In its infancy, which was only eight years ago, the Breeders' Cup received less than the overwhelming, unqualified support of the racing industry. Men of vision and their ideas have always seen the inspired waves they create gain momentum slowly in racing's dark and heavy intellectual seas.
John Gaines' vision of a season-ending afternoon of million-dollar, championship-determining races that would draw horses from around the world and provide a made-for-TV event comparable to the Super Bowl and World Series met with surprisingly tepid support from an establishment more inclined to whistle in the dark than light a match. A thing done for the greater good, particularly something on so grand a scale, is a concept foreign to the preponderant majority of racing minds.
At some point during that first Breeders' Cup afternoon at Hollywood Park it became evident to everyone who watched that something very different and very important was happening; the racing game would never be the same. By the time Wild Again, Slew o' Gold and Gate Dancer battled hide-to-hide down the stretch in the first $3-million horse race ever run, there was no doubt.
The operators of America's racetracks did not rush to replace their meager offerings with history's best racing card, however. The Breeders' Cup was born with only 19 simulcast sites. The handle was slightly more than $8 million, but the television ratings were encouraging.
Television ratings have always been important to the Breeders' Cup. A network deal was critical to the basic concept. Without television, there would be no commercial sponsorship. There would be no way to provide the wide exposure its creators envisioned for racing. Without a signed-and-sealed agreement with NBC, there would have been no Breeders' Cup.
Ironically, if television was crucially instrumental in establishing the Breeders' Cup, the event's success has sabotaged its appeal to the Saturday afternoon couch potato. It may have been conceived as a vehicle to reach a new audience, but the old audience -- racing's fans and bettors -- has made the Breeders' Cup a success. If the Breeders' Cup has made new racing fans of the disinterested and oblivious, it has been in inconsequential numbers.
Ratings for NBC's afternoon-long telecast have been anemic in recent years, so anemic that the eighth running next week in Kentucky will begin earlier than usual in deference to college football, which produces far better ratings for the network. But there were 256 simulcast sites last year when the seventh Breeders' Cup was run at Belmont Park. Wagering at those sites totaled more than $46.2 million. Most of the audience, simply put, is at the races, not watching television.
The growth of the Breeders' Cup has been entirely internal. The old fans, not the new, have embraced the ultimate day at the races. The people its originators envisioned flocking to the racetracks having been enamored of the game's color and ceremony while couched in their living rooms never materialized. The event has become a success even while failing to accomplish any of its original goals because of the players, who have always been the last consideration of those who steer its progress.
The Breeders' Cup began with only two racetracks, Bay Meadows and Charles Town, simulcasting the entire seven-race card and proved too strong a concept to be suppressed even by the most shortsighted of those whose cause it promised to champion.
Nowadays, most tracks offer the entire program for reasons not easily confused with sportsmanship or altruism. They offer the Breeders' Cup races because the players react to quality racing with money. In seven years, almost $194 million has been bet on simulcast Breeders' Cup races. Including money wagered at the tracks at which the races have been run, more than $260 million has been wagered on 49 races.
If racing made any sense, there would be a concerted effort to establish a one-day moratorium on races run anywhere in the United States except those at the Breeders' Cup host track. The Breeders' Cup would recognize how little commercial television means to its continued success and concentrate on an international simulcast, because those interested in the Breeders' Cup are likely to be in attendance at a racetrack or off-track wagering facility.
It would also consider pay-per-view as a potentially lucrative secondary television outlet. But racing seldom makes sense while whistling in darkness, so the Breeders' Cup has bowed to NBC on a reasonable starting time and misspent its efforts marketing the National Pick Seven. This is typical of the mentality of racing's marketing genius, an impossible exotic wager destined to alienate far more people than it enamors.
The Breeders' Cup has thrived in the face of provincialism and shortsightedness as a pure racing event. It prospers as a gambling event. It probably will endure even the misdirected minds that conceived the National Pick Seven. It may have, in a very short time, become stronger than the industry that is supposed to support it but just doesn't know where to begin.