This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
A fast field of sprinters turned for home at Churchill Downs, and with the notable exceptions that the purse of the race was $1 million and 66,000 fans were in the stands, the six-furlong race was shaking out about the same as thousands of others run over the decades at the Downs — until one horse, Sheikh Albadou, shot from the pack as if he had jets on his legs.
Flying in the middle of the track, the English-bred colt, which almost no one had given a thought to previously, was winging it home at 26-1, with jockey Pat Eddery riding high in the stirrups, flopping his elbows in time with the horse. Like a happy Irish cowboy whooping it up on Friday night at the rodeo.
It was another shocker in the Breeders’ Cup. And few saw it coming, because everybody knows that sprinting on the dirt is an American game. Besides, we’d been assured by experts with sniffy British accents that Sheikh Albadou was a second-tier horse, at best, in England, here mainly because he’d won some Group I race named for Lord Nunthorpe, or the Duke of Earl, or something. If one wished to see the good horses from Britain and Ireland and France, they’d be along later for the longer turf races.
And just as a matter of history, Sheikh Albadou was a son of Green Desert, who had, himself, come over from Great Britain for the first Breeders’ Cup Sprint — and run last.
But there the Sheikh was, the runaway winner. And there we racing experts were, the runaway losers.
Kind of like the old Chuck Berry song: Goes to show you never can tell.
Or, maybe more aptly for the Breeders’ Cup, which returns to Churchill Downs Nov. 4-5 for the eighth time in its 28-year history: Who in the heck knows what in the world we’ll see next?
From the beginning, when rock-solid favorite Chief’s Crown won the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile like a rock-solid champion, to the last we heard from the Breeders’ Cup, when a tremendous roar rolled through the Downs as Zenyatta came flying from so far back — with Blame not about to let her catch him — it’s always a great show. Chock-full of stories.
Mr. Gaines' Big Idea
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.”
First Every Time
No Breeders’ Cup moment remains so riveting to so many racing fans as Personal Ensign’s last-stride triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs in 1988. More than two decades later, hardened racetrackers still marvel at the way the Ogden Phipps champion overcame every disadvantage to win what had been announced as the final start of her career. And in so winning, the five-year-old filly retired a perfect 13-for-13 from the races, the first Thoroughbred racehorse to retire undefeated since Kentucky-bred Colin won all 15 of his starts in 1907-08.
“Any time anyone talks about the most exciting Breeders’ Cup moment — and I know it’s the most obvious one — but I always go back to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs,” says Steven Crist, editor of the Daily Racing Form. “That could be my all-time most exciting racing moment.”
After three years of racing, including an injury sustained as a two-year-old in which a fractured pastern bone was surgically repaired with the aid of five small, permanently placed screws, Personal Ensign arrived at Churchill Downs as the favorite for the Distaff, going off at odds of 1-2. That’s betting $2 to get back a measly $3 — even though she was stoutly matched in a field of nine older fillies and mares that included Winning Colors, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, and Goodbye Halo, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks.
Then there was the track, rated between sloppy and muddy all day. Plus a cold and drizzling rain, which didn’t come down in drops but in windy mists.
As the Distaff field turned onto the backstretch, Personal Ensign was having trouble keeping pace with the pack, obviously not “getting hold” of the track. And even though she made up some ground on the turn for home, the task seemed hopeless.
“You’ve seen this race a thousand times, and every time Personal Ensign doesn’t get there,” Crist says. “I can’t think of any race, Breeders’ Cup or not, where a horse looked that hopelessly beaten. . . . Then she made that final surge and got there. It’s the fairytale ending people were looking for last year (with Zenyatta chasing Blame in the Classic) and didn’t quite get. But for Personal Ensign to get there in the final strides, nailing Winning Colors and retiring undefeated, that’s one of those lifetime great racing moments.”
Coming back to the winner’s circle, splattered with mud, jockey Randy Romero said he’d always believed Personal Ensign could do it. And more importantly, Romero knew Personal Ensign believed she could do it.
“She just kept trying and trying, and I could see Winning Colors was getting back a little,” said Romero. “There’s one in a million you can get like her, and she’s the one.”
Fly A Jet, Win a TV
Patrick Valenzuela had a good idea of what he would have under him when French trainer Francois Boutin gave the rider a leg up on a little horse named Arazi, to run in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Arazi was a sensation in France, and American owner Allen Paulson, the founder of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., invited Valenzuela to his California home to view videos of the horse’s spectacular European successes.
“I went to his house,” Valenzuela told Privman. “We’re sitting in his living room, and there’s no TV. Mr. Paulson hits a remote, and down comes this projection TV. The whole wall was like a screen.”
“If you win the Breeders’ Cup on this horse, you’ll get a TV like this,” Paulson told Valenzuela.
Arazi drew the far outside No. 14 post position and was 13th as the field rounded into the backstretch of the 11/16th-mile race. “I wanted to move up a little,” Valenzuela said. “I smooched to him, and he took off.”
Like one of Paulson’s Gulfstream jets.
“Whenever he saw an open spot, he went right through it,” said Valenzuela. “It was like playing a video game in an arcade.”
(All of the 222 Breeders’ Cup races are available at YouTube. To see Arazi pull Valenzuela through the holes, type in “Breeders’ Cup Arazi.” It’s worth it.)
Arazi flew by horses so fast that as he turned for home centrifugal force carried him wide from the rail. But no matter. The pony-sized colt won by five lengths, eased at the finish.
Everybody thought they’d just seen the fastest thing ever.
It turned out Arazi never duplicated that moment. But for that one autumn day in the sunshine, he was IT.
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.
Horse for the course
Goldikova has a simple style. She runs along with the pack, then pulls out to pass — and blows ’em away.
And that style, shooting out of the bunched horses and finishing fast through the stretch, is often a winning style in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. A notable exception was the Claiborne Farm turf star Lure, who led wire-to-wire two years in a row (1992-93). But more often than not, the Mile is won from behind, with a brilliant late burst of speed. Like Royal Academy, who came from 13th to win the 1990 Mile by a neck. Or the royally bred Miesque, waving bye-bye to a pack of mere horse mortals, running out of a pack to win the 1987 and ’88 Miles going away.
No miler today is better at this style than Goldikova — a six-year-old Irish-bred who has won 17 of 24 starts, 14 of them Grade I or Group I races, and banked $6.6 million. The French-based filly has won the Breeders’ Cup Mile a record three straight times, and is expected back this year to try for a fourth.
Daily Racing Form handicapper Marcus Hersh notes that Goldikova’s style makes her particularly effective on American turf courses. In Europe, one-mile races are generally contested around one turn, or even on a mile-long straightaway. Last out of the gate at Longchamps, in Paris, Goldikova was beaten a head by a three-year-old colt in an extended stretch duel. That race, the Prix de la Foret, winds around one “bend” with a long run to the finish. At Santa Anita in California, where Goldikova took the 2008 and ’09 Mile, and at Churchill Downs, where she won last year, seven-furlong turf courses are fitted inside one-mile dirt tracks — which means the race includes two pretty sharp turns, for which Goldikova is perfectly suited.
Just minutes after Goldikova came flying to win the Mile last fall at Churchill Downs, Gerard Wertheimer, who owns the horse with his brother Alain, told Thoroughbred Times writer Ed DeRosa that Goldikova would be pointed right back to this Breeders’ Cup Mile. Putting her out to pasture as a broodmare could wait.
“We think the Thoroughbred industry needs to do a better job keeping stars in racing,” said Wertheimer. “Especially fillies bring people to the races. If they stay only a short time, then people don’t get interested. The sport identifies with stars, like it did with Zenyatta. It’s a good habit to keep them in training.”
And keeping the stars like Goldikova around is just what Mr. Gaines hoped his Breeders’ Cup could do.
'Jerry, good luck'
Breeders’ Cup bettors are well aware of the longest longshot ever to win a Breeders’ Cup race. That’s the French horse Arcangues, who wasn’t just a no-name steed to American handicappers but an obscure horse even in France. So it was quite a surprise when Arcangues won the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. And no one was more surprised than Arcangues’ jockey, Jerry Bailey.
Privman talked to Bailey later and recounts the rider’s tale in his book, The Breeders’ Cup, published in 2000 by Louisville’s Moonlight Press.
Bailey, who seven years after his retirement still leads all jockeys in money won, was without a mount for the $3 million Classic until just a few days before the race, when he was booked to ride Arcangues. By race day the rider still had never seen the horse, nor talked with its trainer, Andre Fabre. Before the race, Bailey went to the spot in the walking ring where he expected the No. 11 horse would be stopped to receive its rider.
“Some kid with the horse threw me up on him and started talking in French,” Bailey recalled. “I just nodded my head. I had no idea what he was saying. Now I know what the Spanish guys do when they come to this country and they don’t know any English.”
As Bailey steered Arcangues through the tunnel under the grandstand, he spotted trainer Fabre in the crowd. Fabre waved and cheerily called, “Jerry — good luck!”
That was the sum total of Bailey’s race instructions.
“I just figured, he’s a European horse; he’ll probably drop out of it and finish,” Bailey said. “Then I looked at the board and he was 99-1. I thought, I hope he doesn’t come jogging in an eighth of a mile behind.”
Privman notes that Arcangues had never raced on dirt, but had been bothered by a bad back and bad luck throughout his career. Fabre believed the level racing surfaces of American dirt courses would help the horse. Bailey knew none of that.
But the horse was talking to the rider.
“I warmed him up and he felt great, and from the time he broke out of the gate he was on the bridle (eager to run),” said Bailey. “As we turned up the backside, there was a horse in front of me, Ezzoud, who was going well, so I thought I would stay on the rail and follow him. When you’re on a longshot, nobody’s looking for you, so you can take more risks.”
Bailey and Arcangues began passing rivals on the turn for home, then accelerated between Ezzoud and favorite Bertrando — pulling away to win with authority. The horse had gone off at 133-1 and paid $269.20 to win.
“As the years have gone by, so many people have told me they bet on Arcangues,” Bailey says with a laugh. “If all those people bet him, he wouldn’t have paid $269."
A Rough Trip
It was a typically wild finish in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Gulfstream Park. Steinlen, a gray horse bred in England and raced in Europe until shipped to California in 1987, got up to win it.
Coming to the wire, Steinlen was trapped along the rail behind front-runners who were stopping, and pinned in by closers moving up. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt already had experienced traffic trouble. The Daily Racing Form chart-caller noted that Steinlen had “a very rough trip, but was handled well” by jockey Jose Santos.
The chart read, “STEINLEN ... and HIGHLAND SPRINGS (leaned) on each other in the run to the first turn and then again along the backstretch. (STEINLEN) lost position on the second turn, was between rivals in the early stretch, moved to the inside in front of QUICK CALL in mid-stretch, causing that one to check, took over from SIMPLY MAJESTIC inside the final sixteenth and proved best.”
A rugged trip, indeed — but what the chart doesn’t mention is how little room there was along the inside fence (actually a hedge) for Steinlen to squeeze through.
When the dashing gray galloped back to the winner’s circle and turned for the picture, you could see how he’d done it. A bunch of vines were sticking out of his saddlecloth and girth, and the jock’s pants leg was green-stained. Steinlen didn’t just skim the hedge; he’d run through it!
Photo: Goldikova, courtesy Wikimedia