The Breeders' Cup may outpoint the Three Stooges in the television ratings this time.
But the problem for the Breeders' Cup, and Larry, Curly and Moe as well, will be outpointing the rest of the competition next Saturday.
The Breeders' Cup, a seven-race, $10-million annual extravaganza that began in 1984 at Hollywood Park, returns to the Inglewood site next Saturday, and the prospects are not good for either the TV ratings or the live gate.
The Breeders' Cup is in a situation that has left many a production stranded in New Haven: Much of the cast is summer stock, and the guys down the street have a show that has legs.
Prediction: The television ratings, which have never been boffo to begin with, are headed for a new low and Hollywood Park, which announced a crowd of 64,000 in 1984 and probably had at least 10,000 fewer, will need a real ballet at the turnstiles to hit the 50,000 mark.
The best thing that can be said for the Breeders' Cup is that it should be a day rife with promise for the serious bettors. There may be only one odds-on favorite--the four-horse entry owned by Gene Klein in the Juvenile Fillies Stakes. Despite the presence of the ace sprinter Groovy and the consistent turf runner Theatrical, the other six races offer potential value at the windows.
As usual, the Breeders' Cup will determine most of thoroughbred racing's divisional championships, including the Eclipse Award for horse of the year. In the first three years of the program, 15 of the 21 race winners were voted postseason championships.
But for the third time in four years--John Henry in 1984 and Spend a Buck in 1985 were the first two--the horse of the year may be one who didn't run in the Breeders' Cup.
The latest in this trend could be Java Gold, who after missing the Triple Crown series emerged as the best 3-year-old in the country in the second half of the year, winning the Travers over Alysheba and Bet Twice, and twice beating older horses in other New York races.
It is the Breeders' Cup's good fortune that Java Gold didn't win the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park last month. His owner, Paul Mellon, could then have put the colt on the shelf, assured of the horse-of-the-year title, and the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic--the richest race the sport has--would have had all the intrigue of an Inspector Clouseau caper.
Instead, Java Gold was upset in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and injured, so he won't run again until next year.
Four horses running on Breeders' Cup day--Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba; his rival in the Classic, Ferdinand; Theatrical and Groovy--have a chance for the title, but if they all falter, Java Gold might still win the vote.
Creme Fraiche, who surprised Java Gold at Belmont, is also absent from the Breeders' Cup, and this is endemic of what's wrong with this year's races. They are designed to be a celebration of the sport, bringing the best runners together for one spectacular afternoon and winning new fans on television.
Instead, this year's Breeders' Cup is distinguished by the stars that won't be at Hollywood Park. The list starts with Java Gold and Creme Fraiche and then it stretches from the finish line to the backstretch. Bet Twice, who prevented Alysheba from sweeping the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes and beat him again at Monmouth Park, isn't running. Neither is Super Diamond, who would have been a factor in the Classic. Forty Niner and Polish Ensign, New York-based horses who are also staying home, will probably still win divisional titles.
The Breeders' Cup directors, heavy with Kentucky horsemen and consisting of almost every major breeder in the country, can't be held responsible for the absences of Java Gold and Manila, last year's grass champion who was retired to stud after being injured.
But the defections of horses such as Forty Niner, Personal Ensign and Polish Navy were caused by poor planning--the late date has soured many New York trainers--and the absences of Creme Fraiche, Super Diamond and Saratoga Passage can be laid to a questionable rule that requires owners to pay huge sums to make them eligible, amounts disproportionate to the purse money they would run for.
This is by far the latest date for the Breeders' Cup. It was staged on Nov. 10 at Hollywood Park in 1984, then was held on Nov. 2 at Aqueduct in 1985 and on Nov. 1 a year ago at Santa Anita.
It has been suggested that New York horsemen are bitter because the Breeders' Cup has been held in California three of the first four years. Most of the New York 2-year-olds ran poorly last year at Santa Anita, but in reality Eastern horses have generally done well in California, accounting for wins in half of the 14 races run here.
"I don't think it's got anything to do with not being able to win," said LeRoy Jolley, one of the few New York trainers participating this year. "I think it's the date, which comes well after Belmont Park has closed and after most of the stables have stopped their big horses for the year."
The Nov. 21 date is hurting the Breeders' Cup in myriad ways:
--It has discouraged New York trainers from competing.
--It is the same day that NBC-TV's racing telecast will be juxtaposed with four attractive college football games--USC-UCLA, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Notre Dame-Penn State and Michigan-Ohio State. Also, ESPN will televise a basketball game between powerful Syracuse and North Carolina at 11:30 a.m.
--The USC-UCLA game will determine a Rose Bowl berth. It's the paramount story in Los Angeles and besides cutting into TV ratings, it will also hurt attendance at Hollywood Park.
--Off-track betting, approved in Southern California for the first time, starts Wednesday in Del Mar, San Bernardino and Ventura. The state, tracks running the races and horsemen benefit from these operations, but on Breeders' Cup day some fans will use these satellite facilities as an alternative to going to Hollywood Park.
There are other factors that may keep people away from Hollywood Park, which to hype the crowd is offering free sweaters. Would the World Series have a bat day, or would the National Football League have a T-shirt promotion at the Super Bowl?
Even $10 million in races might not bring a big crowd to Hollywood Park, which since the first Breeders' Cup has seen attendance drop almost 15% at its major summer meeting.
The Blood-Horse, a trade magazine, said recently that Hollywood Park's management is anticipating a crowd of more than 70,000. That would break the Breeders' Cup record of 69,000 set at Santa Anita last year.
D. G. Van Clief, executive director of the Breeders' Cup, was asked if his board is second-guessing itself over the choice of this year's date.
"We don't have to," Van Clief said. "Everybody else is doing it for us."
According to Van Clief, there was a commitment made two years ago by the Breeders' Cup to hold the 1986 and 1987 races in California. Stung by dismal TV audiences for the Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct, with the ratings dropping 17%, the promoters reasoned that bigger video numbers could be had by going West again, which enables the telecast to be shown in a more favorable 2-6 p.m. time slot in the heavily populated East.
Santa Anita was the logical choice for '86, since Hollywood Park had been the host track in '84.
That left Hollywood Park as the obvious site for this year, even though the track's traditional fall dates, assigned by the California Horse Racing Board three years in advance, wouldn't enable Hollywood to open until this Wednesday.
"The primary criterion for these two years was location rather than date," Van Clief said.
An NBC-TV spokesman said that the only conflict the network had on a Saturday in early November was the 14th, when there was a contractual obligation to carry a golf tournament from Hawaii.
Nov. 7 would have been the ideal date for this year's Breeders' Cup, but of course Hollywood couldn't have been the host then, because it was closed and the Oak Tree meeting was still on at Santa Anita.
Next year, the Breeders' Cup will be held in Louisville, Ky., at Churchill Downs, a track that was running on Nov. 7 this year, on a day when NBC was available to carry the telecast. Next year, on a rotating schedule with Oak Tree, Hollywood Park opens on Nov. 9. Had the races gone to Churchill this year, at least they could have been run on Nov. 12--nine days earlier than this year--at Hollywood in 1988. But, as Van Clief would recognize, this is just another second guess.
"We know what we're up against this year," Van Clief said. "Any growth in the TV ratings would be a major achievement. But it was said that the late date would also affect our ability to draw foreign horses. That hasn't happened. We've got a better foreign turnout than we've ever had."
The Breeders' Cup got lucky when Reference Point, the favorite in the Arc de Triomphe--France's most prestigious race--was injured during the running and Trempolino, a horse who by his pedigree didn't figure to stay the 1 1/2- mile distance, came home the surprise winner. Reference Point was going to be retired regardless of what happened in the Arc and now the Breeders' Cup has Trempolino for the Turf Stakes, which will also be run at 1 1/2 miles.
Foreign trainers have learned, however, that moving their horses from grass to dirt for the Breeders' Cup is folly, so most of the European entrants are jammed into the only two grass races on the program--the Mile and the Turf. In fact, there were so many foreign horses signed up for the Mile that some of the good ones, such as Noble Minstrel, may not get the chance to run, because there's a 14-horse limit to the fields.
The Breeders' Cup had a foreign contingent with more luster and depth last year, when Dancing Brave went off a heavy favorite in the Turf, Sonic Lady was favored in the Mile and Last Tycoon, a French horse, sprung a $73.80 upset in the Mile.
This year, the races have Trempolino, but the returning Sonic Lady has been too lightly raced to be seriously considered. And successful foreign horses such as Soviet Star have either stayed home or, in the case of Le Glorieux and Triptych, skipped the Breeders' Cup in favor of the Japan Cup, which may have a purse approaching $2 million this year.
Breeders' Cup supplementary fees, which range from $120,000 to $360,000 when a horse hasn't been nominated for $500 as a yearling, have kept only a handful of American horses out this year, and the owners of Bold Second, Zany Tactics and Zabaleta have paid $120,000 apiece to run, but this was a year when the Breeders' Cup needed every horse it could get.
Owners would be more likely to supplement if the rules met them halfway. The supplementary money isn't added to the purses, which theoretically doesn't give them the chance to win it back.
The quarter horse people, who ran a Breeders' Cup-style series at Los Alamitos this year, immediately improved on their thoroughbred counterparts and threw the supplementary fees into the pots.
Eddie Gregson, the trainer of Super Diamond, pointed out that his owners would have been risking $360,000 to possibly win a net of less than $800,000 if they supplemented into the Classic.
There's another rub to supplementing. Owners can lose their first payment--which ranges from $40,000 to $120,000 and is due 12 days before the races--if their horses are injured and unable to run. Also, supplementing a horse one year doesn't make him eligible in future years--the fee has to be paid every time the horse runs.
The suggestion of adding the supplementary money to the purse has twice been rejected by the Breeders' Cup board.
Van Clief: "The board feels that anything that would make it easier to supplement would jeopardize the foundation of the program, which is to get horsemen to nominate their young horses. Indirectly, the supplementary money finds its way into the purse structure, anyway, because it goes into a general fund, and when it comes time to pay out the purses, about $9 million comes from the nominating money and the other million comes from the general fund."
Arrogance? Perhaps. But this year, New York horsemen have shown that the Breeders' Cup doesn't have a corner on independence.
What is down the line for the Breeders' Cup?
NBC, in an economic crunch that has also hit the other networks, is not using as much on-air talent for this year's telecast. It has a contract through 1989, but continued low ratings would jeopardize a renewal, and if the Breeders' Cup were unable to land another major network, the program would gasp but probably not suffocate.
Which is what the entire sport of racing has been doing for some time now. It survives in spite of itself.
Year Site Att. Betting TV* 1984 Hollywood Park 64,254 $11,466,941 5.1 1985 Aqueduct 42,568 $8,171,520 4.0 1986 Santa Anita 69,155 $15,410,409 4.4
* The rating is the percentage of total homes that watched the telecast. In 1986, there were an estimated 85 million homes with TV sets.