Spur of the moments: Stories from Breeders' Cup racing history [Breeders' Cup]

The Midnight Classic

What was not the last of the ’88 Breeders’ Cup drama. All the races that day were played out against the same dark sky — getting darker as the afternoon waned. The rain let up, but as the 5:35 p.m. post time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic approached, daylight vanished.

“Last year when they said it was going to be the first Breeders’ Cup Classic to be run at night, I said, ‘No it’s not,’” says Privman with a laugh. “The ’88 Classic was run at night. Just no lights.”

And, indeed, it was dark at Churchill Downs two hours and four races after Personal Ensign won the Distaff. “I remember sitting in a motel room the day before,” says Philadelphia Daily News columnist Dick Jerardi, “looking out the window at about the same time of day they would be running the Classic the next day, thinking, ‘They’ve got a problem.’ It was pitch black.”

As the field went to post for the Classic, Jerardi recalls looking off in the distance. “You could see the lights of the old football stadium lighting up the sky. Louisville must have been playing.” (Louisville beat Virginia Tech 13-3 at Cardinal Stadium at the Fairgrounds that day, as a matter of fact.)

Privman says he saw something he had never seen at a racetrack. “One thing I won’t forget is thousands of camera flashes as the horses came through the stretch — both times.”

The lenses of modern TV cameras pick up so much light that viewers at home could actually see the race. But in the stands at Churchill, trackgoers were left in the dark.

In the distance around the far turn, the field faded into vague shapes. People couldn’t make out numbers or rider’s silks. Then, when the horses turned for home, fans couldn’t even distinguish the shapes. Finally, in the last yards before the wire, the leaders burst into a beam of light that focuses down from the roof onto the finish. It’s for the photo-finish camera.

Fans stretched on tiptoes and strained eyes to see . . . out in the middle of the track . . . finishing fastest of all  . . .  Alysheba!

The $1.3 million winner’s share of the Classic’s $3 million purse lifted Alysheba past Cigar to become the new all-time Thoroughbred money winner. Or as race-caller Tom Durkin put it so smoothly: “Alysheba wins the world’s richest horse race, and he’s now the world’s richest horse.”

That had a ring to it. And it was further satisfying in light of the colt’s near-miss the year before in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, just getting beat a whisker by Ferdinand in a battle of Kentucky Derby winners.

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