Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Rotation Issue Goes Round and Round
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 17, 2010--Someone asked the other day who I think will host the Breeders’ Cup festival in 2012. I guessed “probably New York” since I’m sure Breeders’ Cup Ltd and the New York Racing Association would like to put that dust-up they had over this issue behind them.
The one sentiment that seems to be clear is that Breeders’ Cup would like to have a permanent site. In fact, I had been told by one of its trustees some time ago that it was a done deal: A permanent site, and that site is Santa Anita.
Much has happened since. The Commonwealth of Kentucky has been sagging under the weight of slots and casino-based competition from neighboring states, New York has been given a lease on life with the impending arrival of VLTs and California racing is in political disarray. At Santa Anita, synthetics are out, dirt back in.
While the latter might be good news for horseplayers and Bob Baffert, it’s not the greatest news for international horsemen. For them, Santa Anita synthetics was a kind of neutral ground, suitable to the running and training styles of their stock--compensation for shipping into a warm weather climate.
Europeans, without whom there would be no semblance of an international championship event, find Churchill Downs and New York suitable; the former for its neutral territory and climate, the latter for its fall season and wide, sweeping expanses of Belmont Park.
For the most part, the heat and humidity of Florida makes its tracks likely non-starters and the artificial surface at Santa Anita gave foreigners an opportunity to excel on a surface other than turf. But bettors and trainers of speedy athletic types are very pleased with the switch back to dirt.
While we await an impact study from Breeders’ Cup on the effects a meaningful expansion of fractional wagering had on 2010 handle, the dirt surface certainly was a major factor in a whopping handle increase of 13 percent year over year.
Without foreign participation, however, not only does the event lose much of its quality depth and competitiveness, but much of its aesthetic appeal as well, even with the participation of many of the best American horses in training.
American horsemen are split almost down the middle on the notion of permanent site vs. rotation. At the pre-entry teleconference hosted by NTRA several weeks ago, trainer Todd Pletcher, as an aside and without prompting, offered this:
“I like [the rotation concept]. I think it’s what the founders had in mind. But Churchill Downs is a perfect site. It's centrally located for the Americans.
“It's not an advantage to the East Coast-based guys. It's not an advantage for the West Coast-based guys. It's a good neutral surface and has cool weather suitable for European horses.”
California-based Jerry Hollendorfer had a stronger take on rotation: “There shouldn't be a permanent site because there are race fans all over America that deserve to have a chance to watch these horses run.”
But western colleague John Sadler said he'd like to see the event in California permanently, “where warmer weather is more common and there's a better chance for a fast track.”
European trainer Henry Cecil added that a permanent site would allow foreign trainers to become accustomed to one track which, of course, would encourage more repeat visits from equine competitors, too.
None of this breaks new ground but every idea has merit. Breeders’ Cup honcho Greg Avioli believes that if the right site can be found all other objections would fade in the stretch.
I’m straddling the fence. Selfishly, I’d love to visit the foothills of the San Gabriels every year. But the people of Kentuckiana really know how to make racing visitors feel welcome, as they do in Saratoga. No upset there.
But Santa Anita has a certain aura when you’re on the grounds, inside the building. There’s history there, and the sense of excitement on event days is palpable. And going where the weather suits your clothes is never a bad thing.
Belmont Park is big, beautiful and big time. The expanse, at least in theory, allows for truer racing; the animals have more room to roam between the fences.
The crowd is typical of New York sports fans; knowledgeable, opinionated and with a low failure threshold. But the metropolitan area is so big, with so many entertainment options, that the enormity of the event can get lost in a New York minute. But the Breeders’ Cup needs to play Broadway every so often. Gun to my head, I prefer a rotation. But whatever works best I would support so, what to do?
I’ve got it. I’m going to send an e-mail to the Racing Commissioner. He’ll know what to do.