Cancellation of Breeders' Cup prep continues disappointing trend

July 22nd, 2015

With the Breeders' Cup on a one-year hiatus from Southern California, the stakes offerings at Santa Anita's fall meeting, which runs from September 26 through November 1, reportedly have been pared back.

Daily Racing Form noted Tuesday that one stakes that will not be offered this fall is the John Henry Turf Championship (G2), an ostensible prep for the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1). Track officials cited a lack of funds for the cancellation, but said the race would be brought back next year when Santa Anita will again host the Breeders' Cup.

Under current American Graded Stakes Committee guidelines, a race loses its grade when it is not run for two consecutive years. Numerous other tracks have fiddled with their stakes schedules over the years in response to declining purse money, putting certain stakes on hiatus and then bringing them back a year later in order to preserve their graded status.

Suffice it to say the news of this omission could have come in handy a few days ago when I speculated in this space about the future plans of Eddie Read (G1) winner Gabriel Charles. Thinking a 1 1/4-mile race like the John Henry Turf Championship would be quite suitable from a distance perspective, it now looks like Gabriel Charles will either have to spend some time out of state if he wants to run at nine or 10 furlongs, or cut back to a mile if his connections choose to stay closer to home.

On a related note, the temporary cancellation of the John Henry Turf Championship is yet another dreary reminder of the massive decline of major grass racing for older horses on the Southern California circuit over the past several decades.

When I first started following racing in the mid- to late-1980s the older male grass division was one of the undoubted highlights of racing in Southern California, featuring eight Grade 1 events and seven Grade 2 events, give or take a few. Most were run at nine furlongs and farther.

A myriad of factors have caused most of those races to decline in status or disappear altogether. In no particular order they include the general decline in the sport's popularity in the region; the demise of Hollywood Park; the emphasis on milers and nine-furlong types over 10- and 12-furlong specialists and the accompanying change in training methods; a vast improvement in European stakes money; and the clamping down on "grade inflation."

For those of us who've been following the sport for awhile, the John Henry Turf Championship is the most recent name for the old Oak Tree Invitational, formerly a Grade 1 event with a rich history. Grass champions Cougar II (twice), John Henry (thrice), Estrapade, and Kotashaan were among the victorious in its 1 1/2-mile days, as were standouts Crystal Water, Exceller, Allez Milord, Sandpit, and Hawkster, who won the race in an astounding time of 2:22 4/5.

The race was shortened to 1 1/4 miles in 1995, and the winning Northern Spur went on to capture the Breeders' Cup Turf and champion turf male honors. There have been some other nice winners since, such as The Tin Man, Presious Passion, and Acclamation, but its days as an important Breeders' Cup prep are generally behind it.

Perhaps it is for that reason why it was easier to omit the John Henry Turf Championship from the stakes calendar this season rather than another race. It's not gone for good, but like many of the circuit's stakes in that division it triggers more in the way of fond memories rather than excitement for its future.