By Gary West
So far it has been very amusing--all these folks boarding up the windows of their prejudices and then fleeing to the mountains of their preconceptions. And it could be entertaining indeed Oct. 30 when they have to scurry to escape the avalanche.
Ever since Breeders' Cup officials announced Lone Star Park as the 2004 site, captious traditionalists have been gainsaying the decision. In July, when three horses on an isolated ranch more than 400 miles from Lone Star were found to have vesicular stomatitis, the captious traditionalists--with a song in their collective voice and a big apple in their jaundiced eye--reported the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships might have to move.
Yes, if VS were to spread as far east as Dallas and were to persist into September, the event would have to move; if homicidal hip-hop Martians were to seize control of Texas, the event would have to move, too; and the one was about as probable as the other.
Lone Star has been criticized as an unattractive Breeders' Cup site because of its tight turns and short stretch. (Any high school geometry book will speak to the impossibility of such a combination.) A foreign correspondent, without ever seeing it, has called Lone Star everything from a bullring to a bush track. And a California-based writer said the turns are so tight that divine intervention will determine the outcome of the Mile. (The stretch, although officially 930 feet, is actually around 990 feet; the three-sixteenths pole greets horses turning into the lane. The turns, even on the turf, are more kindly banked than at most tracks, and the course is very much like Santa Anita's, except for the downhill novelty.) Yes, it all has been worth a chuckle.
And now that it appears fewer Europeans will participate in this Breeders' Cup than is typical, many will no doubt suggest Lone Star is the cause. This assumption is at least more reasonable than much of the criticism tossed at Texas. For those racing in Europe, Lone Star is completely unfamiliar, and the challenge of traveling here for the Breeders' Cup might seem more daunting than ever.
But Cash Asmussen, a Texan who rode with great success in Europe for 19 years and was France's champion jockey five times, dismissed the notion. After a recent trip to France for the Arc, he said he found no apprehension among Europeans about coming to Lone Star. If fewer European horses race in this year's Breeders' Cup, he said, it won't be because of Lone Star. The real reason for the possibility of declining European participation is money.
Racing has become increasingly international, and in recent years Japan and Hong Kong have started offering purses that rival those of the Breeders' Cup. Next month's Japan Cup, is worth nearly $4 million, and the Mile Championship nearly $1.5 million. In December, the Hong Kong Cup will offer a purse of $2.3 million, and the Hong Kong Mile $1.8 million. Moreover, the Hong Kong and Japanese races require no supplemental fees and entry fees, and the racing associations cover expenses.
And to make matters worse, in the last two years, the value of the dollar compared to the Euro has depreciated about 20%. In other words, while entry fees have risen, Breeders' Cup purses, from the European perspective, have declined.
Lone Star has spent about $8.5 million to prepare for the Breeders' Cup, making both temporary and permanent improvements. The City of Grand Prairie and the state have spent millions improving the roads around Lone Star. All this activity is evidence of aspiration. Lone Star aspires to be one of the nation's great racetracks. It's not there yet, far from it, but it's working its way in the general direction.
The Breeders' Cup wisely decided to reward such ambition. Except for the Triple Crown, the Breeders' Cup is the sport's foremost promotional event. And in Texas, it will promote progress and interest and development.
That's really why the captious traditionalists are wringing their hands. They fear their preconception that the best racing, if only for a day, has to be confined to New York or Kentucky or California will come crashing down. And it will, on Oct. 30. It should be very entertaining.
GARY WEST is the Turf writer for the Dallas Morning News
and a correspondent for The Blood-Horse