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There is life in the Breeders' Cup after all

October 27, 2008|BILL DWYRE

Horse racing has been waiting for just such a moment, for that perfect time to puff up its chest, look the world in the eye and shout those three magic words. And now it can:

No horses died.

The 25th Breeders' Cup has come and gone. The show Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita earned lots of A's on anybody's report card.

The facility was like somebody going to a 20th high school class reunion. Lost some weight, got the skin cleared up, spent large sums of money on new clothes and wowed the old classmates.

There wasn't a shrub at Santa Anita that went untrimmed, nor a candy wrapper that stayed long on the ground. This is not a new place, but the Great Race Place certainly cleaned up well.

It wasn't like the old days, when Los Angeles turned out en masse for events at Santa Anita, such as the traditional day-after-Christmas winter-season opener. Nor was it quite like the assessment of my beloved colleague, T.J. Simers, who counsels me that "nobody cares about horse racing anymore. Stop writing about it. You're killing yourself."

Somewhere in between lies the truth.

Just over 82,000 cared enough to attend in the two days, including 51,331 for Saturday's nine Breeders' Cup races. ABC and ESPN, while playing hot potato with the final day's telecast, had to attract enough viewers to make this worth their while. If not, it would have been on Versus.

The numbers generated for this can always be interpreted several ways. In most regards, this was the best ever.

At a time when the economy is horrible, a total of $155,474,553 was bet on the 21 races over two days. That's money bet everywhere -- at Santa Anita, other tracks around the country, authorized betting parlors. And be clear: That's all 21 races, of which 14 were Breeders' Cup races.

Last year, that total handle was $147,227,784. But there were three fewer Breeders' Cup races and the on-site action suffered because the event, held at New Jersey's Monmouth Park, went off in cold and rainy slop.

Greg Avioli, chief executive of Breeders' Cup Ltd., said his group's projections, once all money from all betting sites has been counted, see a 5% increase, and he called that a very successful year, "especially in light of what the economy is."

The Breeders' Cup was a one-day event for its first 23 years, before going to two days at Monmouth last year. The best one-day Breeders' Cup all-races, all-sites handle was in 2006 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, with $140,332,198.

Numbers notwithstanding, fans were treated to a parade of great horses, and, as has been the case at the Olympics in recent years, the female athletes more than held their own in the show.

The entire first day was for filly races, and unbeaten Zenyatta was as dazzling as her press clippings. Almost more dazzling was the little Irish filly, Goldikova, who made a move down the stretch in the $2-million Mile turf race that beat the boys on Saturday and had the crowd buzzing.

One of the established stars and recognizable faces of racing is trainer Bob Baffert, who won two races and is back in the spotlight he loves and handles so well. But fans also got a fun taste of a long-departed U.S. trainer, John Gosden, who left Southern California in the mid-1980s for England and returned to win here twice while entertaining the media with his quick wit.

Gosden's horse, Raven's Pass, won the big race, the $5-million Classic, and afterward, sitting next to European rock star jockey Frankie Dettori in a news conference, Gosden apologized to his wife for being "like a coiled spring" the last month.

Dettori chimed in sympathetically:

"I had to suffer him for 10 hours on the plane."

Santa Anita will be the host for this event again next year, providing a chance to do even better. Avioli said the high-end tickets went fast, but that the $100 to $150-a-day tickets were more problematic and would probably be cheaper.

The Breeders' Cup people also seemed to be caught off guard when Big Brown was injured and his showdown with Curlin evaporated. The ensuing ad campaign, as well as that for Friday's Ladies Day, was bland and lifeless.

The event did have Curlin as a huge attraction, and that will be hard to top next year. But stars rise quickly in horse racing. Maybe Goldikova will still be beating the boys, and we will be inundated with ads declaring that "The Lady Is a Champ."

Another maybe: Maybe PETA won't feel a need to picket the track, as the animal rights group did this year. Maybe they won't, because:

No horses died.


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