with its lack of clout? Must every decision the sport makes be based on handle alone?

We’re only talking one or two major races per meet at America’s ‘A’ venues. Do what is working these days: Throw enough money at a marathon program and owners and trainers will come with more and better stock.

Marathons can become the last refuge for the “slow,” horse, a race for specialists that has the added benefit of leveling the chemical playing field to a degree and is popular with more traditional fans.

Aesthetically, fair-minded people agreed that Future Stars Friday was a success. It gave babies—the following year’s 3-year-olds—a stage unto themselves. And it restored a handful of races to its original Saturday lineup.

With turf sprinting being so popular on every level, why doesn’t it have its own championship category? Of course, the same can be said of juvenile turf runners. Consider:

The issue of juvenile filly supremacy is inarguable. With blowout victories in the G1 Frizette and Juvenile Fillies, a wide majority agree that Jaywalk would be a most deserving champion.

But any panel of experts likely would identify turf juvenile filly Newspaperofrecord as the superior performer on Futures Friday. Why should one of these superior fillies walk away empty handed?

Undefeated in three starts, Newspaperofrecord’s victory margins were Ruffian-like, an aggregate 20 lengths. But on turf, not dirt.

Juvenile sprinters probably shouldn’t deserve U.S. Eclipse recognition, but isn’t it interesting that Longchamp’s Prix de l’Abbaye is a 5-furlong dash for 2-year-olds and up?! But superior juvenile turf routers should be recognized.

To not do so should not be based on the fact that there are too many awards already--17 for champion horses and horsemen, including Horse of the Year—and it would make the awards ceremony more insufferable, already so despite the oft-repeated pleas of ceremonial hosts.

In that case, parenthetically, do what the Oscars and Emmys do, give out new Eclipses at a separate advance ceremony or in video presentation.

If the Breeders’ Cup’s aim is truly to be a championship defining event, then the championship-worthy winners of the Turf Sprint, a rejuvenated G1 Marathon, and both Juvenile Turf route events deserve recognition.

Written by John Pricci

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