By John Piassek
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
The American Championship Racing Series: A Look Back
This year’s Pacific Classic was trumpeted as the biggest race of 2016, and it lived up to the hype. 2014 Kentucky Derby winner, California Chrome dominated the race, going gate-to-wire to defeat champion mare Beholder and 2015 Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund, among others. It was a fantastic race and a great thrill for all racing fans.
With all the hoopla that comes with the Pacific Classic annually, it’s easy to forget that it’s a relative newcomer to the racing scene. It was inaugurated in 1991 (the Santa Anita Handicap and the Santa Anita Gold Cup, by contrast, were first run in the 1938). It’s even easier to forget that it was created as part of a series — one designed to make races like Chrome v. Beholder v. Dortmund the rule, rather than the exception. That was the American Championship Racing Series (ACRS), and looking back on it 25 years later provides both a “what-if” scenario for racing, and a possible blueprint for organizing star matchups.
The ACRS was created in 1991 by Barry Weisbord, who is now the president of the Thoroughbred Daily News. Following the success of the Breeders’ Cup, first run in 1984, Weisbord designed a series of races that would spread great racing throughout the year, rather than just on Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup day. The series consisted of ten races, all for older horses, spanning from February to September. It featured eight already-existent races, including the Donn Handicap, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Oaklawn Handicap, the Pimlico Special, the Nassau County Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Iselin Handicap, and the Woodward Stakes. To boost the series, two new races were created: The New England Classic at now-defunct Rockingham Park, and the Pacific Classic.
The amount of money offered was lucrative. A $750,000 bonus would be given to the horse who ran best in the series, as determined by a point system. In total, $1.5-million in bonuses would be given out. All nine races would be featured on national television, on ABC.
On paper, it seemed like a can’t-miss idea. You’d have similar horses running in every race, so mainstream sports fans would be able to follow horses throughout the series. The races were spaced out enough so that horses competing in the series would have enough time to recover, but close enough that the mainstream sports fan’s attention would be kept. It would give racing a spotlight beyond the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. It would also provide an incentive for horses to continue racing beyond their three-year-old year.
As it turned out, the series worked very well in its first year. The ten races had an average field size of 8.3 horses, not bad for older male grade-1 runners. Farma Way won the big bonus, for winning two ACRS races (the Santa Anita Handicap and the Pimlico Special), and finishing second in three more from seven tries. Marquetry and Festin won two races apiece in the series, while Jolie’s Halo hit the board in three out of his five tries. All these races played out before big on-track crowds and a large national television audience. The series was enough of a success that the idea of expanding it to other divisions was toyed with.
Unfortunately, apparent infighting among the tracks in the series marked the end of the ACRS. By 1993, the series was gone.
Since then, there have been a few attempts at doing something similar. The NTRA created the “NTRA Champions on FOX” series in 1999. As the name hints, it was a series of races for older males on FOX, which also featured bonuses to horses who did well in the series. If a horse could sweep all five races on FOX, they would earn $5-million. That series fizzled out after a year.
The Thoroughbred Champions Tour was created in 2002, and designed to fulfill Weisbord’s vision of an ACRS-like series spread across several divisions. Despite backing from the Breeders’ Cup, it never got off the ground. Speaking of the Breeders’ Cup, they instituted the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge a few years later. It’s still around, but it includes so many — and such a range of — races that many people couldn’t tell you which races are part of the series and which ones aren’t.
The fleeting success of the ACRS was promising, and shows that such a series can work under the right circumstances. In order to stay relevant on the national sports scene, racing needs its best horses showcased on an organized stage. As great as the Pacific Classic was, it did not make a dent in the national sports consciousness. The same is true of the Alabama; Songbird is a magnificent filly, but she isn’t known by almost anyone who isn’t a horse racing fan.
California Chrome illustrates the point well. He was a sports celebrity during the 2014 Triple Crown run, and was still well-known when he finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Since then, he’s drifted further and further away from the mainstream, even as his accomplishments pile up. He was recognized because he was running in a series of races. Now, there’s no coherent schedule of races for him to run in.
When a golf fan turns on a major, he knows that all the big golfers are going to be in it. When a casual sports fan turns on the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, there’s no guarantee that Frosted will be in it, even though he’s perfectly healthy. When a sports fan watched Melatonin win the Santa Anita Gold Cup on NBC Sports, he may have been thrilled by it. After all, it was a great race, and Melatonin is a fun horse. But when no one is sure if he’ll race again before October or so, it’s hard to build momentum for a horse off of that.
Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the general attitudes surrounding race schedules of horses will prevent something like the ACRS from ever gaining serious traction. However, if racing wants people to pay attention to its stars beyond four days a year, a well-organized, well-marketed series like the ACRS would do a lot of good. That way, we’d have races like the Pacific Classic all year long, and perhaps racing would then sneak back into the sports consciousness regularly. That would be the best thing the sport could get.
John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.