Horse racing: Cup introduced sport to the uninitiated

By DALE AUSTIN, For The Capital

When NBC signed off its 2005 Breeders' Cup telecast from Belmont Park late yesterday, it marked the end of a remarkable era in horse racing. After 22 years, the network will handle other sports during that Saturday each fall. But while it was aboard, NBC joined with the racing industry in creating interest among people who didn't know much about it.

In one way of looking at the Breeders' Cup and its NBC tie-in, it has succeeded greatly in introducing racing to the uninitiated.

Facing problems of declining business and a need to attract new and younger customers, industry leadership, headed by John Gaines, decided to have the nation's breeders finance multimillion-dollar races and show them on national television in 1984. NBC agreed to produce an amazing show which, sometimes was cumbersome. But it worked.

There have been slight amendments to the format. The television show was on for five hours yesterday, with eight races for virtually every major gender/age/condition /surface in use these days. Even the title has been worked on. Nowadays it's become the Breeders' Cup World Throughbred Championships.

The one yesterday carried events worth a total of $14 million, headed by the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic. For years, it was the world's riches race. Nowadays, other locales have caught on. Races in Dubai are worth more. Even the Japan Cup is a higher value, and the Kentucky Derby is more exciting, but the Breeders' Cup grew into a great event as it moved from one major track around the country to another. Now, it's a tradition.

The inner workings of the television contract with NBC have never been fully disclosed but it was a dandy, no matter what the cost or the concessions.

They got the superstars of the racing media to work for them, and when the championships come up next year, many of those experts are likely to be in place for the first of an ESPN run slated to last through 2013.

The Breeders' Cup is aimed at the everyday sports fans, those who don't know much about the sport but are willing to listen. To the newcomers, they even have to be taught how to read the Racing Form.

The only failure in the telecast was at times overcoming the mysterious language and confusing rules and customs.

This all started in the 1920's when Damon Runyon characters talked in the argot of the underworld. Newcomers were discouraged from getting involved and therein lay the problem.

Some of the television personalities have been wonderful. They probably will stay on with the ESPN telecasts. Who can forget the work of Tom Durkin, the race-caller who used a pure art form to tell us who a race was going and how it turned out?

My favorite with the television crew has been the work of ex-newspaperman Randy Moss, who can make the case for hopefuls, and reports well on a big upset when he sees one.

That's what makes the Breeders' Cup worth watching, or attending.

Frankly, the upsets in racing can become more emotional those in the World Series, Super Bowl or Final Four tournaments. Besides, you can go to almost any track and legally bet on the races.

There are a couple of elements to racing recently that need mention because they, too, should have an appeal to newcomers:

A movie called "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" is all about racing from the vantage point of a Kentucky breeding farm.

It's got some predictable plot lines and a few hackneyed scenes, but overall, any moviegoer can walk out intrigued about racing.

It was like that with "Seabiscuit" which was tied to the nostalgic times of the Great Depression. "Dreamer," lets you fall in love with little Dakota Fanning and cheer for her racehorse.

There's a book of poetry out, written by Lyn Lifshin, about the trials of the great filly, Ruffian, who, 30 years ago, suffered an injury and had to be put down as the result of a match race with Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. It was the only time she didn't win and the event actually served up a warning to owners of other good horses: Don't run in match races.

The plight that day of Ruffian, owned and trained by Marylanders, caused a great deal of emotional tugs among those at Belmont Park and millions who watched on television. It affected veterans of racing and the uninitiated alike.

The poetry is in a 112-page book entitled "The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian." You can follow the adventures of the filly, especially the scene at her death in intriguing writing that doesn't even rhyme.

Lifshin has strong credentials. Her publisher says she has written more than 100 books of poetry.