Set of Cups

By Victor Zast
If one is willing to view demise as a positive force, then it becomes easy to reckon with change. Racing should consider conducting three World Thoroughbred Championships in the course of the year, not one.

The singular success of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's program to increase racing's popularity has emerged from its strategy of concentrating on special events. A Breeders' Cup day in early spring, and another in mid-summer, would highlight the sport in the same way the unique and separate "Majors" do for golf and tennis.

Additional World Thoroughbred Championships would gather the best horses, trainers, and jockeys within view of tens of thousands who aren't able to attend one day of the same in the fall.

With the exception of adding an eighth Breeders' Cup race in 1999, and upping the purses marginally, there has been little change in the original format since its inaugural running in 1984. The most marketable of racing's commodities is stagnated.

A series of Breeders' Cup days should be spread across the months to bring public attention to the sport when it is most in need, and the new events should be scattered about geographically to infuse the product with appeal. Each aspect contributing to the success of the World Thoroughbred Championships should be retained, including the purse levels and ticket prices, but the new schedule should customize the concept so that it would be relevant to a different season.

For example, there should be a midsummer Breeders' Cup day which includes a race written exclusively for 3-year-olds. Following the Triple Crown, such a race could serve as the fourth race in a new Grand Slam of horse racing. The race would extend the enthusiasm for racing created by the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes (all grade I) into July, and fill the void for patron attention that exists in the six weeks prior to Saratoga and Del Mar.

Hold that new Breeders' Cup day at Arlington Park and watch how much improved the impoverished Chicago racing season becomes. Contest it at Woodbine, and create an international spectacle--from an American perspective, it would be the sport's foreign-based Major, much like The Open in Britain is to golf. Bookend the Churchill Downs summer meet with the Derby and the Breeders' Cup to solidify Louisville as our horse racing capital.

A Breeders' Cup Championship day scheduled for the spring would make it simpler for Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, or Keeneland to host a horse racing Major. In place of a Breeders' Cup race for 3-year-olds, these tracks, given careful timing, could schedule one of their Kentucky Derby prep races on the World Thoroughbred Championships undercard.

In effect, the idea challenges the sport to develop a calendar that focuses attention in the early spring on its 3-year-olds with traditional Kentucky Derby preps scattered about the country, as well as on horses of all ages with a "Kick-off Classic"-styled event at a warm-weather location in February or March. The action would pick up in May with the Triple Crown, followed by an early July "All-Star Event" that offered the added possibility of a "Grand Slam" in Toronto or the Midwest. Racing would peak with a "Grand Finale," the existing Breeders' Cup event, in late October.

Of course, the additional Breeders' Cup days would pose challenges that have to be managed, but if the NTRA is a marketing organization, it will not have to increase staffing to create a line extension. There will be arguments about preserving key properties--nobody wishes to displease the 8,365 people who attended a recent Saturday afternoon at Belmont on which four highly-valued, non-televised, graded stakes were contested, for example. And, yes, who will explain to the funding fathers that they must pay more for health insurance on their ailing industry?

In the world of racing, the concepts of brand building, product relevancy, and equity evolution are approached with hesitancy. Instead, exhaustive research studies and self-congratulatory symposiums come more quickly.

Now is not a time to be too careful with a decomposing body, regardless of the comfort of our grave.