Until this year, 3-year-old racehorses became national stars by competing in the Triple Crown series, and then virtually disappeared from public view when they turned 4. The American Championship Racing Series was created to change this, giving continuity and ongoing drama to races for older horses.
In an industry that has often been resistant to change, the ACRS has been an immediate success. But some critics now argue that its success might work to the detriment of the horses who compete in it, and that it will not turn out to be a definitive championship series.
However, nobody can dispute the fact that the ACRS has generated unprecedented interest in the older horses who have battled in the series. A year ago, when Criminal Type was earning the horse-of-the-year title, not one of his races was televised. But this year, television coverage of the ACRS has given public exposure to horses such as Farma Way, Festin and Marquetry who would otherwise have received little or no attention. Track-to-track simulcasting (which has generated some $40 million in wagering) has made them known to all racing fans.
And the $750,000 bonus for the best performer in the ACRS has produced exciting confrontations that never would have occurred otherwise. Instead of staying in their home region or looking for soft spots, the horses in the series have traveled around the country to battle each other. The California-based Festin, for example, has made his last five starts in Arkansas, Maryland, New York, New Hampshire and California before coming back to Belmont Park for the series finale, the Woodward Stakes, on Sunday.
Yet the Woodward might well expose the potential flaw of the ACRS. The solid favorite in the $500,000 event will be In Excess, a horse who has deliberately ducked the rigors of the series all spring and summer. He's a relatively fresh horse, while his rivals are showing signs that they are enervated by the season-long grind. If In Excess wins, he is going to be hailed as the best horse in the country, one who is on his way to earning an Eclipse Award as the horse of the year. He will be reaping benefits from avoiding the ACRS.
In fact, that has already happened to some extent. While Farma Way, Festin and others have taken turns beating each other, In Excess has stayed in New York and won the Metropolitan, Suburban and Whitney handicaps with ease against moderate competition. These were the same types of soft spots that had the New York press declaring Easy Goer the horse of the decade in 1989.
Indeed, after In Excess beat a nondescript foe named Chief Honcho in the Whitney, several writers proclaimed that In Excess had proved he is the best horse in the country. One New York writer commented that he is the best on the planet.
This hype for the horse who has avoided all the tough races rankles Barry Weisbord, the man who conceived and created the ACRS. "Horse racing lacked a season the way baseball and football have defined seasons," Weisbord said. "That was the purpose of the ACRS. Excellence during a season determines who gets into the playoffs and wins your championship. The Philadelphia Phillies had the best August in baseball, but they're still not a factor in the pennant race."
He didn't need to spell out whom he considered the Phillies of horse racing.
Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Farma Way, also bristles at the praise that In Excess has earned by following what he calls a "creampuff schedule." Lukas knows how to win a championship that way -- he earned a horse-of-the-year title for Lady's Secret by picking one soft spot after another -- but he chose the ACRS for Farma Way. His colt has crisscrossed the country and made seven starts in the series, winning two of them, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Pimlico Special, and losing two photo finishes in handicaps in which he was conceding weight to the winner.
This is not a dazzling record, but it is the sort of record a horse can expect when he takes on the toughest competition in the country every time he runs. But now he is beginning to look like a tired horse. Steve Crist wrote in the Racing Times that if a well-rested In Excess wins the Woodward, "the entire preceding ACRS results will have had little significance in determining what they were designed to -- the best older horse in the country."
Weisbord sees the irony in the criticism of the ACRS for being too tough on horses: "They used to say that trainers didn't run their horses enough; now they say they're running them too much."
It is surely healthier for the game-and much more exciting for its fans-if trainers decide to put their horses through a rigorous test like the ACRS instead of coddling them and revving them up for one big effort in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Fans and Eclipse Award voters ought to save their praise for horses who go through the tough ACRS grind rather than for horses like In Excess, who employ the coddle-and-rev up strategy. But just to save the voters a tough choice, let's root for Farma Way or Festin to win the Woodward, beating In Excess and denying him any benefits from taking the path of least resistance.