The Huge Gamble That Paid Off: Remembering The Inaugural Breeders’ Cup

This is the 38th time, going back to 1984, that I join horsemen, horseplayers, racing media and fans in anxiously awaiting the list of pre-entered horses for the Breeders’ Cup that will be released for public consumption on Wednesday.

Back in the 1980s when I was working in the Los Angeles office of Daily Racing Form, the Nov. 10, 1984, date of the inaugural running and the details – a seven-race $10-million extravaganza – were put in print so frequently in the long run-up to the event that they were burned into memory.

I recently came across the West Coast special edition of the Form that our office produced for that first-ever Breeders’ Cup at now defunct Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. For $1.75, readers got the regular Daily Racing Form along with a 96-page insert featuring cover art by Pierre “Peb” Bellocq and chock-full of Breeders’ Cup news, features and past performances for the day’s races.

The lead news story on this revolutionary day of racing and the main column in the Breeders’ Cup special section were, naturally, written by Daily Racing Form’s esteemed executive columnist, Joe Hirsch. Hirsch quoted John Gaines, the man who created the Breeders’ Cup, about the event’s prospects for having a long-term impact on the industry: “The test of time has still to be met,” Gaines told Hirsch, “but on the eve of the inaugural, it looks to me like the Breeders’ Cup is here to stay.”

Though he wasn’t without an ego and for the greater good of the event opted to step away from active oversight of the Breeders’ Cup during its formative years, Gaines was quick to praise others who helped transform his idea into reality.

“Ideas don’t climb mountains,” Gaines told Hirsch. “People climb mountains. The reason the Breeders’ Cup is here today is because of men like Johnny Nerud, Brownell Combs, Bunker Hunt, John Mabee and others who have worked so hard on its behalf.”

Hirsch was such an icon in racing media that he got a sneak preview of the Cup before Gaines unveiled the concept at a Kentucky Derby week luncheon in 1982. Gaines invited Hirsch to a breakfast meeting, promising him that the meeting would lead to “the most important story” he would ever write.

The concept at the outset was for the Breeders’ Cup to be almost fully funded through foal and stallion nominations. Simulcasting was in its infancy, and neither that nor hospitality and ticket sales were seen as significant contributors to Breeders’ Cup’s early success. For the program and funding mechanism to work, Gaines needed the support of his fellow breeders and stallion owners.

“I realized it was a huge gamble because it involved motivating people to work together who have spent their lives competing against each other,” Gaines told Hirsch. “Needless to say, there was a lot of give and take when everyone got together. There were diverse points of view, but accommodations were made and there were many compromises. People fought hard for what they thought was right. I would say it was a quintessential American experience. … It was like a group of mountain climbers climbing the mountain while tied together. If we fell, we were going to fall together, but I think now we are standing at the top together.”

Gaines said he could see changes to Breeders’ Cup from time to time. “The program is not cast in stone,” he said. “We’re trying to put on the best show possible, and if we can see a way to improve it with change, then changes will be made.”

As noted, the original Breeders’ Cup was a one-day, seven-race event, with five races each offering a $1-million purse, the Turf offering $2 million and the Classic $3 million. It’s grown to 14 championship races spread over two days with purses now totaling $31 million, topped by the $6-million Classic.

Stallion and foal nominations, while still an important part of funding, have been joined by simulcast wagering and ticketing as key revenue generators, along with sponsorships. The inaugural Breeders’ Cup is the only one where on-track wagering of $11,466,941 was more than the simulcast handle, $8,009,109.  The last two years, simulcasting wagering exceeded $150 million over the two days. Ticket prices for the event have accelerated just as much as wagering.

NBC Sports, led by its Standardbred-owning president, Arthur Watson, was “all in” from the outset, scheduling four hours on network television and putting together a 10-person broadcast team led by Dick Enberg and Dave Johnson. Michael Weisman, executive producer for the telecast, told Daily Racing Form’s George Bernet, “This type of production is unprecedented and we’re geared up for it with our best people. We are treating this event as we would a World Series or Super Bowl … which it is.”

That first championship day was as good as anyone could have hoped for. So was the NBC Sports telecast that I watched on a small TV in the Form’s Bimini Place editorial office (someone had to work, putting together Monday’s results issue!).

There was instant credibility when Chief’s Crown won the Juvenile as the odds-on favorite to seal an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, winning for the sixth time in nine starts. Finishing second behind the Danzig colt was Tank’s Prospect, who would win the 1985 Preakness. Third-place finisher Spend a Buck would go on to score in the Kentucky Derby and become the champion 3-year-old male and 1985 Horse of the Year.

There were outstanding performances by the likes of Eillo in the Sprint, Royal Heroine in the Mile and Princess Rooney in the Distaff. Lashkari lodged a massive 53-1 upset in the Turf, defeating the globe-trotting 1983 Horse of the Year All Along.

Wild Again (inside) holds off Gate Dancer to win first Breeders’ Cup Classic at 31-1

There was drama in the day’s second race when Fran’s Valentine was disqualified from first for interference at the stop of the stretch in the Juvenile Fillies, making Outstandingly the winner. But that was nothing compared to what would come with the stretch run of the Classic when Wild Again emerged with a narrow victory at 31-1 odds over Gate Dancer and 3-5 favorite Slew o’ Gold. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Wild Again, making his 16th start of the year, was supplemented to the race by his connections at a cost of $360,000 in hopes of winning first prize of $1,350,000.

Jockey Pat Day moved Wild Again to the lead down the backstretch and held off Slew o’ Gold and Angel Cordero Jr. and a hard-charging Gate Dancer and Laffit Pincay Jr. the length of the stretch to win by a head over Gate Dancer. Slew o’ Gold was another half-length back, but stewards quickly lit the inquiry sign for the second time that day after the three horses exchanged bumps as they raced to the wire. After a lengthy deliberation, stewards left Wild Again as the winner but disqualified Gate Dancer from second to third for causing most of the problems by lugging in to the other two horses.

John Gaines’ huge gamble paid off. The Breeders’ Cup was off and running. It clearly has stood the test of time now, and I can’t wait for the next chapter.

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