Breeders' Cup drops steeplechase

March 04, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

America's richest steeplechase, which had been a Maryland event for half of its 8-year history, has been discontinued, prompting one prominent trainer to call it "a big slap in the face."

"What this has done," said Jonathan Sheppard, the sport's premier trainer, "is to polarize us in steeplechasing and say 'You don't belong in real racing.' "

The board of directors of Breeders' Cup Limited, which had sponsored the race since 1986, met at Gulfstream Park yesterday and voted to discontinue the $250,000 race.

The steeplechase had been considered a part of the Breeders' Cup program, but was not run on the same card as the $10 million seven-race series that annually moves around the country from track to track. The steeplechase, which had its initial running at the Fair Hill Race Course in Cecil County and was televised on a national network, was usually run a few weeks before the main Breeders' Cup card. Recently, the race was a fixture at Belmont Park on the track's Breeders' Cup Preview or "Super Saturday" card, run three weeks before the Breeders' Cup.

"It was instrumental in getting the Super Saturday card televised on national TV," said Lenny Hale, a former senior vice president of racing at the New York Racing Association tracks and currently vice president of racing at Laurel/Pimlico. He had hoped to attract the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase to the Maryland Jockey Club's proposed track in Loudoun County, Va.

William C. Lickle, a prominent steeplechase owner who serves onthe Breeders' Cup board, said the race "is an expense. The majority of the board viewed dropping it as a way to save money."

James E. "Ted" Bassett III, Breeders' Cup president, confirmed yesterday that the steeplechase had been discontinued.

"Breeders' Cup Steeplechase has served as a catalyst for the sport with purses of $2 million distributed in eight years," Bassett said. "We will continue a dialogue with the National Steeplechase Association in other areas where we can be cooperative and supportive."

When the race was conceived eight years ago, it prompted a national renaissance in the sport.

"Now, dropping it is going to have a very negative effect," Sheppard said. "I would say the value of the top 10 or 12 steeplechase horses has just been cut in half. I have 20 broodmares and just sent Breeders' Cup a check for $4,500 to nominate the foals. I feel now I should have saved the money. We are going to have to try to fight back in some way."

Charles T. Colgan, executive vice president of the NSA, which is located in Fair Hill, said, "We got wind a week or so ago that something like this might happen. The $250,000 purse was by far the richest jumping purse in this country and one of the largest in the world. There is also the prestige of being in the Breeders' Cup program."

There are five other steeplechases in the country with $100,000 purses. Sheppard suggested that some of these races could carry bonuses for Breeders' Cup nominees. Colgan said the NSA will have to examine its options.

The Breeders' Cup guaranteed the bulk of the Breeders' Cup purse and secured the 30 minutes on NBC. "But it was up to the host track to pay TV production costs, which was about $150,000," Colgan said.

When the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase was run at Fair Hill, the state of Maryland put up the money to cover the television costs, but cut it from its budget during economic hard times.

NOTES: Undefeated colt Can't Be Denied fell in a sinkhole in his barn at Laurel Race Course yesterday and probably will not run tonight in the $50,000 Cherry Hill Mile at Garden State Park. . . . Despite Wednesday's snowstorm, Laurel superintendent John Passero had the track surface in raceable condition yesterday, although there were 17 scratches.

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