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Ladies first for 25th Breeders' Cup

10/21/2008

I have a confession to make about this year's Breeders' Cup world championships. I happen to like Filly Friday, the widely criticized format that pushed all of the Breeders' Cup filly and mare races to the first day of the two-day championships to be held during the Oak Tree Racing Association meeting this Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.

There's no question the Breeders' Cup took the Filly Friday idea from Churchill Downs, which holds the Kentucky Oaks on a Friday and the Derby on Saturday. Combined, those are the two most successful consecutive racing days the sport has each year (the 2006 combined Oaks/Derby day handle was a record $208 million). Last year, the first time the Breeders' Cup had its two-day format, handle was $147 million. Despite the severe problems with the world economy, Breeders' Cup handle should increase this year, though no one expects it will come close to the Oaks/Derby day totals. I would think anything approaching $175 million for the two days would be considered a success.

Last year's Friday program at Monmouth Park was hampered severely by terrible, wet weather. It also was flawed as a "championship day" by having only three new Breeders' Cup races: the Filly & Mare Sprint, Juvenile Turf and Dirt Mile. The Filly & Mare Sprint was the only one of the three races that had a corresponding Eclipse Award division to determine a champion, and that division was newly added.

To make matters worse, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee opted not to recognize any of the new races with graded status, a slap in the face to current Breeders' Cup board members and executives. When the Breeders' Cup was founded 25 years ago, the Graded Stakes Committee waived its rules requiring a race to have several runnings before consideration, and immediately awarded Grade 1 status to the original seven Cup races. It did so again in 1999 when the Filly & Mare Turf was added to the program.

So the Friday program had no great significance or any compelling reason for anyone to attend or watch on television. It was a fine racing day, with lots of money given away and some good horses performing, but there was no real story line with which casual fans could identify.

Enter Filly Friday.

This year, Cup officials reshuffled the deck and moved all the filly and mare races to Friday. The day starts with a pair of allowance races, then moves to the Filly & Mare Sprint, followed by the Juvenile Fillies Turf, the Juvenile Fillies, the Filly & Mare Turf, and then, the big race of the day, the Ladies' Classic (the new name for the Distaff). Four Eclipse Award champions could be determined Friday, and Zenyatta, the short-priced and unbeaten favorite for the Ladies' Classic, could put her stamp on a Horse of the Year bid. ESPN2 will devote three hours of Friday afternoon/early-evening coverage to the Filly Friday program from 3:30 to 6:30 (ET). Three non-Breeders' Cup races will complete the Friday program at Santa Anita.

I got the feeling that Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta with his wife, Ann, isn't wild about having his amazing mare showcased on a Friday afternoon. When asked about the schedule change during a media teleconference, Moss was diplomatic, saying he'd be happy to show up whenever the race is run. "I really don't have a comment on [moving the race to Friday]," Moss said. "It's not my place to ruminate about that."

If Zenyatta does her thing and runs her career record to a perfect 9-for-9 by winning the Ladies' Classic, she'll be the star of the afternoon -- at Santa Anita, on the ESPN2 telecast, and in the horse-racing news wrap-ups on ESPN's "SportsCenter" that night and in the newspapers Saturday morning.

Keep the Ladies' Classic on the Saturday program, and Zenyatta would get lost in all the hoopla surrounding Curlin's attempted defense of his Breeders' Cup Classic title. A win on Saturday would get her a paragraph in the daily newspaper coverage and second-fiddle status to the winner of the Classic. That's the way it has been for every one of the previous 24 Breeders' Cups.

Zenyatta is far from being the only good story line on the Friday program, either. Let's not forget defending champion Ginger Punch in that same race, or the talent-rich field in the Filly & Mare Turf, headed by Wait a While and Goldikova. Then there is the fascinating matchup in the Juvenile Fillies between the West's Stardom Bound and the East's Doremifasollatido.

To those who say there is some form of sexual discrimination going on with Filly Friday, all I can is, "So what else is new?" The Breeders' Cup Classic has always been the centerpiece of the world championships, and fillies have always had an uphill battle to prove their worth in Horse of the Year consideration. In Blood-Horse magazine's list of the top 100 Thoroughbreds of the 20th century, the first filly on the list is Ruffian -- at No. 35. All horses are not created equal.

That doesn't suggest the fillies aren't extraordinary in their own right, and it doesn't mean they can't compete on the same program as colts and geldings. Filly Friday, however, gives them a day in the spotlight they wouldn't otherwise have. I'm looking forward to it.
 
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine from 1992 to 2007, and in the past 25 years has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and in more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at raypaulick@gmail.com.