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Is the Breeders' Cup too important?

Game On Dude 615 X 400
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
 
When the Breeders’ Cup races were launched in 1984, they were designed to be a year-end championship for North American racing. The horses that ran in these races knocked heads often throughout the year and then came together again at the end. At the time of its inception and through the early years, the Breeders’ Cup truly was a championship. The horses that won the Classic or the Distaff beat the best their division had to offer, and when named Horse of the Year, there was no doubt that they had truly earned that honor on the track, not just at the Breeders’ Cup but throughout the year, as well. In the rare event that a Horse of the Year did not run in the Breeders’ Cup, they had put together such an impressive yearlong campaign that there was again no doubt about their worthiness of the title. But that was then, and this is now.
 
 
As the years have passed, the Breeders’ Cup has become increasingly important. So much so in fact, that winning a Breeders’ Cup race almost virtually guarantees the winner an Eclipse award in spite of what they may or may not have done throughout the year. With the Juvenile divisions, about 95% of the time it is okay to rely so heavily on the Breeders’ Cup since most of the “babies” don’t start racing until late summer. There is not a lot of time for them to face one another, so usually the Breeders’ Cup gives a pretty good indication of which colt/gelding or filly is the best that year. However, there are some times when the winner is not the best. Most of the time the Eclipse voters get it right when it comes down to it in the Juvenile divisions, but 2011 saw Hansen get the Eclipse over Union Rags despite the latter having the stronger campaign. It is times like that when fans are left to wonder just how important the Breeders’ Cup really ought to be.
 
 
In today’s culture of ducking competition, running in fewer races, and economizing assets, often times what you win is just as important if not more important than who you beat. Take this year’s top two finalists for Champion 3-Year Old Filly. Beholder ended up winning the Eclipse in a landslide vote simply for the fact that she won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on her home track. Likewise, she also won the Eclipse in 2012 for Champion Two-Year Old Filly simply for winning the Juvenile Fillies despite Executiveprivilege having a better overall year. Today winning the Breeders’ Cup is more important than a solid yearlong campaign, which is why Beholder got the nod over Princess of Sylmar. In my opinion, Princess of Sylmar’s yearlong campaign holds much more water than Beholder staying in California all year, skipping all the major races in her division, and then winning the Distaff. While Beholder was in California, Princess of Sylmar was back east winning all the major, historically significant races in the 3-year old filly division. Winning the Alabama, CCA Oaks, Kentucky Oaks, and Beldame is much more important in comparison to Beholder’s Zenyatta and Distaff victories.
 
 
Conversely, in the Older Male Division this year, Game On Dude put together an impressive campaign throughout the year only to bomb the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then finish a close 2nd to 3-year old Champion Will Take Charge in the Clark. While Beholder was rewarded for staying in California and having a weaker campaign, but winning the Distaff, Game On Dude was penalized for winning historically significant races in California but throwing a clunker in November. Instead, the Eclipse for Older Male went to Wise Dan, an excellent turf miler. While I have to commend Wise Dan and his connections for traveling the continent and taking it to whatever competition dared challenge them, I do have to argue that the races Wise Dan won were not nearly as significant as those that Game On Dude captured. Only one other horse in history, Lava Man, has won the Santa Anita Handicap, Pacific Classic, and Hollywood Gold Cup in one year, something that is a huge feat. But instead of being rewarded for an excellent year, Game On Dude was overlooked due to one bad race. Such was not the case in 1998 when Skip Away finished 6th in the Classic after having an otherwise exceptional year. The same can be said of Cigar in 1996 and Curlin in 2008. The aforementioned three were also named Horse of the Year in addition to garnering divisional honors. Furthermore, though never technically specified, the Older Male award has traditionally gone to outstanding dirt runners, though it has been awarded to turf specialists in the absence of a truly standout dirt horse. Game On Dude had quite a year on dirt, while Wise Dan never set hoof on that surface in the afternoons. But because Wise Dan won a Breeders’ Cup race and Game On Dude didn’t, Wise Dan received the accolades and Game On Dude was once again stiffed.
 
 
Aside from wondering just how important the Breeders’ Cup ought to be, fans are often also left to wonder if and when the Breeders’ Cup should be completely disregarded. Like Mucho Macho Man, dual Eclipse winner for Champion Female Sprinter Groupie Doll had an abbreviated 2013 campaign due to illness. While Mucho Macho Man was passed over for any Eclipse awards due to missing half the year and having only two wins, Groupie Doll was once again named Champion Female Sprinter despite having only two wins herself. So why the discrepancy? They both defeated the best their respective divisions had to offer, but finalists Dance to Bristol and Mizdirection certainly had better overall years in much the same way that Game On Dude and Wise Dan had better years than Mucho Macho Man. Yet one was rewarded essentially for winning the Breeders’ Cup while the other was overlooked. Such a discrepancy makes absolutely no sense and does not sit well at all with fans.
 
 
In a case of voters truly being all over the map for the 2013 awards, two-year old Shared Belief was named Champion Two-Year Old Male after skipping the Breeders’ Cup altogether, and She’s A Tiger was named Champion Two-Year Old Female after winning and then being disqualified and placed second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Did Shared Belief have a better overall year than Juvenile winner New Year’s Day? Depending on in which camp you reside, the case could be argued either way. From a purely statistical standpoint, Shared Belief had two graded stakes wins to New Year’s Day’s one, but a good case could also be made for Havana or Honor Code, the latter of which was not even a finalist for the division. This was a year where some of the top talent did not run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, making a decision on the division standout difficult. On the female side of things, the voters actually got it right in awarding She’s A Tiger divisional honors despite her Breeders’ Cup disqualification. Never worse than second in any of her 6 starts, she had a campaign worthy of recognition, something neither of the other two finalists could truly boast.
 
 
The Eclipse for Outstanding Steeplechase horse going to Divine Fortune was another vote that left me baffled. For comparison’s sake, the Grand National is best thought of as akin to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, except for jumpers rather than flat racers, and is the richest steeplechase in American racing. Because Divine Fortune won the G1 Grand National Hurdle Stakes while, he received the accolades. However, Italian Wedding, though having the least amount in earnings of the three finalists and finishing 8th in the Grand National, had the best overall year. In the five times that the three finalists faced each other during 2013, Italian Wedding had the best finish in 3 of those meetings. The gelded son of Alphabet Soup did this while racing exclusively in Grade 1 events, something neither the third finalist Gustavian nor Divine Fortune did.
 
 
Fellow Horse Racing Nation blogger Laura Pugh recently suggested implementing a points system in order to determine divisional winners each year. In order to be named division champion, the winner would have to have earned the most points, and the divisional champion with the most overall points is Horse of the Year. While the idea certainly has merit and would be helpful, I am not sure that a complete switch to that type of system is what the Eclipse Awards needs. Part of the appeal of the Eclipse Awards is the suspense in close divisions, and a switch to a completely points based system would detract from that particular quality. Should the Breeders’ Cup be an important deciding factor in divisional honors? Absolutely, because it is, after all, a championship series. Should it be the end all, be all? Of course not. Horses are going to have their off days because they are not machines. A horse with a stellar yearlong campaign should not miss out on earning hardware simply because they had one off day. Conversely, Breeders’ Cup winners should not be rewarded for having one good day if the rest of their campaign was underwhelming. There needs to be standards, and these standards need to be applied fairly and consistently. 

 

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Older Comments about Is the Breeders' Cup too important?...

Also WESTERN turf has very little rain and is closely cropped like a putting green where a course like Arlington or Belmont has much more depth to it
@Ruffianlover I think the differences are greatly exaggerated. Remember Princess took some time off after the Oaks as well. Princess ran exactly one more race for the year than Beholder, and ran exactly one more race than Beholder between the Oaks and the Distaff. Yes it's a difference but it's not so much of a difference that you take the award away from Beholder. And also remember Princess stayed home when other contenders (in fact ALL other Oaks runners if I am not mistaken) ran in March prep races. Are we going to discount her Oaks victory because of that?
again with the Turf fields...lol. Ruffian, Game On Dude and his west coast horses have PLENTY of Handica races to run in all over the Country, The Turf milers don't. The reason none of the West coast horses ship out east, or to the midwest is because they are a cut below the eastern Handicap horses. Can't compare Turf mile races which are just more then a handful to the older horses dirt races.
@evananouna His biggest rivals that he beat up on over and over again. And who were they? Za approval? Every one faults game on dude for running against the and horses and beating them. What the heck is wise Dan then? At least game on dude showed up three times to run with the big boys. Can't say that even once about wise Dan. No excuses. And that warrants a three time sweep again? Not a chance
@ekindy You completely left out the fact that the oaks was in a neutral track and the distaff wasn't. You also left out that the oaks was run when both fillies were basically at the same fitness level and both ran their too race. The distaff was run at the tail end of one fillies long and hard flight year campaign, the other skipped 1/3 of the year just to be fresh for the cup. While beholder was resting up princess was smacking down anyone who tried to come in fornt of her way. No question in my mind.
@ekindy You completely left out the fact that the oaks was in a neutral track and the distaff wasn't. You also left out that the oaks was run when both fillies were basically at the same fitness level and both ran their too race. The distaff was run at the tail end of one fillies long and hard flight year campaign, the other skipped 1/3 of the year just to be fresh for the cup. While beholder was resting up princess was smacking down anyone who tried to come in fornt of her way. No question in my mind.
@buckpasser · I don't agree with this. It shouldn't be a tell all. Because basically what you are saying is a horse can win one graded stakes race, skip most of the year, but win a cup race over a horse who won multiple graded stakes every month out of the year but won the cup in its second race? And that horse should win it just because he won a cup race? Um no. Makes no darn sense and this is exactly what is wrong with the sport today and why people wonder why the fields in races get smaller and smaller and why the too horses don't show up to the too races throughout the year
I don't see how a point system can work to entice connections to run, and draw larger fields. With the purse sizes these days, they will still cherry pick the races that are the best spot for their charge, and go get a check. Game On Dude is the perfect example. Big purses in the G1's he runs in out West and weak fields. If a point system is geared toget horse to ship to other tracks to run in big races, it better be loaded up with West coast races included. Other wise Dude stays west, and collects cheques.
about game on dude look at the horses he faced none of them came back to face him in the classic. wise dan on the other hand faced all of his biggest rivals and beat them again
  • Ruffianlover · His biggest rivals that he beat up on over and over again. And who were they? Za approval? And that warrants a three time sweep again? Not a chance · 336 days ago
I agree that there is a problem but I think we disagree what the problem is. Many people here think the Breeders Cup gets too much weight in year end awards, I think the problem is that the Breeders Cup deserves the the great importance it has in the sport today. With horses running so few times and rarely shipping East OR WEST, the Breeders Cup has become the only time in most divisions that all the best horses horses face each other on the track. Racing needs to find a way to encourage the connections to race more often and have better fields for our traditional historic races. Look at the one division where the Breeders Cup has the least weight in determining the Eclipse Awards, the 3 year old males. That is because this division has the major Triple Crown prep races, then the Triple Crown and finally the big summer races like the Travers and Haskell. 3 year old colts run more often and face each other in a series of races, they have a real body of work throughout the year. This is what every division of racing needs. If racing had a series of races for each division tied to the Breeders Cup, like tmallios mentioned below, this would not be a problem.
  • Ruffianlover · The whole reason the races throughout the year don't have quality fields is because everyone is dodging everyone else until the cup! The goal right now is make it to the cup then win the cup so I can get an eclipse award. It should be that way and that way of thinking is ruining the sport- end of story · 336 days ago
  • Ruffianlover · Shouldn't* · 336 days ago
I don't have a problem with the BC deciding end of the year honors. This is what John Gaines hoped it would do when inaugurated. The problem I have with it is that the races do not move around to other tracks as it was designed to do. The early years were far more satisfying than the flip flop from Santa Anita to Churchill Downs that we have now. From the past many championships were decided in the fall. This is what the fall series at Belmont with the Woodward, Aqueduct and JCGC was designed to do years ago. And basically the horses that won these races were up for final year awards, like Kelso etc.
  • Ruffianlover · I don't agree with this. It shouldn't be a tell all. Because basically what you are saying is a horse can win one graded stakes race, skip most of the year, but win a cup race over a horse who won multiple graded stakes every month out of the year but won the cup in its second race? And that horse should win it just because he won a cup race? Um no. Makes no darn sense and this is exactly what is wrong with the sport today and why people wonder why the fields in races get smaller and smaller and why the too horses don't show up to the too races throughout the year · 336 days ago
In all due fairness to Beholder, in order to put Princess above her you have to say unequivocally that the Las Virgines, the Santa Anita Oaks, and the Zenyatta are inferior Grade I races compared to the CCA Oaks, the Alabama, and the Beldame. Other than the shorter distances, I'm not sure how you can judge that beyond a reasonable doubt. But if the racing community is in agreement with that sentiment, then we have to question the Grade I status of the races Beholder won. But if no changes are made, then you have to give both Beholder and Princess credit for 4 G1 victories. And given the head to head tie, you have to consider Beholder's 2nd place finish in the Oaks to be the tiebreaker over Princess' 6th place BCD finish. So I am able to justify Beholder's Eclipse by looking at the track records and not by some mythical historical importance of races or comparing who rested when. We all know as fans that Beholder is not that much better than Princess as compared to the vote count, but you can say the same about any MVP award vote in any major sport.
  • Ruffianlover · You completely left out the fact that the oaks was in a neutral track and the distaff wasn't. You also left out that the oaks was run when both fillies were basically at the same fitness level and both ran their too race. The distaff was run at the tail end of one fillies long and hard flight year campaign, the other skipped 1/3 of the year just to be fresh for the cup. While beholder was resting up princess was smacking down anyone who tried to come in fornt of her way. No question in my mind. · 336 days ago
That's exactly what I have been saying - the Breeders Cup is given too much weight in the voting for the Eclipse awardsnow days and it truly is not a "championship" event anymore. Calling itself that does not make it so. To me this means the voters are either being lazy (just pick a cup winner and be done) or uninformed (dont know what each horse has really done for the year and dont bother to check) or just being short sighted (not thinking of the big picture and really weighing the whole campaigns against one another). In any case, it is the voters who have become the problem in my opinion and that needs to change before the awards become a complete joke. I still cannot believe Game On Dude was the front runner for Horse of the Year (not just older male) before the Breeders Cup and after he lost he was suddenly not even deserving of older male - a campaign in which he accomplished something that has only been done ONCE previously. He is also being faulted for who showed up to run against him (just like Zenyatta was) but neither the horse or the connections can control whether or not anyone comes out to challenge them. He was in the big races and since everyone knew he was going to be there, they didn't come!
  • Ruffianlover · Exactly. People fault him for only running in California. Uh hello did they not see the Charles Town Classic run in WV? People are crazy, and just want to find any reason they can for hating the dude. He shows up to run in the biggest purse races. Not his fault if most are in California! · 336 days ago
It's the Breeders' Cup or Bust mentality/scheduling that makes me question the importance of the Breeders' Cup itself. I'm definitely not saying get rid of it. I LOVE the Breeders' Cup, but sometimes I think it counts for more than it should, i.e. when Hansen won the Eclipse in 2011 and when Groupie Doll won it this year.
Nicely done Ashley.
I didn't know that was Chantal. I thought it was an air-brushed Joan Rivers.
off topic... does everyone elsekeep getting these dam air brushed Chantal Sutherland bet america pop ups. enough already!
The one head scratcher to the BC argument is Goldenscents. Although he only won 3 races all year, he was a major player in the sprinting devision against elders for half of the year, including a win in the BC Dirt Mile, and he was not even nominated for an Eclipse.
AMEN Ashley!! Thank you so much for writing this article. You were dead on spot on every single issue you mentioned. Couldn't have said anything better myself. Thanks for posting and exposing the truth! Hopefully next year the voters actually get it right.
Mike,regardless if people want to accept it or not.The Racing game is fueled by MONEY. That is why i said ,attach a monetary Award to each divisional winner. They will be forced to run in more races during the calender year. That should be the incentive,to run in all the races.The BC will always have its' share of stars. Regardless what system is out there.The lure of the big purse money insures that. A point system will support the game throughout the year. This will hopefully lead to bigger and more competetive fields during the season.A substantial reward for HOTY honors might be incentive enough for Stars from all over the World to head Staeside to compete,more than once a year.It is evident,the lure of the big buck is the only thing that will get these horses out of their stalls more frequently. In regards to the panel that would vote on the eventual HOTY honor. Make their votes public to the general public after the tallies are done. Make them accountable in their selections. This will insure an additional form of integrity. Because to be honest with you.When it comes to big,big dollars.Except for a handful of people,and nothing personal. I trust them as far as i can toss an Elephant.

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