The Breeders’ Cup left the gate in California sunshine at Hollywood Park in 1984, with a galaxy of Hollywood stars on hand for seven $1 million-plus races. The night before, Frank Sinatra sang at a star-splashed party hosted by Hollywood Park owner Marge Everett. NBC covered the entire afternoon of racing — which, at four-and-a-half hours, was the longest network coverage of horse racing, ever. A Midwestern horse named Wild Again, ridden by a Midwestern jockey named Pat Day, capped the afternoon by beating the best horse from the East, Slew o’ Gold, and the best of the West, Gate Dancer, in a thrilling, stretch-long, three-horse duel through the sunset in the first Breeders’ Cup Classic.
That was the first Breeders’ Cup. But the idea was broached two years earlier at the They’re Off! Luncheon in Louisville. John R. Gaines was the honored guest and featured speaker for the event, which serves as the annual kickoff of the Kentucky Derby Festival. Gaines was the founder of Gainesway Farm, which bred international-style turf horses, had helped establish the Kentucky Horse Park and endowed programs in equine studies and humanities at the University of Kentucky.
That day at the They’re Off! Luncheon, on April 23, 1982, Gaines had a Big Idea.
“Mr. Gaines announced this concept,” recalls sportswriter Billy Reed, who covered the luncheon. “He didn’t call it the Breeders’ Cup; I think he called it the world series of racing or the world championships of racing — something like that (the original name was Racing International’s Championship Program) — but it was the basic concept of the Breeders’ Cup. It would be one big day of racing in the fall to showcase the sport, all carried live on television.”
Gaines, who died in 2007, envisioned an event audacious enough to intrigue both the sports media and the sporting public. He had the idea that the $2 million Classic capping the day would be a 1½-mile turf race geared to interest European owners in sending over their stars. The Sprint, on the other hand, would be worth $250,000. Other breeders effected a change in focus. The Turf dropped to second billing, retaining its $2-million purse, and, in fact, did attract Europeans. (British-bred Lashkari won that first day in California for the Aga Kahn.) The Classic became a 1¼-mile dirt race, the classic American distance, with a purse of $3 million (now $5 million). All other races carried at least a $1-million prize.
All that funding was possible because Gaines personally made sure the big breeding farms ponied up.
Has it worked?
“People still want to see good horses run against each other in big events,” says Jay Privman, a writer for the Daily Racing Form. “The Breeders’ Cup ratings last year on ESPN were very strong. That’s not just bettors. Those are sports fans.”
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