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