Jockey Club Gold Cup and the decline of ‘cup’ racing

Sep 29th 2010 08:39 am |

On Saturday. Belmont Park will host the Jockey Club Gold Cup, one of the few prestigious races remaining in this country run at 1 1/4 miles for older horses. The term ‘cup’ associated with a horse race goes back hundreds of years. According to the excellent The Language of Horses Racing, author Gerald Hammond provides this etymology of ‘cup’ as it relates to racing:

“In the second half of the seventeenth century silver bowls and cups largely replaced bells as prizes for prestigious races. The OED’s [Oxford English Dictionary] first example for its definition ‘an ornamental cup or other vessel offered as a prize for a race or athletic contest’ is with reference to horseracing, from 1640: ‘Does the race hold at Newmarket for the Cup?’…Today cup survives largely in the titles of – and as prizes for – long distance races on the flat, so that a cup horse is one capable of running in top company in races of a mile and three-quarters and more…”

It is interesting that not only have cup races virtually disappeared but the original meaning behind ‘cup’ in reference to racing has been lost in this country. Of course, the Breeders Cup changed the definition of the word for American race fans, but few examples remain of ‘cup’ racing in the classic sense of the word. Where 70 years ago, the idea of a ‘cup race’ would evoke a certain type of race, now we think of it as a brand (as in “The Breeder’s Cup”). The notion of a Breeders Cup Sprint is nonsensical to those who understand the old meaning of the word.

Where the definition from The Language of Horse Racing used 1 3/4 mile as the shortest distance for ‘cup’ races, today’s races at 1 1/4 miles are considered “long distance.” Its no coincidence that the Hawthorne, Hollywood, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, the three most prominent ‘cup’ races in the United States, are all run at 1 1/4 miles. The Jockey Club Gold Cup, run for the first time in 1919 at a 1 1/2 miles, spent most of its history at two miles. From 1976 to 1989, it cut back to 1 1/2 mles and finally shortened to its current distance in 1990.

The evolution of the Jockey Club Gold Cup says a great deal about the evolution of distance racing in the U.S. But, just as telling, are the long distance ‘cup races’ that disappeared during the last century. Here is a partial list that includes name of the race, distance, and last year run:

Arlington Gold Cup (Arlington Park), 1 1/4 miles, 1932
Brighton Cup (Brighton Beach, New York) 2 1/4 miles, 1908
Latonia Cup (Kentucky), 2 1/4 miles, 1938
Louisville Cup (Churchill), 2 miles, 1921
Pimlico Cup, 2 1/2 miles, 1962
Saratoga Cup, 1 3/4 miles, 1964

We tend to think of the movement away from distance racing as a recent phenomena. However, when you consider when many of these ‘cup races’ folded, we see that it isn’t recent at all. In fact, American racing has slowly been moving away from distance racing since the late 19th century. And, like we have seen many times on this site, lamenting changes in racing are as old as the sport itself. Here is a quote from the New York Times on June 25th 1899 reporting on racing at Coney Island:

“The coming week furnishes nothing extraordinary in the way of fixtures until the racing on Saturday, when the Advance Stakes for three-year-olds and upward at a mile and three-quarters is to be run. It will be a welcome change to lovers of the sport to have a chance to see a race that will tend to make a test of the staying powers of the horses. There is altogether too much of the sprint racing for the benefit of the betting ring and too little for the improvement of the breed of horses.”

This same exact paragraph could be re-written about this Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup and no one would know the difference.


“A Column for Racegoers,” The New York Times, June 25th 1899

Gerald Hammond, “The Language of Horse Racing” (Taylor & Francis, 2000)

I will be in the house for Super Saturday at Belmont Park. One star that many hoped would it appear will not, as news came Tuesday that Rachel Alexandra is through with racing — she has been retired. I had the privilege to watch all of her races during her historic 3-year-old season and was at Monmouth Park the day she won the Haskell. She is one I will remember for a long time.

It’s also sad to note the passing of Real Quiet, who died this week. Linda Dougherty wrote a wonderful tribute to him on her Pennsylvania Thoroughbred blog.


Filed in cup racing,distance racing,Jockey Club Gold Cup,thoroughbred racing history

2 Responses to “Jockey Club Gold Cup and the decline of ‘cup’ racing”

  1. ljk says:

    I think it’s odd that there is no race at the classic distance for older horses at Saratoga. 3yo, 3yo fillies, Older fillies and mares, but not older horses. I say bring back the Saratoga Cup!

  2. E-man says:

    As the kids would say, “Word!”

    Even the so-called “classic” distance of 1 1/4 miles is under threat. I believe it was D. Wayne Lucas who suggested once that he’d like to see the Derby reduced to a flat mile. But then what would you expect from an ex-quarter-horse trainer?