The last time the Breeders' Cup and California broke up, in 2004, I didn't think they'd ever get back together again. The Breeders' Cup seemed to have room in its heart for every suitor but Santa Anita. The races went to uncharted territory, Texas, one year, and if that wasn't enough of a slap in the face, the Breeders' Cup moved into New Jersey a few years later. It was as though the prom queen had jilted the captain of the football team to go to the big dance with a dork from the chemistry class.
Not that long ago, the Breeders' Cup did everything to Santa Anita but tie its shoelaces together. After Oak Tree hosted the races in 1993, the Breeders' Cup looked high and low for alternatives. They went to Canada, where they were lucky that they didn't have to compete with fishing through the ice. They went back to Gulfstream Park, which doesn't have enough seats. They took a flyer on Arlington Park, and prayed there wouldn't be snow. They even went cross-town to Hollywood Park, Santa Anita's rival, which hadn't been tapped in almost a decade.
Oak Tree sent chocolates. It hired a string quartet. It would have sent roses, but it feared that the Breeders' Cup would think that they came from Churchill Downs.
Santa Anita's strategy, it turns out, was all wrong. Instead of expensive wooing, all it had to do was stand on the corner and keep dropping handkerchiefs, until the Breeders' Cup finally came by. This isn't the Breeders' Cup of its youth, mind you. In the halcyon days, the Breeders' Cup was ramrod straight, handsome as George Clooney and as deeply tanned as George Hamilton. That Breeders' Cup was courted by dozens of tracks. They opened their vaults, signed away their air and land rights and promised the Breeders' Cup a high mention in the will. Marje Everett, you might recall, landed the inaugural Breeders' Cup for Hollywood Park by ponying up $200,000 of her own money.
This Breeders' Cup has a partial plate, crow's-feet around both eyes and walks with a limp. Like most dowagers, it's richer than ever but won't be seen in public in a swimsuit. The European horsemen still come with their horses, but only if they've got nothing better to do. If the Breeders' Cup asked the major networks to bid for the TV rights, the silence would be deafening. Churchill Downs, which used to join the party any time it wanted to snap its fingers, no longer puts the Breeders' Cup on a pedestal. There was a classic game of push-the-envelope recently, when the Breeders' Cup apparently thought it could use Santa Anita as a pawn. Churchill Downs, looking around and seeing no one but Santa Anita and itself as viable hosts for 2009, pitched the Breeders' Cup some sort of a seven-year plan, which would have taken everybody into 2015. Racing doesn't know what it'll be doing next Tuesday, never mind 2015.
For the Breeders' Cup, bowing to Churchill's long-term proposition would have been like signing a prenup. New York (Belmont Park) was not an option, because the terms of its divorce aren't final. Churchill Downs nudged the envelope one more time. The Breeders' Cup didn't blink, and did what it's never done, it gave the races to the same track for back-to-back years.
Back East, the reaction has been seismic. Steve Crist, in the Daily Racing Form, wrote that Oak Tree's coup "was not a proud moment for American racing." In Kentucky, Damon Thayer, sometime racing executive, currently a state senator, said about the same thing.
Santa Anita must feel like the movie star who got a bad nose job, but got the part anyway. At the time the Breeders' Cup made the announcement for 2009, 33% of the racing days at Santa Anita's winter meet had been scrapped because the synthetic main track was unfit for either training or racing. Many of the Breeders' Cup swells were in California for the Eclipse Awards dinner last month. The afternoon of the dinner, Santa Anita ran some races. Maybe the Breeders' Cup people think that happens every Monday.
Speaking of the dinner, it's a reminder that the Eclipse Awards jumped in bed with California long before the Breeders' Cup did. The last four Eclipse dinners have been anchored in Beverly Hills. That's a gala that used to be held in New York and Florida on a regular basis, and would come to California only two out of every four years. The morale boost in these precincts was sorely needed. Bay Meadows has just started what is purportedly its final meet, Hollywood Park continues to talk about going out of the racing business, the Indian casinos keep adding more slot machines, and synthetic tracks rue--the correct word--the land. But all of racing will never vanish from the California landscape. The Breeders' Cup wouldn't permit it.