Racing on television will have its busiest year in 1991, thanks to the American Championship Racing Series announced recently by Matchmaker Racing Services and ABC-TV.
For years, racing enthusiasts complained that the sport lacked the exposure of other major sports. But the 10-race ACRS, which begins Feb. 9 with the $500,000 Donn Handicap from Gulfstream Park, culminates an era in which racing coverage has increased steadily.
What makes the ACRS an exciting concept is that virtually every good older runner will compete -- surely more than once or twice -- and 3-year-olds could join them near season's end. That means races involving horses such as Unbridled and Summer Squall, and others who develop into top-class competitors, won't necessarily be overshadowed by races that traditionally have enjoyed national TV coverage.
Except for two new races -- the New England Handicap and Pacific Classic -- the ACRS races are long-standing, prestigious events. In addition to $6.75 million in purses, a $1.5 million bonus will be paid to the series' top four horses, based on a point system.
"The thinking was that the majority of sports fans, through the medium of TV, had been lulled into thinking the Triple Crown, and maybe the Breeders' Cup, were all that mattered in racing," said Ed Murano, Matchmaker director of communications. "If the race was televised, you existed. It it wasn't, you didn't."
Most of the ACRS races will be part of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," although the last two races of the series will have their own programs. One race, the Oaklawn Handicap, will be telecast on ESPN's "Racing Across America" series because of prior obligations. "Racing Across America," meanwhile, begins its sixth season Feb. 24 with the first of 27 races.
The first 1991 clash between Unbridled and Summer Squall may come in the $750,000 Pimlico Special on May 11 at Pimlico Race Course. Last year, the Special became -- and remains -- the only $1 million race ever conducted in Maryland.
Last year, Pimlico/Laurel president Joe De Francis said, the purse was raised from $750,000 partially in an attempt to lure Sunday Silence and Easy Goer (it attracted neither). Because the participating tracks contribute to the ACRS bonus, the decision was made to bring it back down.
Since its revival in 1988, the Special has been televised by ABC. Other ACRS events were not deemed worthy of yearly coverage -- but they are now. And racing fans no longer are complaining.
With Shawn Payton's departure Friday, Clinton Potts and Charlie Fenwick III are likely to become the top apprentices on the Maryland circuit.
Both are attracting good mounts, both are drawing praise for their abilities, and both have fine teachers. Fenwick is the son of Charlie Fenwick Jr., a steeplechase rider who won the Maryland Hunt Cup five times and the English Grand National in 1980, and Potts has been under the tutelage of Vince Bracciale Jr.
Mark Feb. 16 on your calendar. Laurel's new SprintFest -- the General George Stakes and Barbara Fritchie Handicap, both carrying $200,000 purses at seven furlongs -- are shaping up as good races. In other words, full and well-matched fields of classy sprinters.
Although a monopoly on track ownership -- as exists at Laurel and Pimlico -- can be a dangerous thing, it has its advantages for fans.
Take Southern California, for example. In step with the long history of bickering between Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Park, inter-track wagering between the two has been illegal since its inception in 1987. It's an inconvenience that would be comparable to Laurel and Pimlico disallowing inter-track wagering on each other's races.
This year, however, Santa Anita says it will press for legislation that would enable the tracks to accept each other's races.