Category Archives: Controversy

Pegasus World Cup: Big Idea in a Shrinking Industry

Thirty years ago, John Gaines had a crazy idea, he talked a couple of fellow racing VIPs into giving it a try, and now we’ve got the Breeders’ Cup.

The horse racing industry was very different in the 1980s. But that crazy idea and “let’s put on a show” attitude is alive and well in 2016. Gaines’ heir in the innovation department is Frank Stronach, whose big ideas have brought us the Sunshine Millions, the Rainbow 6, Miss Racing Queen, Gulfstream Park West, and now what could be the biggest, craziest idea of them all – the Pegasus World Cup.

As pitched, the Pegasus World Cup would bring the top 12 older horses together in January at Gulfstream Park for a shot at a $12 Million purse – the largest in the world, the largest money pot in the history of horse racing. This race would be financed by competitive owners who put up $1M each to be a part of the action. The buy-in would include a portion of whatever TV rights and sponsorship dollars the track can pull together, plus the traditional purse distribution (that’d be $7 M to the winner).

Because this is horse racing, the more outrageous the idea, the louder the criticism – and a $12M race is fertile ground. What owner would put up $1M? Nobody will want to do that… The Dubai World Cup is $10M and they pay all expenses, why would I want to stay in FL and pay my own money? What horses are going to be ready for that kind of race? How are they going to get TV rights when the sport has to pay to have non-Triple Crown races broadcast? Is anyone going to bet this thing?

The bigger news about the Pegasus Cup came only a week after it was announced: all 12 entry spots had already SOLD OUT!

So this is happening.

It’s already a success. If they can get 12 horses in the gate, that’s icing.

It is an interesting experiment that could signal a change in how the biggest races are managed and promoted.

The biggest races will be run like major league sports. Groups of owners buy-in and share revenues from the race. The way the Pegasus Cup entries are done is less like an “entry” than a “share” – owners do not have to declare a specific horse for the race at this point, and they can sell or lease their entry to anyone. Coolmore was one of the buyers. They have a stable of horses in the US and Europe to choose from, but if none fit when entry day actually comes around, they can always sell to someone with a hot horse who didn’t have the funds or foresight today. This model is more about sponsorship deals than handle – it involves high-dollar promotions, licensing, and appearance fees. With betting handle on horse races at historic lows, this will be the way the top level of racing is financed. It won’t matter how much is bet – all shareholders have already made money.

Consolidation of the industry helps force this along. The major tracks will get by with 1-2 big days that cover the rest of their (shorter) meets. I could see the Kentucky Derby selling the 20 entries to interested parties for $1M each – and then the Derby would be the richest race in the world (as many in the US already assume). Dodge, FedEx, Humana – corporate sponsors would buy a Derby entry and sell the spot to horses on the trail – or there would be a frenzy to snare the top points earners as the Derby trail pushed forward each year. Can you see it – the “Gillette Starter” or the “Amazon Starter”? It seems weird to us today, but I can totally see this – soon.

What about the bread and butter – maiden, allowance, claiming races? If something is not done to boost handle, and therefore purses, the minor leagues of horse racing will be running for ribbons. There are a myriad of ideas about how to do that (lower takeout, expanded wagering options like exchange, fixed odds, etc, etc,etc) – but it will take effort from the horsemen, tracks, and state racing commissions to get that done. It will be hard, tedious work that no one likes to talk about.

But we must. Or the Pegasus will be the last flight of the sport instead of it rising to new heights.

 

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What Exactly Is American Racing?

I was under the impression that American horse racing was primarily done on a dirt surface, and that our best horses competed at the one mile and one-quarter distance. I was also told that female horses were celebrated for defeating males at any distance, as it was so rarely done here. My other assumption, based on the press, was that the Triple Crown races were at the top of the heap in quality of competition for three-year-olds, and that the winners of those races were the ones to root for and follow throughout the year. I was sold the idea that the Breeders’ Cup was the championship weekend, and that the whole year’s racing came down to these uber-battles. I was also told that should unexpected results come out of the BC, the whole year’s races were still considered in deciding year-end awards.

With that said, what happened at the Eclipse awards last night?

We awarded our top honor to a turf horse who never set one hoof on the dirt, nor did he win one panel over a mile.

I thought this was America!

Ok, so maybe his turf mile record was was fantastic; I admit, the Woodbine Mile was a stellar performance. OK, Turf male, cool – horse of the year: weirder things have happened (Favorite Trick, anyone?). But what about Champion Older Male?

There was no dearth of talent on the dirt last year. Mucho Macho Man had an inconsistent year, but he strung 2 great wins together:  winning the Awesome Again and beating everyone in the BCClassic. Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Cross Traffic, all took turns beating each other in NY and FL. But they all showed up on the dirt, in 1.25 mile races.

Then there’s Game On Dude. The Dude won the Santa Anita Handicap, the (final) Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic, sweeping the SoCal Handicap triple. He also took the Charles Town Classic and the San Antonio. He suffered his first loss of the year in the Classic, but avenged that performance with a surprise run and valiant head loss to Will Take Charge in the Clark.

In any other year, the Dude would be a champion. He should have been one for 2013. He ran in open Grade 1 races, supposedly our top level, most prestigious, most valued, all year long. He ran and won on the dirt at 1.25 miles, and also won at that distance against 10 other rivals at Del Mar, a surface he had not performed at his best on in the past.

And he got only 31 votes for champion older male. I’d have been happy with Mucho Macho Man taking the award, after all, he did defeat Dude in the Classic!

And people wonder why our “best” horses retire early. Why keep a good three-year-old in training another year when none of his wins will mean anything? I used to get really ticked off when connections said their retired colt “had nothing left to prove”. Well after this horrendous year, I get where they’re coming from. Why take the chance, why ship, why be a “sportsman” if it doesn’t mean anything?

I thought this was American style racing. I thought our dirt horses and classic distance runners were sources of national pride.

If we actually don’t value that, then we need to own up to it.

Tear up the dirt tracks and replace them with safer synthetics. Cut the Triple Crown races back in distance and spread them out on the schedule. Strip California of its G1s. Ban Lasix and raceday meds.

Because for so long, this is what we have insisted American horse racing is all about. Last night, we proved that’s a lie.

 

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