At the start of the year, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association unveiled a plan to give the sport more exposure on national television. Ten existing stakes races for older horses were packaged into a series, "NTRA Champions on Fox," for the Fox Network. The competition was structured with point standings and bonus awards to assure a definitive showdown in the finale, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
When that $1 million race is run Sunday, "NTRA Champions on Fox" will end not with a bang, but a whimper. Not a single winner of a previous race in the series is in the field. The nation's leading older horse, Behrens, is skipping the race. Although the industry hopes to create new fans by hyping its stars, by creating the four-footed equivalents of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, the events of the past few months demonstrate how difficult the task is.
Fox and the NTRA hoped to showcase the colts already known to the public through their exposure in the Triple Crown series. Real Quiet and Victory Gallop, who dominated the 3-year-old classics last season, were both back in action this year. So were Silver Charm and Free House, veterans of the memorable 1997 Triple Crown campaign. A great cast of characters was assembled and then, one by one, they left the stage:
* Silver Charm, a tired horse after three years of tough campaigning, was retired in midsummer.
* Free House injured himself in the Pimlico Special in May and was retired.
* Victory Gallop damaged a suspensory ligament this month and was retired--just after a dramatic win over Behrens in the Whitney Stakes established him as the nation's leading older horse.
* Real Quiet fractured a split bone while training for the Pacific Classic, a possible career-ending injury.
All of these defections made the late-blooming, brilliantly fast 4-year-old, Mazel Trick, the star of the Pacific Classic field. He broke down on Tuesday morning.
Even in an era when America is producing thoroughbreds who are fragile and undurable, this is an extraordinary run of bad luck. It has left the Pacific Classic largely devoid of star appeal. Even hard-core fans are not going to be engrossed by today's confrontation between Malek and the 3-year-old General Challenge.
While the NTRA and Fox can't control injuries, they should fret about the absence of Behrens from the Pacific Classic. He has been the series' top performer, and if he had won at Del Mar, he would have earned a $330,000 bonus in addition to the winner's share of the $1 million purse. But he stayed in the East, because trainer James Bond doesn't want to rearrange the schedule he has mapped out to bring Behrens to the Breeders' Cup Classic. Winning that race and the horse of the year title, is a lot more important to Bond than the Fox series.
Most trainers would think the same way, and that is a problem because racing needs to create an event other the Triple Crown series that has structure and continuity and a winner. "NTRA Champions on Fox" presented many top races with top horses, but they were still disconnected events, not a true championship series like NASCAR's Winston Cup. The sport must encourage owners and trainers to aim their horses specifically for the Fox races. Here are two modest proposals:
* The continuity of the Fox series falls apart in March, when America's best older horses travel across the world for the $4 million Dubai Cup. Most need a rest after that tiring trip, and they're out of the Fox races. The NTRA ought to designate the Dubai Cup as part of the championship series for older horses, and Fox should televise it. If an American horse wins in Dubai, his owner and trainer will think: "We've got a leg up on the Fox series--let's go for it."
* The Fox series, as it is now structured, has point standings and bonus awards, but it doesn't crown a definitive champion at its end. It should. Owners and breeders value the credentials on a horse's resume when he goes to stud. In many cases, this is more important to them than purse money or bonus money. They should be able to say, in the advertisements for a stallion, that he was "Champion of 'NTRA Champions on Fox.' "
Despite the injuries and and the anticlimactic ending of the series, executives of the NTRA and Fox say they are happy with their first year's results.
"We know it's going to take a while to get a series like this into the consciousness of trainers," NTRA Commissioner Tim Smith said. "There are ways in which we could tweak the rules of the series, and we're going to look at them. But overall we're pleased, and Fox is pleased. We're encouraged by the number of people who have been watching. Behrens has been on five times. The Whitney was a super race. Our purpose was to get our best athletes more exposure on TV, and we've done that."