- Paul Moran
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Its founders envisioned the best single day of racing ever, an assembly of the most accomplished horses of the day, the sport's first truly global view -- the racing world's crème de la crème -- at one venue, where every issue would be decided, every question answered, every champion identified. The racing world was skeptical, the plan seen as overly ambitious. Never, however, has doubt been dispelled so quickly.
At the quarter-century mark, the memory of the first Breeders' Cup remains vivid, an afternoon that unfolded in a succession of remarkable individual efforts. It began with Chief's Crown winning the first running of the Juvenile.
It gained momentum with Eillo's courageous victory in the Sprint. It hit a memorable high point when Princess Rooney unleashed a tour de force effort to conclude a stellar career with a powerful win in the Distaff. And it culminated with the epic victory by the lightly regarded Wild Again over Gate Dancer and Slew o' Gold in an inaugural Classic. The movie-star-studded Hollywood Park crowd of 64,254 was left white-knuckled, limp and euphoric.
That first running of the Breeders' Cup changed the sport forever, and while it obviously remains a work in progress 25 years later, it has accumulated a rich succession of races that define the careers and places in history of the horses that have risen brilliantly to the occasion.
Apropos its position, the richest race run in North America has provided great drama.
Including the first, in which Wild Again held on doggedly to hit the wire a head in front of the subsequently disqualified Gate Dancer, the Classic has nine times been decided by less than a length:
1985, Aqueduct: Proud Truth by a head from Gate Dancer.
1987, Hollywood Park: Ferdinand by a nose from Alysheba.
1988, Churchill Downs: Alysheba by a half-length from Seeking the Gold.
1989, Gulfstream Park: Sunday Silence by a neck from Easy Goer.
1994, Churchill Downs: Concern by a neck from Tabasco Cat.
1996, Woodbine: Alphabet Soup by a nose from Louis Quatorze with Cigar a head behind.
2000, Churchill Downs: Tiznow by a neck from Giant's Causeway.
2001, Belmont Park: Tiznow by a nose from Sakhee.
The Classic has also provided the stage for coronation at the conclusion of brilliant campaigns with appropriately dominant performances by dominant horses: A.P. Indy's 1992 victory at Gulfstream Park; Cigar's 1995 win at Belmont, which capped an undefeated 10-race season; Skip Away's 6-length win in 1997 at Hollywood Park after having been supplemented at a cost of more than $800,000 by owners Sonny and Carolyn Hine; Ghostzapper's emphatic 4-length romp at Lone Star Park in 2004; Invasor's crushing defeat of Bernardini at Churchill Downs in 2006; and last year, Curlin's triumph in the mud at Monmouth Park.
Though defined by Personal Ensign's heart-attack nose victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors at Churchill Downs in 1988, her 13th and final win in an unblemished career, the Distaff (now the Ladies' Classic) has been at least as reliable as the Classic as a stage upon which supremacy is established beyond question.
Beginning with Princess Rooney, who was a 7-length winner over Life's Magic in the inaugural, champion fillies and mares have punctuated careers and seasons with dominant performances in the Distaff.
Life's Magic's moment would come a year later at Aqueduct, where she defeated stablemate Lady's Secret by 6¼ lengths. Lady's Secret, in turn, was a front-running 2½-length winner in '86, defeating Fran's Valentine, who gained the distinction of being the first Breeders' Cup winner to be disqualified after finishing first in the '84 Juvenile Fillies. Inside Information's 13½-length margin over stablemate Heavenly Prize remains the lengthiest victory in Breeders' Cup history. Ajina separated herself by 2 lengths in her 1997 win over Sharp Cat. Azeri dismissed Kentucky Oaks winner Farda Amiga by 5 lengths at Arlington Park in 2002 and Ashado won easily, by 1¼ lengths, from Storm Flag Flying at Lone Star in '04.
If the Classic and the race formerly known as the Distaff have been the bulwarks of the first quarter-century of the Breeders' Cup, each of the other races has contributed to what is a rich history for a relatively young event.
Though European participation in the Juvenile has been minimal, two of the most memorable performances by 2-year-olds in the Breeders' Cup belong to a colt trained in France and another in Ireland.
Arazi's wild advance through traffic from far behind the leaders to a laughing 5-length victory in 1991 at Churchill Downs made him a champion on two continents and established him as the first foreign-based winter favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Johannesburg prompted the unfurling of dozens of Irish flags when he won the Juvenile at Belmont Park in 2001, a year in which the Breeders' Cup was the first international sporting event staged in the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Two fillies trained by D. Wayne Lukas provided what was perhaps the high point of the first 24 runnings of the Juvenile Fillies -- a race won by several notable fillies who went on to outstanding careers. Flanders battled Serena's Song, eye-to-eye at every stride of a mile and a sixteenth at Churchill Downs in 1994 and finally prevailed by the head. Flanders suffered an injury and would not race again, but her talent was underscored by the long and prolific career enjoyed by Serena's Song, a champion multiple Grade I winner who retired as the all-time leading money winning female.
Europeans dominated the early years of the Mile but none with the flair of the champion French filly Miesque, who in 1987 and '88 became the first dual winner of a Breeders' Cup race, prevailing easily at Hollywood Park and Churchill Downs with even more aplomb.
American horses would leave indelible marks on the Mile's history. Lure would follow in the succession of repeat victors, winning in 1992 at Gulfstream Park and again in '93 at Santa Anita. Da Hoss would miss a year and was sidelined for almost two years after his first Mile victory but won in 1996 at Woodbine and again, despite the long absence from competition and having had only a single prep race beforehand, at Churchill Downs in '98.
The story lines woven into the history of each of the original seven Breeders' Cup races are as colorful and eclectic as the horses and people who have played starring roles in a quarter-century of racing, and what seemed evident when the dust settled at Hollywood Park on the afternoon of Nov. 10, 1984, is perfectly clear from this perspective. The vision of John Gaines and his brethren who conceived this idea have contributed to the racing game its most valuable asset since the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes were joined in the Triple Crown. Hopefully, those who steer the ship into the next quarter-century will benefit from similar enlightenment.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the quarter-century mark, the memory of the first Breeders' Cup remains vivid.