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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ladies Merit Equal Billing

- This is the greatest race I've ever seen.

There have been even closer finishes; and there was no Triple Crown at stake. But the drama of the great racemare (she was not an Eclipse champion until after her subsequent retirement) toiling on a wet racetrack she did not like, trying to go out undefeated in her 13th and final start, seemingly beaten with the Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors winging it on an uncontested lead.... Did any of you think she had a shot in the world at the quarter pole? The eighth pole? The sixteenth pole? It was, given the epic drama of the situation, and as I said, the greatest race I've ever seen.

However, if the Distaff had been run on a Friday afternoon that year, or even early evening, as will now be the case in its new incarnation as the Ladies' Classic (I wonder if they'll have any copyright issues with that), its quite possible that I would have been stuck at work, or on the E train trying to get home, and not been able to watch that all-time classic live. Or, back then in 1988, perhaps I would have found a crowded, smoke-filled OTB, or somehow happened upon a bar that was willing to put on horse racing.

I'm reminded of a column that Steve Crist wrote in December in reaction to the three new races to be introduced this year:

Yet the dominant reaction seems to be that this sextet is a dark development for American racing that in some way dilutes or detracts from the "real" Breeders' Cup the next afternoon. That will be the case only if the Breeders' Cup makes one of two mistakes with these new races going forward: attempts to brand them as global championships, or lobbies for a raft of new Eclipse Awards to make actual champions out of the leaders of secondary divisions in the sport. [Daily Racing Form, sub. only]
I think that the Breeders' Cup is in danger of running afoul of the first of those conditions by intermixing consolation races such as the Dirt Mile or the Marathon with the real things. It of course remains to be seen how the Breeders' Cup and ESPN will present the day's races, and perhaps they'll be billed as preliminary affairs. But I'd guess that they won't be. [I'd be interested in getting some futures odds on the Marathon being won by a horse who'd won for a claiming tag of $40K or less in the prior 12 months, and is trained by Gary Contessa or Richard Dutrow]

Crist argued that the races should be kept separate, and that Friday's races should not be referred to as World Championship races.
The unwieldy and unjustified extended name should be quietly dropped in general, and certainly never raised in connection with the new races. They are interesting little events for specialists outside the mainstream, and no one would have the slightest objection to Friday's Turf Sprint or Marathon if they were named for landmarks or famous horses.
It's not out of the question that one of the new races will some day produce a truly memorable moment. But I'd agree that none of them (with the possible potential exception of the F&M Sprint) are championship caliber. And now, at least three races that truly are will be run on Friday. That could make them far less accessible, especially to those who won't be putting forth the effort to seek them out, and threatens to make the Ladies second class citizens.

Or, maybe not. At least for the next two years anyway. Because, even though I'd still prefer to have the true championship races segregated and run on Saturday, the fact that the races are on the West Coast gives the Breeders' Cup and ESPN the opportunity to present a prime time extravaganza. Since there are only five races on Friday, they could start as late as 4:30 local time. 7:30 for us; not so early for those of you out west, but I guess you guys are used to that, eh? (I never adjusted to the time zone when I was at Del Mar this past summer, because I'd get to the track and it would be the 9th from Saratoga on TV. I was stuck on Eastern Track Time.) But back here, the races could go on until 9:30 or 10.

I wrote last year that the Breeders' Cup would have been well served by a prime time lead-in, perhaps at half time of Monday Night Football, and here's a great opportunity to not only have a preview of the big races, but some of the real thing. Is there a grand plan for ESPN to give up a night of World Series talk or preseason NBA games in order to carry a night of championship racing? Hopefully with online contests to encourage non-fans to join the action for free? BC President Greg Avioli said: "The initial response from the Breeders' Cup family, including ESPN, our marketing partners, nominators, and Trustees has been extremely supportive and enthusiastic." But will ESPN be supportive and enthusiastic enough to promote the Friday card from ESPN2 to the main stage and make it the big deal that it should be? And in prime time as it could be?


Anonymous said...

I simply cannot resist watching that race; I didn't see it live, but I did get to see it after I'd read about it, and really, the 1988 BC Distaff is, to me, the single best example of a (moving) picture being worth a thousand words.

I suspect no matter how you slice it, the Distaff -- whoops! -- the "Ladies Classic" will be marginalized by being on Friday. If nothing else, the media coverage will be eclipsed by the "big boys" running the next day.

By the way, weren't the tickets for the Friday races last year a bit less expensive than those for the Saturday event? Any idea what they'll be charging for each day now?

Anonymous said...

This is getting silly. The Breeders Cup is being dragged through the mud, no pun intended, by people who have no clue about racing.

The whole reason they set up these new races was to be adding on to the divisions represented (a marathon, a F&M sprint, etc.). Many of these races are for divisions, like the marathon and the 2YO turf racing, that are simply not ready for prime time. They're not Saturday races, their divisions don't generate awards, much less excitement. They represent a perfect Friday card, with the dirt mile, 2YO grass races and a marathon because nothing's on the line.

Now, they just erased any sense of meaning to the Saturday races in their segregational shuffle. The filly divisions of racing get deprived of a spotlight, and for what, exactly? $50K claimers going a mile and a half for half a mil? 2YO's on grass whose form on that surface resembles bingo night at a church? A starter handicap going a mile and a half at Belmont may now look more meaningful than the Beldame, Flower Bowl or Test. Who's going to know the filly divisions that have Eclipse awards are around, when the new races, the marathon and 2yo turf colts and dirt mile, which don't have any title on the line, get a prime slot on the BC card?

Keep the lesser events on Friday, put everything back the way it was Saturday, and let's stop trying to push this sport further into the background.

Anonymous said...


There are two mainstream events in this sport, and they are ruining one of them.

And insulting females too.


Anonymous said...

Here's hoping that they eventually kill this BC golden goose-turkey and get back to looking at an entire season's performance as the yardstick for Eclipse Awards. When horses are able to win Eclipse Awards without running in and/or winning the BC then I will be satisified that reason has returned and the sport/business just may have a future. After 23 years, there is no evidence that the Breeders Cup as a season ending event has done anything to increase racing's popularity. So why keep doing the same thing over and over but somehow hoping for a different result? Just remember that NASCAR's premier event, the Daytona 500, kicks off the NASCAR season rather than ending it. No Super Bowl mentality hereas the big rewards go to the survivors over a long season of participation, and NASCAR is only America's # 1 spectator sport as a result. Perhaps there is a lesson for racing in the NASCAR example?
/S/Green Mtn Punter

the chalk said...

Truly one of the great races in the past 20 years. I was 10 at the time and it truly has held its memory. I have to mention though who was aboard that day, Randy Romero. What he is going through currently and even more importantly over the past decade is unthinkable. Unfortunately its only getting minimal press.

I will save the Breeders Cup talk for a new post later today.

forego is my witness said...

Truly the greatest distaff race ever! But IMHO it still doesn't top Forego in the 1976 Marlboro. Being there is a memory that will never leave me--and that includes the looks on everyone's faces at the end. But God bless 'em all! Personal Ensign was magnificent that day in 1988.

Michael said...

I've often said on my blog that this is one of my favorite races of all time. Too bad it's on a Friday now.

The year after a filly wins the Belmont, you do this.... wow.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the few folks who doesn't take issue at this revamped Friday BC action.

Organizers are trying to bolster the event into a real two day deal and by doing that they look at the succes of Churchill Downs with the Oaks Friday and Derby Saturday.

Why aren't folks b*tching that Rags to Riches and Ashado, et al raced on Friday in the biggest spring race for fillies?

Can't people step back and try to understand that if the BC ever might become a multi-day festival like an Ascot there has to be a blockbuster race on each day?

Belmont on their best day couldn't get 100k's worth of folks to the track on Saturday let alone Friday. Churchill has been above 100,000 on Oaks Day because it is a 'ladies day' of sorts.

As for seeing this on tv lets face it - since NBC dropped the BC the ratings on Saturday are dismal regardless. So even if a Pebbles returned (and that was the best female performance IMHO in a BC race) there would be under 1.3 million US households watching even if it was in the BC Classic on Saturday. That is scant fraction of the audience watching any BC race in the 1990's on NBC.

I take issue with any ripping on the $500k 'marathon race' as being unworthy to be on any BC race card. I sure hope those aren't the same folks who complain about fragile horses, over drugged horses, and early retired horses because races like this are the first step towards discouraging those trends as of late.

Anonymous said...

Shug should change his name to "aww, shucks." how do you like that cool reaction to one of the greatest performances in racing history? I don't even think he calls her a 'great' filly, just a 'good' one. Gotta love Shug.

Alan Mann said...

Glimmer - A couple of points in response:

For one thing, if the BC is going to be a festival as you say, why can't it be on Sat and Sunday?? I think that the Oaks is an anomaly that it draws so many people. The Oaks on a Friday is an established tradition, and that's worth a lot in my book.

and as far as TV ratings, I'm not ready to give up in that regard. I think that with the proper marketing (ESPN TRULY utilizing ALL of their available resources), including those contests, which I'm sure you're all sick of reading about here, and timing (thus my proposal to run the Friday races in primetime), I still think that horse racing can make a splash on TV.

Anonymous said...

I take issue with any ripping on the $500k 'marathon race' as being unworthy to be on any BC race card. I sure hope those aren't the same folks who complain about fragile horses, over drugged horses, and early retired horses because races like this are the first step towards discouraging those trends as of late.

Re-read what I said. I did not say the new races, in particular the marathon, was unworthy. I love the long races, and hope one day Aqueduct could take the Display Handicap at two and a quarter-miles out of mothballs.

But with these marathons so far out of vogue in recent years, it would take a couple of seasons to develop the division so that the big names are not ones specializing in the lengthy starter handicaps Aqueduct places in the dead of winter. There's no division title at stake, no star horses focusing solely on this prize---it's essentially a division getting born, and will be a bit of a novelty until it develops some star quality in its ranks.

The BC races on Saturday should be a star-studded affair, and not merely a grab bag of cherry-picked races that includes a couple which never had anything on the line in the first place. And where the first Friday in May is just the start of a mighty big weekend, the last Friday in October battles high school football in many places, as well as dovetailing with the World Series. If you're trying to raise visibility for your sport, you might as well be operating in an October vacuum.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the $500k BC Marathon Race, several tracks including Belmont, Keeneland, and Philadelphia Park has put together a series of marathon races to lead up that event.

NYRA took the Brooklyn and moved it from the fall to the spring and will run it at 1 1/2 miles on June 6, the day before the Belmont Stakes. The Brooklyn had been run at 1 1/2 miles from 1977-90. This past year, it was run at a 1 1/16 miles on Sept. 22.

I am 100% in favor of stretching out races and will be happy when the JCGC returns to being 1 1/1 miles again.

Alan, we're in violent agreement on the hopes of ESPN better promoting the coverage. I'd prefer ABC Sports to pick it up and certainly ESN2 should not be solely airing Friday's racing.

Big racing on Sunday (in very limited cases) still seems to be taboo like buying alcohol Sunday mornings. Although Santa Anita's handle would be vastly higher if Sunday instead of Friday had been secured. I doubt ESPN dictated Sunday being hands off.

Anonymous said...

I think it's safe to say that every rational thinking person that I know thinks that this last tinkering with the Breeders' Cup is truly and totally moronic.

They've taken a very classy day of championship racing and totally torched it.

Erin said...

The other distaff race that makes the hair on the neck stand up:

That's You and Carson Hollow in the 2002 Test. Great race and really great call.

Great horses make great races, not the day of the week. This Test stands out in memory over many more recently-run Classic races.

Alan Mann said...

Erin - Thanks for posting that race. I wholeheartedly agree that "Great horses make great races, not the day of the week." If I'm not mistaken, the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race was on a weekday. But those were far different times, and IMHO, the sport needs to make its big races readily available to the widest audience possible.

Erin said...

Indeed, "great" doesn't automatically equal influential. Us hardcore fans will watch a big race any day, but there aren't enough of us anymore who'd make that effort.

I agree it's a shame any time our great, big races don't get every chance to reach the masses.

We have lost the tradition of having big sporting events of any days but weekends or holidays, unlike in other countries. And racing sure isn't the sport to change or challenge that.

Jen R said...

For the first mile and a sixteenth, the 1990 Distaff was also one of the greatest races I've ever seen.

Teresa said...

That race is just amazing, and I felt my heart pulled in two directions as I watched: root for the Derby winner? Root for the undefeated filly? Please, please, let them both win?

I was a little disappointed in the call about Personal Ensign being one of the best fillies of all time...surely, one of the best horses?