John Gaines, who helped get racing through the 1980s by launching the Breeders' Cup, was asked if he had anything up his sleeve for the 1990s. Gaines laughed.
"I have nothing profound," he said. "But what racing needs is a national promotional campaign. A campaign that's backed by everybody in the industry--breeders, track managers, everybody. Racing's got a lot of fun to offer, but we've got to get the message out. There are even models out there for us to follow. These national campaigns have worked for other sports."
Three brainstorms shored up racing in the 1980s.
One of them, John Gaines' Breeders' Cup, almost died at birth.
Another, the Triple Crown bonus, came about because Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, the tracks with the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, were embarrassed by Garden State Park, a track that competed for their horses by offering a $2-million bonus.
The third innovation, the American Championship Racing Series, has died an untimely death after three successful years. The autopsy came back showing pettiness and narrow-minded thinking as the causes of death.
Several days before the Kentucky Derby in 1982, Joe Hirsch, the Daily Racing Form's executive columnist and racing's unofficial goodwill ambassador, was taking turf writers by the elbow in the press box at Churchill Downs.
"John Gaines is making a speech downtown," Hirsch said. "I'd suggest that you go. He's on to something."
Most didn't go, and missed out on a bit of history. This was the day Gaines announced his plans to start the Breeders' Cup.
He had privately nurtured the idea for three years, mentioning it only to some of his staff at Gainesway Farm and friends such as Nelson Bunker Hunt, a fellow horse breeder.
Hunt gave Gaines the nudge that got him going. "You've been telling me about this fool thing for three years now," he said to Gaines one day. "When are you going to do something about it?"
After Gaines had outlined his plan in Louisville, he approached stallion managers at dozens of breeding farms. They agreed to participate. The rules for Saturday's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita are much the same as Gaines first proposed them, and the foundation of the program is the farms paying stallion fees--some of them very expensive--to make the progeny eligible for the races.
In late summer of 1982, the late Arthur Watson of NBC visited Gaines at his summer home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Watson said that his network was interested in televising the seven Breeders' Cup races. Gaines had said from the start that one of his purposes was to give racing more exposure, and he needed a major network badly.
That November, Gaines met with the leaders of several major racetracks, "to make my pitch." Among the tracks represented were Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, the New York Racing Assn., Gulfstream Park, Woodbine, the Fair Grounds and Atlantic City Race Course.
Many of them had their own ideas, and separate agendas. The New York association, which represented Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga, wanted the races spread out over the year instead being run on one blockbuster day.
Racing has not stagnated without the absence of communal thinking. The tracks tinkered to death with Gaines' project before his core ideas prevailed.
"It was like any new idea coming along," Gaines said. "There's always going to be somebody out there trying to shoot you down."
With NBC in his camp, however, Gaines had an edge.
"The press was positive about the concept right from the beginning," he said. "And with NBC, that gave us some momentum."
The first Breeders' Cup was run at Hollywood Park on Nov. 10, 1984, to the echoes of Marje Everett, the track's resourceful chairman, saying that "there was nothing sinister" about promising the Breeders' Cup $200,000 of her own money during the site negotiations.
Everett made the most of Hollywood Park's opportunity, showcasing the game as it never had been. The show was a hit. Horsemen were overwhelmed.
When the overnight entry sheet for the races came out, trainer Roger Laurin, who had Chief's Crown, leaned against the
side of his barn, looked at the rundown and marveled: "I didn't think I'd ever see my horse in the first half of the daily
The first Breeders' Cup Classic, for $3 million, turned out to be one of the most exciting races ever run, with longshot Wild Again barely beating Gate Dancer and Slew O' Gold. The crowd at Hollywood was 64,254, and every one of the races had a Kentucky Derby feel.
The television ratings were flat, though, and in a few years Breeders' Cup officials conceded that the audience was not going to grow much. NBC was happy with the event anyway and will carry the Breeders' Cup Saturday for the 10th consecutive year.
Ironically, John Gaines, who started it all, has never run a horse in the Breeders'
"That's all right," Gaines said. "One of my ulterior motives, you know, was so my friends could win some races. But I am proud of the fact that, by my count, I've stood stallions that have sired seven Breeders' Cup winners."
Racing was in such doldrums in 1982 and 1983 that its Eclipse Award of Merit, for service to the industry, went to nobody.
"Magawd," said Kent Hollingsworth, a member of the award committee, "surely somebody did something for racing that we can give them the award."
In 1984, the Eclipse went to John Gaines, who ended the two-year gap in the award.
Three years ago, Barry Weisbord came along. Almost single-handedly, he organized the American Championship Racing Series, a cross-country tour of most of the country's major tracks, featuring the top horses, running for large purses and bonus money. Weisbord sold the concept to television, and the owners and trainers embraced it.
Three years later, for his reward, Weisbord was shown the door. Now he is working for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn., formulating a national marketing campaign, and racing is lucky to still
have him around. As Joe Hirsch once said about John Gaines, Weisbord is on to something.
The Thoroughbred Racing Assns., the trade group that represents most of the major tracks, said in giving Weisbord the gate that it will expand on his series.
As Bill Leggett wrote recently, "Don't be waiting on your curb for for anything to happen."