Yes. Yes. As we were reminded by a recent press advance previewing tomorrow’s $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes, jockey Luis Contreras is one lap of the E.P. Taylor Turf Course from guiding home the winner of all three jewels of the Triple Crown with two different horses.
It’s obvious why Woodbine Entertainment Group has promoted this event in this way. It’s to help make the Breeders’ sound less like a lucrative after-thought and more like, well, the Triple Crown race that it is.
At first glance, adding cohesion to the Breeders’ Stakes marketing mix in a year in which there is no Triple Crown threat is a wonderful thing. It would normally be a great opportunity if something happened (or could happen) that tied all three races together.
This is the PR equivalent to barking up the wrong tree. Any organization in any industry should be very careful when its spin doctoring efforts result in an attempt to pawn a mutt off as a pure-bred. It’s taking a long leap of faith expecting the customer to make the reach.
History has shown time and time again the true publicity potential of the Breeders’. Guess what? It’s when a horse has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Queen’s Plate and the Prince of Wales. Not when a jockey or a trainer or an owner has managed to win both with two different horses.
Whether it’s England, the United States, Canada or Korea, the concept of the Triple Crown is sacred. It’s one of the few brands that thoroughbred racing has at its disposal. It’s not to be messed with. It’s certainly not to be warped as a public relations experiment.
The damage may already be done. Even after an interview with award-winning journalist Bev Smith, Contreras made comments that suggest he thinks he’s riding for a sweep of the Triple Crown.
If he’s been brainwashed into saying that he thinks he is, how many people that hear those quotes or scan the sports headlines are going to think that a horse is trying to sweep the Triple Crown on Sunday? If it’s just one, this has all been an exercise in miscommunication that will only serve to tarnish the Triple Crown brand.
There’s a second pitfall that could come out of this sales approach.
Emphasizing the fact that Canada’s leading jockey Luis Contreras is attempting this trivial feat in Sunday’s concluding jewel of the Triple Crown also reintroduces a simple question that opens up a debate about the legitimacy of the entire Canadian stakes program.
So, the immediate question: “Why is he in such a strange position?” or alternatively, “If he won the Plate with one horse, how did he end up on a different horse?”
If you haven’t been under a rock for the past six weeks, then you know that it’s because the connections of the horse, with which he won the Queen’s Plate, snubbed Fort Erie, the Prince of Wales, the Canadian Triple Crown of Racing and the almighty Canadian dollar in favor of a chance to win a second prestigious Grade 1 at fabled Saratoga in the United States.
This individual, who shall remain nameless for the duration of the piece for fear of shining spotlight on a horse remaining in a barn this weekend and taking attention away from the 13 that are running in the Breeders’, including Pender Harbour, the mount Contreras picked up and deftly turned into a Canadian classic winner in Fort Erie’s Prince of Wales.
The problem is playing on the “Contreras Crown” footnote requires all sorts of explanation just to get to the surface of the story. A perfect example of the media being forced to take its eye off the ball is Friday’s Toronto Star brief, which required mentioning as many horses that are in Sunday’s race as are not.
The uniqueness of this ‘footnote’ is that it is so rare for a Queen’s Plate winning rider to be forced into a situation where he has to find a new mount for the Prince of Wales. This is because it’s rare that the Queen’s Plate winner doesn’t show up in the Prince of Wales. Generally, it’s a foregone conclusion, an unwritten rule amongst Canadian horsemen. The last time before this year that the Plate winner didn’t make it to Fort Erie was in the 1980s.
If it’s due to injury, it is understandable – an unfortunate part of the game. But when it’s planned, it’s a completely, avoidable tragedy, and a lost opportunity for the Canadian industry.
To truly tell the story of how Contreras is in a position to win all three Classics with two different horses, requires giving a fair amount of attention to the reasoning behind the Queen’s Plate winner’s absence from the balance of the Triple Crown, an event designed and developed over time to promote the sport and enrich the Canadian thoroughbred.
Attracting attention to this issue, risks exposing some serious questions like, “Isn’t a pair of $500,000 pots enough of an attraction to keep a horse from going South for something more prestigious?” or “Are we asking too much of Canadian owners to expect them to do the right thing, support Canadian racing and keep their stars in Canada when a significant prize is on the line?” or “What’s the point in a stakes system that lucratively rewards owners of Canadian-breds if they’ll ship out for a graded stakes?” or, most troubling, “Enough with history and protection, why don’t we open up the Triple Crown to American-breds?”
Whether you applaud or criticize the decision, the Queen’s Plate winner’s absence from Fort Erie three weekends ago was bad news. It took a superstar appearance away from a racetrack that counts on an infusion of star power from Woodbine one time per year. This weekend, this bad news extends back to Woodbine, where there’s a strong case to be made that a Triple Crown title could have been on the line.
This would have provided a fantastic mid-way boost to the long season, just cause to loosen the purse strings on the marketing budget and bring in many of the fans from the Queen’s Plate for a glorious curtain call. More importantly, it would have been a generous reward to the nation’s horse racing fans who endure days, weeks and years of equine parity, normalcy and, at times, mediocrity for the rare shot to witness greatness.
With that scenario out of the cards, for faithful Canadian racing fans, Sunday’s Breeders’ will probably be more about taking a shot at landing a five-figure Superfecta over the E.P. Taylor Turf Course than cheering Contreras in his quest to become the first jockey in 52 years to win the Plate, POW and Breeders’ with eight different legs underneath him – a trivial pursuit that doesn’t justify any association with the “Triple Crown” brand.