Breeders' Cup 2005

Breeders' Cup 2005

Written by Dave Gamble on 10/28/2005 for Xbox  

For as long as I can remember, my father (and his father before him) have been big horse racing fans.  In fact, for the last 20 years or so, my dad has bred and raced Standard bred harness racers.  Harness racing, for those that aren't familiar with the term, are the ones that pull cart (called a sulky) behind the horse rather than have a jockey on the horse's back.  The type of racing that involves a relatively small, light weight person clinging to the back of the horse and holding on for dear life is known as Thoroughbred racing.  At this point, you are more than likely thinking, "Gee, that's fascinating, but why are you telling me this?

Well, I'll tell you.  In the extremely crowded market of console-based sports games, there are very few that break from the mainstream stick, ball, and/or puck pursuits and delve into some of the niche sports such as horse racing.  Bethesda Softworks is one of those that is willing to push the boundaries and explore new opportunities.  An example of this is the recently released Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships for the Xbox.  While it is not harness racing, it is close enough to have piqued my interest, so I decided to take a look at it.

As is the case in many sports, the horse racing enthusiast can choose to concentrate on certain aspects of the sport, or go the whole hog and participate in all aspects.  In horse racing this means one can simply buy a horse and race it, or go the full route of breeding, training, and racing a horse.  Breeders Cup supports both choices.  As in many console games, you can choose a quick play mode, or you can dig down into the esoteric details that truly give a sport its long-term challenge and interest.

With horse racing, it all comes down the breeding.  Volumes and volumes of historical data pertaining to the lineage and race performance of horses are perused in an attempt to find the perfect sire/dam combination that will result in a race-winning foal.  As with any pursuit of this nature, however, there are no guarantees.  A mating that looks great on paper may or may not result in a horse that will perform as desired.  This is, of course, the reason they actually put the horses on the track and race them, and is what provides the addictive nature of horse racing to its participants.  Hey, if it was easy everyone would be doing it!

Breeders Cup starts you off with an empty six horse stable and a little bit of cash.  It is up to you to decide how to populate the stable and determine the strategy for growing your racing dynasty.  There are three possible approaches: acquisition of already racing horses through claiming races (races in which every horse entered can be bought, or "claimed," for a stated price), breeding, or a combination of the two.  Claiming a horse has the benefit of being able to base a purchase decision on known performance, while breeding offers the opportunity to try to tailor the resulting race horse to your favored track type, race type, and horse disposition.

Track types can be dirt or turf.  Race types can be sprints, medium length, or long.  Horse disposition is a combination of factors such as speed, strength, running style, and temperament that will determine the best way to race the horse.  For example, a horse with a lot of strength will fare better in long races than a horse that can sprint well but hasn't the strength for a long race.  A horse with good temperament will perform better racing in a tight pack of horses, while a horse with poor temperament will likely perform better as a front runner where it needn't be in close contact with the rest of the racers.  Other important factors are the fitness, fatigue, and injuries.  Fitness, achieved through specific training regimens, will allow for higher stamina and less chance of injury.  Fatigue, resulting from too much racing, will result in a poorly performing race. 

As the stable owner, it is your responsibility to manage the training and race schedule of your horses to ensure that they are adequately prepared for the strenuous life a race horse leads.  As in most sporting endeavors, there is a delicate balance between racing aggressively and racing irresponsibly.  Push your horses too hard, and you will end up with a stable full of injured horses.  Injured horses continue to consume dollars through boarding and training, but cannot bring dollars back via race winnings.  As a stable owner, you have to watch the balance sheet every bit as closely as you watch the race sheets.

If all of that seems too much effort and you'd prefer to just "arrive and drive," you will be more interested in the Quick Race mode.  This allows you to choose a horse from the lineup that you will ride.  The race starts in the starting gate, and as the gates open, you will find yourself astride a galloping beast.  As the rider, you can "steer" the horse to the rail, or stay a little outside to ensure a clear route to pass.  You can encourage your horse to run at the front of the pack, or hang back with the crown in the hopes of preserving strength for a sprint to the finish.  As the race nears the finish line, you can further encourage your horse through the use of a whip.  To improve your chances of winning, you should consider the preferred racing style of your chosen mount, although it is possible to win by simply ignoring all of the subtle strategies and just flogging your horse mercilessly.  Since this is a single race mode, you don't have to worry about the costs in fatigue and injury that would normally be incumbent in such an approach.  This, to me, made the Quick Race mode far less interesting than it could have been.

Also of interest to the "arrive and drive" type of player would be the multiplayer mode.  This mode allows two players to enter into a race and race against each other and the computer-controlled pack of other horses.  Multiplayer mode does not use a split screen, though.  Instead, the camera attempts to show both player's horses until one of the players falls back too far.  At that point the camera stays with the leading player and the computer takes over in driving the lagging horse.  This is far less than optimal as once the lagging player loses controls of his horse, he has no hope of catching up.  This results in essentially requiring both players to use a sprint race strategy since the player that chose the strategy of staying with the pack and making a string finish will almost immediately lag behind, lose control of his horse, and get whipped like a rented mule.  Without the aspect of strategic and tactical planning, the racing becomes pretty boring.  What would probably have worked better for multiplayer would have been Xbox Live support, although given the niche aspect of the game there may have been some challenge involved in getting together enough players to have an interesting race.

Because of these limitations in the quick race and multiplayer modes, Breeders Cup will be satisfying mostly for the players that are interested in the full aspects of horse racing, at least in so far as interactive play goes.  There is one other aspect to horse racing that I have not yet mentioned: betting.  For those that enjoy scanning the past performance of the entrants in any given race, combined with the historical performance of the jockies and the prevailing race conditions in an attempt to determine who will win and place bets accordingly, Breeders Cup offers the opportunity to do so in your own home, albeit with fake money.  Of course, as with anything involving money, there is a fair degree of complexity involved.  You can choose to make simple bets like Win, Place, or Show, or you can expand into somewhat more exotic betting types like the Exacta, Trifecta, or Superfecta.  As the complexity and risk increase, so do the potential winnings.  If all of that isn't confusing enough, you can choose to bet Straight, Boxed, or Wheeled.  When it comes to betting on horse races, there are many ways to choose your poison.

All in all, Breeders Cup gives a nice introduction to the sport of horse racing, but only those willing to truly dive in and concern themselves with the more complex aspects of the game will be satisfied.  Those that just want to climb onto the back of a horse and race will be left wanting more of a challenge.

While it’s likely to appeal only to a relatively small audience, Bethesda Softwork’s new Thoroughbred Horse Racing game is worth a look, as long as you aren’t looking for a good multiplayer head-to-head racer.

Rating: 7.8 Above Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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