Most modern horseracing simulations, such as Tecmo's long-running Gallop Racer series, are intense exercises in statistics and Thoroughbred minutiae, which render them virtually impenetrable to those not already steeped in this pastime that is both regal and somewhat seedy. NTRA Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships strips away much of the density of the genre, making it more accessible but also robbing it of much of its depth.
One of the few advantages that NTRA Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships holds over its competition is its National Thoroughbred Racing Association seal of approval, which grants it use of more than a dozen real-world Thoroughbred racetracks, including Belmont Park, Del Mar, Emerald Downs, and Monmouth Park. The game also prominently features a number of Breeders' Cup winning horses, such as Smarty Jones, Man o' War, Funny Cide, and Seabiscuit. The game covers the three primary disciplines associated with horseracing--jockeying, stable management, and wagering. For pure on-the-track action, there's the quick race mode, where you can define the track, track surface, distance, the number of horses on the track, and weather conditions before choosing one of the game's fictional horses and hitting the track. You can also go in a head-to-head race with one of the featured Breeders' Cup winners in the "challenge a champion" mode.
It's typical for a horseracing game to take a somewhat hands-off approach to jockeying, and Breeders' Cup doesn't stray too far from this convention, allowing you to influence how hard the jockey pushes the horse, as well as the lane position, using the left analog stick. A quick tap of the X button at the starting gate will give you a good jump off the line, and near the end of the race you'll be prompted to hit the X button in order to use the riding crop. Both of these actions are timing based, though they're also fairly forgiving. Mostly what you have to worry about is riding your horse too hard. There's a stamina meter that you'll have to keep an eye on, though often it's possible to ride full tilt for the entire race and still have stamina to spare. The other danger in riding your horse too hard is injury, though this happens only in the game's career mode, and even then it's always possible to recover with a little R&R. The whole jockey experience here just ends up feeling really simple and not particularly challenging.
The wagering in Breeders' Cup features much more depth and, in turn, is much more engaging than actually racing the horses. A day at the races is a mode that lets you spend a full eight-race day at one of the game's 15 real-world tracks putting money on the ponies. You're given a view of the virtual paddock before each race, which serves as a more colorful racing form, giving you access to details like the horse's parents, the win percentages of the jockey, and the horse's lifetime performance--including a breakdown of performance on both dirt and turf tracks. Whether you're able to digest any of this information into something meaningful, or you simply pick the horse with the funniest name, your next step is to place your bet. The betting system lets you place bets anywhere from $2 to thousands of dollars, and you can place standard win, place, and show bets, as well as more involved bets like daily doubles, exacta, trifecta, and pick three. Once you've placed your bet, you can choose to watch the race play out, or you can cut to the chase and just see who won. Your winnings in this mode can carry from one day to another, allowing you to rack up a massive bankroll, but the winnings can't be transferred to any of the other modes, and there's no real reward for your wins, leaving this mode feeling more than a little futile.
The career mode wraps up all three disciplines in a single package. Here you're given a stable where you can house up to six horses, train them, race them, and wager on them. You start off with just one horse, and you can acquire additional horses by breeding someone else's horses for a fee, though there's no option to put your own horses out to stud. The passage of time is defined by weekly races, in which you can choose to enter any of your eligible horses, and in between races you can adjust your horse's training regimen. Though each of the eight training options can help develop different characteristics in your horses, what you really need to look out for here is fatigue, because not only is a horse that's fatigued less likely to perform well on the track, it's also more likely to get injured. It's all quite streamlined, and it's easy to burn through the weeks, but the pacing of this mode ends up being extremely tedious, because you can't just jump to the races that you have horses in. If you have only one horse participating that day, and it's in the eighth race, you still have to skip past the first seven races to get there. It's especially irritating when you decide to take a week off from competing entirely.
The game's plain visuals don't make the proceedings more enticing, either. To its credit, the game does a fair job of capturing the look and feel of the real-world racetracks, though lots of muddled textures and an overall chunky look take away from the effect. The riders and horses are similarly simplistic in design. Every horse in the game shares the exact same running animation, which isn't particularly smooth and can be downright stuttery when turning corners. You can expect some amateurish rain and fog effects, which often have as much of an effect on the frame rate as they do on the atmosphere.
The presence of renowned race caller Tom Durkin as the announcer could have been a great boon for NTRA Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, but instead, any of Tom Durkin's ability to bring drama or excitement to the races is cut down by shoddy sound design. All of the calls are obviously patched together, and the cadence from one phrase to the next almost never matches up, giving the game a real unnatural, lurching pace. There's some good grandstand noise, and when you're in the stables or the paddock you can hear nice ambient country sounds, but otherwise the aural presentation is awkward and synthetic. In addition to all these faults, NTRA Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is exceptionally buggy for a PlayStation 2 game. We experienced sound bugs where Tom Durkin would repeat the same three-second loop for the entire race, and bugs where the game would just lock up entirely, sometimes filling the screen with lots of nasty debug code.
NTRA Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is a pretty lean package that sees itself competing with some long-running, well-established franchises in an extremely niche market. Those put off by the searing difficulty levels of Koei's and Tecmo's horseracing franchises may find some comfort in the more casual gait of Breeders' Cup, but ultimately the whole experience is hobbled by its clumsy interface and patchy presentation.