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THOROUGHBRED RACING : Sport Cannibalizes a Good Idea When Its Tracks Scuttle ACRS

July 16, 1993|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The death of the American Championship Racing Series last week came as no surprise because the program, not yet three years old, had been on life support for some time.

As long ago as last August, a few days before the Pacific Classic brought to a close the second year of the series, Barry Weisbord said: "We're fighting for our lives."

The embattled Weisbord, who hatched a 10-race series in 1991 and sold it to television, was considered part of the problem by some track executives. But if he is the reason the races have been scuttled, then racing is in the same league with the king who beheaded the messenger because he brought bad tidings.

Weisbord brought to racing a fresh idea that was a qualified success, despite the resistance he encountered. At the very least, the sport should renew the concept next year, stabilize it and thank Weisbord as he goes out the door for getting the troubled game off the dime.

Some said that Weisbord didn't pay attention to his budget, a suggestion that Weisbord considers absurd.

He did make some mistakes, though. When Santa Anita dropped out after using the Santa Anita Handicap as one of the races the first two years, Weisbord called the track "selfish."

Last year, when Rockingham Park abruptly pulled its race, saying that a $500,000 purse would bankrupt the track, Weisbord gerrymandered the schedule, substituting a Belmont Park stake that, inadvertently or not, favored Strike The Gold. The colt finished second in the Suburban Handicap, piling up points that helped him clinch the $750,000 first-place bonus at the end of the series.

Weisbord said that Rockingham had painted him into a corner, and he might have been right. He needed a substitute race to satisfy television and, rather than just shorten the series, he needed satellite betting on the full 10-race schedule to have enough bonus money in the till.

This year, some of the changes in the series were counterproductive.

Oaklawn Park, like Santa Anita, had dropped out, and to make sure he would get horses that Weisbord could have used for his races, Oaklawn President Charles Cella hiked the purse of the Oaklawn Handicap by $250,000, to $750,000.

In melancholy moments of self-reflection, Cella is saddened that he doesn't seem to be part of racing's power axis anymore. But in this case, Weisbord needed Cella more than the other way around. The championship series' last hurrah was reduced to nine races, and six of them were at only three tracks--Gulfstream Park, Hollywood Park and Belmont Park. Because of the distance in shipping East Coast horses to California, and because of New York's no-medication rule that affects bleeders, the schedule was not as appealing for many stables.

Two of the races, the Pimlico Special and the Nassau County Handicap, were run on the same days as Triple Crown races, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. This was a concession to television, which has difficulty filling 90 minutes of time with one race. But Weisbord was risking kiss-off coverage of his races by newspapers, and when a horse died in the Preakness and the Belmont, the Special and the Nassau County didn't even become the second-most important stories of the day.

Fearful that participation might flag by mid-series, Weisbord cut up the $1.2-million bonuses into two packages, 25% of the money being paid out after the first four races were run. This was a complicated structure that penalized California horses, who had to travel East to have a shot at the early bonus payoff.

That was considerably different from the first year, when Weisbord got lucky and a new project could hardly have begun more auspiciously. Trainers Wayne Lukas and Ron McAnally built a genuine year-long rivalry, traipsing the country with Farma Way and Festin. They ran in almost every race in the series.

Two other horses, Jolie's Halo and Silver Survivor, also ran in five races, and Unbridled, a Kentucky Derby winner, left Chicago to run at Del Mar.

Last year, however, no horse ran in more than five of the races, and this year, unless Devil His Due, the series point leader, runs in the Pacific Classic next month, there will be little of the intersectional spark that existed in 1991 and '92.

To save the program, David Vance, the major domo at Edward J. DeBartolo Sr.'s tracks, was brought in as series chairman after Santa Anita's Cliff Goodrich resigned. Vance was already president of the 45 or so tracks that make up the Thoroughbred Racing Assns., but because of political infighting that so often hogties racing, that was a disadvantage. TRA tracks that had dumped Weisbord wondered aloud what Vance was doing, trying to serve more than one master.

The sputter that will be heard later this summer is the finish to this year's series--races at Monmouth Park and Belmont as well as Del Mar. It was something that still could have worked over the long haul. Racing found a way to throw rocks at another good idea.

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