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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Win And You're In

- There was a starting gate outside the ESPN Zone restaurant yesterday. I'm not sure how much that would have cost under Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. But for the Breeders Cup, it was an appropriate prop for the launch of their "Win and You're In" Breeders Cup Challenge series. Tim Hasselbeck, the former NFL quarterback, was there with his wife Elisabeth, who this clueless blogger later discovered is one of the hosts of ABC's The View. I was thinking she was just a prop there for effect. The photographers descended upon her as she posed in a sleek blue dress. "That dress makes her look pregnant," muttered a woman sitting next to me. (She is.)

Randy Moss was there to emcee the proceedings, which commenced with a short promotional video after an hour of mingling, a buffet lunch, and an open bar (that was serving up mostly water and soda I'm happy to say). And he had a panel of distinguished guests on hand to discuss the new series, including Charles Hayward, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Farish, and, of course, Breeders Cup President Greg Avioli. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Avioli after the presentation, and he mentioned how, though the percentage of people aware of the Breeders Cup increased from 2% to 14% for last year's inaugural ESPN telecast, there's still a long way to go. He believes that putting the event into terms that sports fans are familiar with from professional and college team sports can help push that number much higher. "Everybody gets 'Win and You're In,'" he said. He spoke about Cinderella horses, who would not otherwise qualify for the Breeders Cup, upsetting a Challenge race, hopefully sparking the kind of interest that underdogs do and creating a following up through Breeders Cup time. Referring to the NCAA basketball tourney, he spoke of horses who will be 'on the bubble,' and the possibility of "ruffling feathers," thereby creating controversy and discussion, all of which would be helpful for a sport starving for wider attention.

ESPN producer Jack Graham spoke about the Challenge telecasts, which will entail 13 hours of coverage on ESPN and ABC (the Saratoga races next Saturday will happily be featured on the latter). Graham said the network will utilize the tight backstretch shot it utilized in the Belmont - he called it Gyro Cam - throughout the series (subject to logistical issues inherent at each individual track). In addition, there will be a crane-mounted camera in the infield to avoid the blockage by trees and toteboards that is common in North American race coverage; and a "homestretch cam" which will be mounted directly overlooking the final turn to focus in on the action at that most crucial point of the race. It's good to see that ESPN is actively exploring ideas to improve the quality of race coverage, which has lagged behind that in Europe.

Kiaran McLaughlin spoke briefly; his Flashy Bull is the likely favorite in the Whitney. Gary Contessa wasn't on the panel, but was there and, as the trainer of Papi Chullo, expected to face Flashy Bull in the race, was asked to say a few words. "If you win, you don't have to worry about points. You can plot your own course."

And that, I think, illustrates a possible pitfall of the concept. Say Papi Chullo noses out Flashy Bull in a thrilling stretch drive in the Whitney, thus qualifying for the Classic. That could portend the beginning of a contentious rivalry which could gather steam and attention, and culminate in the ultimate showdown in the Classic. (Such is the state of the older horse division...who woulda thunk we'd ever be talking about a Flashy Bull and Papi Chullo as Classic contenders a few months ago..) But, as Contessa said, he would then be free to plot his own course. So, in an age in which connections seem to look for reasons to not run their horses rather than the other way around, I'm concerned that horses who qualify for the BC early could then duck the future Challenge races in favor of softer spots (or a cash giveaway at a track like Presque Isle Downs). Or in favor of no spot at all. That could very well detract from the quality of the races, and quash potential rivalries in the making.

So I think that the Breeders Cup may find that it needs to provide an incentive for qualifiers to run back in subsequent Challenge races. A cash bonus is an obvious idea. But how about instead offering something that would give that horse a greater advantage for the Breeders Cup? For example, a horse who wins a second Challenge race could be guaranteed, say, a top five selection in the post position draw for the BC; and a horse who wins three could be given the top pick. That could be a very strong incentive to run again; as we've seen in the past, in a 14 horse field, some participants' fates can be largely determined in the post position draw. It would be comparable to a team that has already qualified for the playoffs playing for the highest seed possible, and the resulting home ice advantages (you know which sport I favor).

(And you want to create controversy and ruffle feathers? Imagine the connections of a horse going for the post position advantage complaining that rival jockeys conspired in the race to deny them....)

In a more perfect world where thoroughbreds run far more frequently, the "win and you're in" idea could be supplanted by a longer series of races in which horses could compete against each other for points to not only determine qualification, but for post position advantages as well. But while that's an idea that perhaps our harness friends could ponder, it's not practical on our side given the sporadic nature of campaigns these days. Like any new venture, it may be at least a couple of years before the Challenge's full implications, benefits, and problems are revealed. It will be a work in progress, and require quick thinking and the willingness to adapt. But any move toward establishing some kind of continuity to the racing season that the average sports fan can relate to is a positive step, so the Breeders Cup should be commended for coming up with the Challenge concept, and receive the full backing of horsemen and fans.

- I also spoke to Greg Avioli about how the Challenge will affect the World component of the Thoroughbred World Championships. Though there's been much talk of the importance of involving horses worldwide in the Breeders Cup, the Challenge is, for now, strictly a North American affair (with the exception of the Champions Mile run in Hong Kong on April 29, and won by Able One). He told me that there are plans to include more races overseas in the future. For this year, the idea is to lure as many European horses for the Challenge races as possible; and he said that he went to the UK to speak to Aiden O'Brien in the hope of doing just that.

- I guess that the torrential rains that pounded northern Queens this morning made it to the south shore of Long Island as well. Wednesday's card at Belmont has been canceled.


Erin said...

I'm really hoping more Euros see this year's weak Classic field as a good opportunity to make the trip. If we can't have top N. American horses running then I'm hoping that at we can get some top Europeans. Somehow having Flashy Bull as the chalk in the Classic just doesn't do justice to the Cup or to this season, with the great Triple Crown races we've seen...painfully anti-climatic and not much of a reward for new fans that got a taste in this year's classics.

Michael said...

Top knotch job as always Alan. Great analysis of the (potential) problems with "Win and You're In." The good news about Win & You're in is that we'll likely see full fields in those races, I fear (like you do) however that once a horse wins, he's either going to be put on the shelf or in a Mickey Mouse race until October.

Patrick J Patten said...

It'll take a few years, but eventually they'll adopt standings. If they really want to be like other sports they'll sit down w/ TOBA and make a joint effort to get it running. Meanwhile the TBA has been doing this for how many years, and I was actually in the NTRA NY offices w/ this idea in 2002 and the TOBA offices in 2003.