By Tom LaMarra and Claire Novak
It may be a foregone conclusion that many of the horses that win Breeders’ Cup Challenge races would qualify for the World Championships anyway, but the first of six “Win and You’re In” programs is said to have done much for recognition of Breeders’ Cup and racetrack business.
The New York Racing Association restructured its stakes schedule at Saratoga to put four major stakes--the Whitney Handicap (gr. I), the Diana Handicap (gr. I), the Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I), and the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. II)--on July 28, the first Saturday of the meet. The results were encouraging, NYRA president and chief executive officer Charles Hayward said.
Last year, the Whitney was raced on the second Saturday of the meet.
“To get the full answer, we’ll probably have to see how we do (Aug. 4),” Hayward said. “We had concerns about moving the Whitney, but last year, we handled $24.3 million all sources, and this year, we did $27.7 million. So business-wise, it was a big success.”
The Breeders’ Cup Challenge is a series of 24 United States qualifying races at six of America’s premier racetracks whose winners gain automatic starting positions into corresponding Breeders’ Cup World Championships races. The event, expanded to two days this year, will be held at Oct. 26-27 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
“It was a very solid start,” Breeders’ Cup president and CEO Greg Avioli said. “The connection between these particular races and the Breeders’ Cup never has been more clear than in the last seven days. One major goal was to begin providing context for summer and early-fall races, and I think the media really embraced this. This was only one stop--we’ll see what happens in Chicago in two weeks.”
The next Challenge program is slated for Aug. 11 at Arlington Park on Arlington Million (gr. IT) day.
Hayward agreed with Avioli, who noted many stories in the media mentioned the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
“We were never talking about the Breeders’ Cup at Saratoga, and we were talking about it a lot this past week,” Hayward said. “The whole idea is to get people excited about the races and focus this event on July. Even if in reality it’s an artificial construct, it’s a great idea.”
Trainers perhaps drove home the point that the Challenge is about much more than a guaranteed berth in a World Championships race.
“October is a long way off, but it’s always good to have a long-term plan and have it fall into place,” said Steve Klesaris, who trains Vanderbilt winner Diabolical. “You see so many sprinters fall by the wayside; it’s tough for them to stay healthy. Now we’ll just keep our fingers crossed. Having the automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup is nice, but it’s not the reason we ran in this race.”
Said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Whitney winner Lawyer Ron: “Obviously, we want to go to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. We just want to figure out the best way to do it.”
NYRA will host another Challenge program in the fall at Belmont Park, and in doing so will move the date of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), a major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), to accommodate television.
“Racing needs to be focused on big days,” Hayward said. “I can’t speak for other tracks, but on any level, it was a great racing day. It was a little bit risky moving the Whitney, but we were very pleased.”
Along with Lawyer Ron and Diabolical, My Typhoon (Diana) and Ginger Punch (Go for Wand) earned automatic berths in Breeders’ Cup World Championships races.