The money-making opportunities in racing never were better illustrated than in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park.
There weren't any superstars in the field Saturday, but Polish Navy became a millionaire by winning the rich prize. So did the fourth-place finisher, Cryptoclearance, who was suffering his seventh straight defeat and, in fact, has never beaten top-class competition. Second-place Gulch, who consistently has proved to be a cut below the best colts of his generation, boosted his earnings beyond $1.6 million.
And these 3-year-olds are paupers, relatively speaking. Two of the horses in the Woodward lineup, Bet Twice and Creme Fraiche, have each earned more than $2.6 million.
The availability of so much cash is, in most ways, very good for the sport. Just a few years ago, one of the game's major problems was the early retirement of its stars. Once a horse had established his reputation, he could make more money (with far less risk) by standing at stud than by running in races. But now, with purses up and stud fees down, a horse like Cryptoclearance can earn vastly more on the track than he could in the breeding shed.
There is just one trouble with the proliferation of money-making opportunities in racing, and it, too, was demonstrated in the Woodward. With so many rich races spread throughout the racing calendar, the quality of competition in many major races is being diluted.
The country's most famous stakes are losing status as definitive championship events. In England, the winner of the Epsom Derby is certified as a champion, and so all the top 3-year-olds point for it and make it an exciting confrontation each year. In the United States, there is no such focus of the racing season any more -- not even the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup.
The Breeders' Cup was created to be the year-end championship event of the sport, and its huge purses ($3 million for the main event) ensured that the best horses would make it their objective. In order to compete, tracks with their own big stakes had to raise their purses.
In the first three years of the Breeders' Cup, the quality of the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga dropped; the owners of a top 3-year-old didn't want to fire their best shot for a $250,000 purse in August and have a tired horse when $3 million was on the line.
So the New York Racing Association raised its purse for the Travers to $1 million this year and attracted an all-star field. Purses for the Santa Anita Handicap, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Super Derby were all boosted to $1 million. Most significantly, the Triple Crown offered a $1 million bonus to the colt who performed best in the three races, and $5 million to a horse who swept them all.
Even the most durable of thoroughbreds cannot stay in peak form all year. A 3-year-old can't realistically shoot for the Triple Crown, the big fall races in New York and the Breeders' Cup, too. So the competition in top stakes gets fragmented -- as we are seeing this year.
Alysheba and Bet Twice waged a spirited battle through the Triple Crown series and in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. Racing fans had hoped to see them continue their rivalry in the major stakes this fall. But Bet Twice is worn out -- as he proved with his dismal performance in the Woodward -- and won't be a factor for the rest of the year. Alysheba's condition is uncertain after a 20-length loss in the muddy Travers. There won't be any dramatic late-season championship confrontations between the two rivals.
Instead, Java Gold and Polish Navy have risen to the top of the 3-year-old ranks on the strength of victories in the Travers and Woodward, respectively, but they didn't do it because of their sheer brilliance as racehorses. They have become stars because they missed the Triple Crown series and were fresh horses running against tired rivals. (Both Java Gold and Polish Navy scored their victories by narrow margins over colts whom Alysheba and Bet Twice had trounced in the Triple Crown series).
It is very possible that the hero of the Breeders' Cup will be another late bloomer, one who has passed all the major races to date. My long-range pick is a Canadian colt, Afleet, who won the Jerome Handicap at Belmont on Monday. But I would bet with confidence on the following proposition:
At the end of the year, many racing fans and Eclipse Award voters will have virtually forgotten Alysheba and Bet Twice, who were the authentic racing stars of 1987. Moreover, there won't have been a single race in which most of the country's top horses faced each other while in top condition.
The lessons of this season will not be lost on the trainers of top racehorses in future seasons. They can take a path of little resistance and still wind up with big money and year-end championship honors. Mack Miller, the trainer of the country's leading 2-year-old, Crusader Sword, has already announced he will keep his colt in South Carolina during the winter and skip the Kentucky Derby.
I am enough of a traditionalist to think that this is a pity. The Derby has been the most definitive test of greatness for American racehorses; to win a 1 1/4-mile race so early in the year, a 3-year-old not only has to be good, he has to be tough. But now a trainer like Miller can ignore this difficult objective and aim for races later in the year, where the opposition may be softer, but the rewards may be as great.
This isn't good for the sport, which needs more -- not fewer -- exciting races to stimulate the interest of television networks and potential new fans. If the present racing schedule had existed in 1978, Affirmed and Alydar could both have become multimillionaires without the inconvenience of having to run against each other.