The Breeders' Cup is one of the most important racing events in the United States, from the competition to fans' comfort (Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire).
In an unprecedented turn of events, I managed to survive a plane trip without either fighting with overweight baggage or sprinting through an airport to make a connecting flight.
I’d like to believe that everyone has as much trouble with plane trips as I do, but historical data would suggest my luck is worse than most. Alas! But arrive I did, and in great spirits. Really, how could I not? Over the last three years, I was lucky enough to experience my fair share of stellar race days: Irish 1,000 & 2,000 Guineas, Irish Derby, Irish Champions Day, English 1,000 & 2,000 Guineas (Frankel and Dawn Approach), Epsom Derby, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Royal Ascot, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes (all for I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown try), Blue Grass Stakes Day at Keeneland, Travers Stakes, Melbourne Cup, Hong Kong International Races, and the Dubai World Cup. However, one event had continued to elude me.
It was with this trip to California that I would finally have the chance to experience firsthand how the Breeders’ Cup World Championships stack up against all the other leading racing events around the world. As an American, I possess an innate bias – I not only want the US to be amongst the best, but I also expect them to be. The Breeders’ Cup would really have to pull out all the stops to impress me, though – I’ve seen some truly specular sights, I have a real appreciation of international racing’s strengths, and I’m not an easy critic.
Despite the numerous differences throughout the international racing community, I’ve long believed that a truly great racing event is able to transcend the dissimilarities, disagreements, and discontent. Whatever the local drink of choice (Pimms! Champagne! Guiness! Whiskey! Vodka! Sake! VB!), the preferred racing surface, the language, the climate, or the customs, top-class racing and the events that play host are able to rise above and unite the global industry.
And while some will argue that it is precisely at an event such at this that the contentious issues of our times, such as Lasix and steroids and surface, are the most relevant, I choose to hope that instead these events will help to bridge the gap between perspectives. Some would call this mindset naïve; I prefer optimistic.
So now to the reason I was in California, and the reason for this blog: the 30th Breeders’ Cup World Championships, this time hosted at Santa Anita Park. Santa Anita has a couple of locational highlights that really play to its favor: the stunning backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains and the perfectly clement weather. This event scored a few bonus points in my book simply because I was able to briefly resurrect my summer wardrobe.
With regards to points, the question remains … how do you adjudicate between each of these unique racing experiences? What makes an amazing day of racing just so spectacular? A vested interest in one aspect or another, especially if it is a particular horse, certainly helps to amplify excitement levels. In my opinion, it really comes down to three components (which I debated with friend and fellow-ABR blogger, Pat Cummings. Give me a chance to explain before you judge my choice of words!):
Competition– Unquestionably, we all come to these major racing events to see the greats battle it out. There is nothing more worth cheering for than honest competition between truly talented and worthy parties.
THE BREEDERS' CUP WAS FULL OF COMPETITION THIS YEAR
We certainly were not deprived of this here, as we saw the likes of Mizdirection, Groupie Doll and Wise Dan all return to the winner’s circle for the second year in a row in their respective races. I believe this is a great testament to the talent of these individual horses and to the trainers, owners and jockeys putting in the hard work to get each through another tough campaign. And the Europeans again proved worthy adversaries, with Magician flying past The Fugue in the Turf, Godolphin’s Outstrip just tagging Coolmore’s Giovanni Boldini in the Juvenile Turf, Dank and Romantica checking in 1-2 in the Filly & Mare Turf, Chriselliam claiming the crown in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, and London Bridge winning the Marathon. It is perhaps too bad that we fail to attract more international interest but given our overlap with Melbourne’s Spring Carnival and the long flight from Asia, it comes as little surprise. Even without a greater international presence, the races still proved exhilarating and true tests of champions.
Color– When the rich colors and culture of a country and of a city are imbued into the race day, the entire event is elevated to a new level. In Australia, fascinators and hats abound, and the fashion is second to none. Royal Ascot and the Kentucky Derby are not far behind, although Churchill’s infield certainly still caters to those who’d prefer the more casual race-going experience. Santa Anita was draped in the deep purple of Breeders’ Cup and the mountains provided a glorious background for the tapestry. And I certainly saw individuals decked out in their finest racing attire. However, I did not feel that the two days had the same level of vibrancy that I’ve come to expect at the most significant events.
ROYAL ASCOT CHECKS ALMOST ALL THE BOXES IN THE COLOR CATEGORY
With crowds only reaching approximately 59,000 on Saturday, the facility was far from packed. In fact, the infield looked glaringly empty and even the grandstand had obvious vacancies. This, as well as a lack of real ancillary entertainment, contributed to a deficiency in atmosphere. The ‘opening ceremonies’ were easily missed since they seemed to only consist of the national anthem. In comparison, the Hong Kong International Races had performances in the paddock by cultural dance teams and a national singing celebrity – they even had a giant horse mascot do the Gangnam Style dance! Dubai trumped all before it with its aerial plane acrobatics, dancing horses, peerless fireworks display, and Seal performance. I recognize that some traditionalists prefer an unadulterated marketing of horse racing, but it seems to me that if ancillary entertainment will help to bring guests in the door, we should be doing more to attract them to the venue and more to develop an interest in the racing once on the premises. They may come once for Seal, but we need to convince them to return for horse racing.
Comfort– During the course of my globetrotting, I’ve encountered wide acknowledgement from racetrack management groups that the best means of attracting men to the races is by drawing in the women. So too is there wide acknowledgement that there is little more painful than standing at the races for eight hours in highly-fashionable and highly-uncomfortable stilettoes! The most successful race days are able to deliver impressive levels of comfort and convenience to customers, and I believe Santa Anita met this standard with relative ease.
From what I could see, high-class hospitality options were strategically located and offered sufficient seating, ease of bar access, and appealing food and beverage offerings. The Enclosure offered unparalleled paddock views and the newly-renovated Chandelier room catered perfectly to the classiest fans in all their finery. Television screens were plentiful and betting terminals were well planned and managed. I never wished for more, and that is high praise indeed.
SANTA ANITA'S PADDOCK PROVIDES FANS WITH A STUNNING VIEW
I will be the first to acknowledge that I’ve been lucky to always have a ‘home team’ to cheer for at the races. I was the groom for a Saint Liam – Easter Bunnette yearling when I was an intern at Mill Ridge, and I was the later-named Havre de Grace’s most ardent fan. Darley was a global delight for one such as me, with entries in so many of the most significant races. And at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, an old friendship with Jason Litt led me directly to the Turf Sprint winner’s circle with Mizdirection and Alex Solis. Did this influence my experience? Undoubtedly. But even without these connections, I would still have found the 30th Breeders’ Cup World Championships to be just shy of exceptional.
The US certainly has all the right ingredients and resources to make racing a leading sports and entertainment attraction as we’ve seen in Australia, France and Hong Kong. I do believe, however, we will only accelerate the process to achieve that high caliber of racing product and unprecedented entertainment by learning from those of the international community who have perfected the race-going experience.