This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
Breeders’ Cup planners suffered Kentucky Derby envy. Or perhaps Kentucky Derby intimidation is a better diagnosis. That’s why it took five years to bring the Cup to Churchill Downs.
Of course there are other explanations. “Weather was one reason,” says D.G. Van Clief, the Cup’s executive director for the first championship races in 1984. The board wanted blue skies and warm temperatures for its signature event.
But the primary reason for avoiding Louisville was less tangible. “Because the Kentucky Derby is such a massive presence, the Breeders’ Cup, in its formative years, was a bit nervous about being compared to the Derby,” Van Clief says. “No way could we bring a crowd of 100,000 or more to Churchill Downs in late October or early November.”
But by late 1986, resistance to a Kentucky run was breaking down, and rumors were rampant — and accurate — that the board of directors was shooting for a Churchill running for the Cup’s fourth year. Then, abruptly, the board changed directions. “When that news hit the media here in Kentucky, I had a few of my Kentucky friends call and ask what the hell we were doing,” Van Clief says. Finally, the board picked 1988 as the year for a Churchill Breeders’ Cup.
There were multiple advantages to the choice. Even if the Cup couldn’t match the 150,000 screaming Derby fans, chances were high that the Louisville venue, in the heart of horse country, would bring in more fans than anywhere else in the nation. Second, Churchill Downs actually had experience running a huge event, making wild snafus less likely.
A muddy track under overcast skies marked the first Breeders’ Cup at the Downs. But the stands filled with 71, 000 people, a record-breaking crowd for the Cup. Still, all was not perfect. Few could even see the closing moments of the Classic. Alysheba, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1987, strode to victory through the rain in near darkness. “Photos of the finish look like it was run at midnight,” Van Clief says. Alysheba went on to win Horse of the Year.
Despite the consistent popularity of Churchill Downs with fans, last year it looked as though the Cup might declare Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., its permanent home. Then Magna International Development, the owner of Santa Anita Park, voided its track contract with the Oak Tree Racing Association, which owned rights to fall-meet dates in California and had brought five Breeders’ Cups to Santa Anita. Churchill Downs subsequently was awarded the 2011 Cup date.
Some speculated this might clear the way to make Churchill the Cups’ permanent home. But don’t bet on it. “We have gone back to the drawing board,” says Dora Delgado, Breeders’ Cup senior vice president. “Our sponsors like major markets like L.A., where they can put on functions. But the state of racing in California is uncertain, so we’re right back at square one again.”
Photo: Breeders' Cup