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The Breeders’ Cup: From Experiment to Tradition

John Sadler's favorite shows devastating speed, winning the Met Mile by multiple lengths and earning a sport in the Breeder's Cup Dirt Mile.

What is the Breeders’ Cup, and what has it meant to the sport of Thoroughbred Racing? The closest parallel I can think of is the founding of what has become the Super Bowl, in 1967. The mystery surrounding the event was how the upstarts of the American Football League (the AFL) would do against the established franchises of the NFL. Although the Green Bay Packers dominated the first two editions of the game, the victory of Joe Namath and the Jets in 1969 played a major role in forcing a merger of the leagues and a recognition of the quality of the AFL.

History of the Breeders’ Cup

Just as the Super Bowl energized and unified pro football, the Breeders’ Cup had a unifying effect for horse racing when it began in 1984. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup, it was not as common for horses to ship cross-country, and it was even more rare for horses to ship from Europe for major American races. It was the vision of John Gaines, John Nerud, and a group of industry leaders to create what would be a true World Championship event of the sport. As Ray Paulick pointed out in a 2015 Paulick Report article: “It was an amazing accomplishment, not just for Gaines but for the entire Thoroughbred industry, overcoming politics and personal agendas and doing something that was the right thing for the game.” To be sure, there were sacrifices made in order to make the Breeders’ Cup a reality. Consider, for example, the New York Racing Association, whose races in the fall frequently determined year-end awards. Now, vital races on both coasts would serve as prep races for the Breeders’ Cup, and they would lose some of their prestige. It would extend the traditional racing season by nearly a month, which meant that trainers of top-level horses would adjust their schedules to culminate in a Breeders’ Cup appearance. In addition, horses from Europe or Japan would have to make significant adjustments to allow for travel time and a brief quarantine period when they first arrived in the U.S.

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Few people understood how the event would be received, and it had its share of doubters. One of the biggest questions: Would the viewing public be willing to watch seven horse races in an unprecedented 4-hour telecast? To get some perspective on the founding of the event, I spoke to John Gonzalez, who was the producer of NBC’s telecasts in the early years. He spoke of meetings where Gaines and Nerud would discuss why the event required 7 races and large purses, as well as 4 hours of broadcast time. The NBC personnel at these meetings included NBC Sports President Arthur Watson, Executive Producer Mike Weisman, PR expert Mike Cohen, and John Gonzalez. One of the main concerns was how time would be filled with only 14 minutes of real action on the track. But each of these seven races required back stories, paddock reports, a post parade, commentary as the horses were on the track, post-race-analysis and trophy presentations. While some doubted NBC’s ability to fill the 4 hours, once Gonzalez started to create a format for the show, he realized it wouldn’t be a problem.

Another major player in making the event a success was Marge Everett, then the owner of Hollywood Park, which hosted the inaugural in 1984. Her contacts with Hollywood celebrities helped to put the Breeders’ Cup on the map. Celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Jack Klugman, John Forsythe, Linda Evans, and many others were on the telecast. In this era, we have come to expect a celebrity red carpet at major sports events, but this was truly an unprecedented display of star power for a sports telecast. Everett was also instrumental in having the industry cooperate with television as it never had before. When foul claims were debated, NBC had cameras showing the deliberation of the stewards. If jockeys were at the phone near the scales explaining their version of what happened in regard to a foul claim, NBC microphones heard what they were saying. The coverage produced an intimacy with the sport that was rarely seen on a broadcast.

Another part of the success of the event in its early years was the involvement of horsemen. No trainer was more important to the event in those days than D. Wayne Lukas. The Hall of Famer still holds the records for most Breeders’ Cup Wins (20) and starters (167). Back in 1987, when the event was still composed of only 7 races (there are 14 in the present day), Lukas had an incredible 14 starters. I remember going to his barn to get conformation, or “body” shots, of his horses. If he told us to be there at 3 pm, his horses would emerge from the barn with military precision at the stroke of 3. Forty-five years later, at age 87, he is likely to send Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath to the post in the Distaff at this year’s event.

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How does the Breeders’ Cup work?

The Breeders’ Cup has a great history, yet fans who don’t delve into the sport beyond the Triple Crown generally aren’t familiar with its structure. Here are the basics of the event:

  • 14 World Championship races are conducted over two days
  • A primary purpose of the event is to gather the best horses from all over the world to compete in the same venue
  • The races are conducted in a broad variety of categories based on distance, racing surface, and the age of the horses
  • Total purses for the 14 races is over $30 million

I spoke to NBC’s Kenny Rice, and he gave me some analogies to relate the event to other marquee sports. Rice pointed out that the Triple Crown is only for 3-year-olds racing on the dirt, and at that age many horses have not reached the peak of their capabilities. The Breeders’ Cup, however, includes 14 different races that encompass all the “divisions” or categories of racing. As an example, there are 5 races for 2-year-olds, and they vary based on the sex of the horses, the distances, and the racing surface (turf or dirt). He says that the Triple Crown is similar to a high-level college sports event, while the Breeders’ Cup, with all its divisions, is comparable to the NFL playoffs, with the best of each division facing off. Others have compared it to Olympic Track and Field, with athletes competing to be the best across many different categories of events.

The idea of gathering the best horses in the world in each division is at the heart of the Breeders’ Cup concept, and it has given the sport a truly international showcase. There has always been consistent competition from Europe, but last year, two of the races were taken by horses based in Japan. One of the goals from the beginning was to enhance the international feel of the event, and that surely has happened. In addition to the Japanese successes in 2021, consider that the trainer with the 4th highest win total in the history of this U.S.-based event is Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien. Also, the jockey who is tied for the 4th highest win total is England-based Frankie Dettori.

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Another common question about the event is why 14 races are necessary. The best answer that I can give is fairness. Among sprinters, for example, it is generally accepted that males will be just a bit faster. It is true that in the early years of the event, the great fillies Very Subtle and Safely Kept were good enough to beat the boys in the Sprint. It is logical, however, that if there are separate sprint races for male and female horses throughout the year, there should be separate Breeders’ Cup races for male and female horses. Similarly, the Filly and Mare Turf, which debuted in 1999 as the 8th Breeders’ Cup race, created a separate category for female turf runners over a distance of ground. It would be over slightly less distance than the Turf, and it would eliminate the need to have a top-level female turf horse face the best males over a mile-and-a-half. Kenny Rice points out that while there has been some skepticism when new races were introduced, the changes have worked out. He points out the success of Future Stars Friday, with championship races limited to 2-year-olds, as a key example.

Rice also feels that the success of the Breeders’ Cup has brought renewed emphasis to breeding in the sport. Celebrity owners and breeders like Bobby Flay and Bill Parcells are notable examples. On the inaugural telecast of the event in 1984, every winner was acknowledged not only for its racing success, but also for its breeding influence, with video shown of the sire of the winner at its breeding farm. There is no question that the Breeders’ Cup has brought focus onto the breeding side of the industry.

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What to watch for in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup

One of the greatest aspects of the Breeders’ Cup is that every year it is held, it is almost inevitable that there will be great and unforgettable moments. The inaugural event in 1984 was clearly helped by a memorable three-way battle down the stretch that ended with the longshot Wild Again winning the Classic by a head. The elation of victorious jockey Pat Day as he held his riding helmet to the heavens is the signature image in the history of the event. Having such a memorable climax to the inaugural played no small part in boosting the consciousness of the Breeders’ Cup to casual fans. This year, many fans are expecting another great moment as the undefeated Flightline will go to the post as a big favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. NBC’s Randy Moss has said that the performance of Flightline in his most recent race (the Pacific Classic) was as great a performance as has been seen on an American racetrack since Secretariat’s 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes.

Rice spoke to John Gaines before the first Breeders’ Cup and says that Mr. Gaines knew several things would have to go right for the event to succeed. When he spoke to Mr. Gaines in the aftermath of the inaugural, he had a sense of relief that it had all worked out.

I believe I am the only person left on the production side who worked on the first Breeders’ Cup and is still working on it. When we got off the air on November 10th of 1984, I remember going out to the apron of the track at Hollywood Park with wonderment in my eyes. None of us knew exactly what it would be like, but when it was all over, we knew this was a special event with great promise for the future. Although the Breeders’ Cup has evolved significant to its current format, I have a feeling that Mr. Gaines and Mr. Nerud would’ve approved. The purpose of the event was to unify the industry around true World Championship races, and it has done just that.

If you’ve never seen the Breeders’ Cup, reserve some time on November 4th and 5th. Words do not do justice to the idea of one great and important race after another, about 35 minutes apart. The Kentucky Derby may be viewed as the greatest two minutes in the sport, but the Breeders’ Cup is surely the greatest two days on the annual calendar. Have a great time watching it, and as you do, pick some winners along the way.