Commentary: More is Less

By - Morton Cathro

With the dust—pardon, mud—hardly settled from the first-ever two-day Breeders’ Cup, the powers that be already are talking of further expanding racing’s annual championship event.

I don’t know about you, but from this fan’s perspective, I think they’re headed in the wrong direction, running right-handed on a left-handed track, so to speak.

More is less, say I.

In sports today, there are ever-expanding leagues, endless playoffs, bloated seasons, and complicated and controversial ranking systems, not to mention the omnipresent battle for big  bucks and the control exerted by network television.

In the opinion of some, these manipulations threaten to deaden fan interest and muddle the meaning of “champion” and “hall of fame.”

All of which begs the question: Should Thoroughbred racing dilute the stature of its true champions by adding still more categories of questionable quality to the Breeders’ Cup roster? Will the fans’ anticipation really be heightened, or even sustained? More likely, their involvement may wane.

Some traditionalists I know argue an expansion of the Breeders’ Cup would further affect adversely some summer and fall classics now bypassed by trainers aiming for the ultimate prize.

At the risk of sounding sexist, do we really need a Filly & Mare Sprint? And with synthetic surfaces the wave of the near future, isn’t the Dirt Mile already obsolete? Will the winner of a proposed Turf Sprint be long remembered in the annals of Thoroughbred racing?

I do applaud the proposal for a Breeders’ Cup Marathon that eventually would give true meaning to the hollow phrase, “improving the breed.” (As a teenager in 1939, I witnessed the four-mile Thornton Stakes at Bay Meadows, a contest I count among the most thrilling in my lifetime.) But as the planners themselves ask: Where will the marathoners of today come from? The idea is laudable, but the realization of it—given the current fashion of breeding for speed and precocity—is very doubtful.

Currently, the closest thing to a marathon on Breeders’ Cup day is the 11⁄2-mile John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT), which normally draws a substantial number of top Europeans. This year, a plethora of lucrative turf races abroad had European owners and trainers casting eyes toward foreign lands. Our once-prestigious Turf drew but eight starters, half of them bred in the United States. Two of the runners hardly belonged in the field. Has Thoroughbred racing worldwide reached the saturation point, the stage where there’s simply too much of a good thing?

Although the Oct. 26 Friday card was characterized as a success by Breeders’ Cup officials, and the $30-million handle described as “pleasing,” I for one saw a lot of empty seats and very little enthusiasm that day at Pleasanton, one of the bigger satellite wagering facilities in California.

The 20.3% drop on Saturday from last year in total handle ($111 million-plus) was alarming, yet not unexpected given the nature of pari-mutuel wagering, high takeout, and the limited bankroll of the sport’s mainstay, the Saturday $2 bettor. Breeders’ Cup officials blamed the decrease on weather and track conditions, which indeed were factors. But so, too, I believe, was the worrisome state of the nation’s economy. The mathematical fact remains: A large majority of horseplayers always will lose money. Losing on Friday leaves one with less cash with which to pay the bills and to risk on Saturday.

For almost a quarter-century, the Breeders’ Cup has been the signature event toward which our whole year of racing revolves around. It’s been a classy, memorable, perfect, one-day blockbuster. This fan’s message to the Breeders’ Cup board of directors—which has scheduled a December meeting to continue debating the proposed expansion—is quite simple:

If it ain’t broke, please don’t fix it.

MORTON CATHRO is an award-winning newsman, now retired, and a lifelong follower of Thoroughbred racing.