The 28 years of horse racing’s traveling carnival, also known as the Breeders’ Cup, have been a tale of more than two cities; 10, actually, if you count Los Angeles and New York twice each for their separate participating tracks.
The history of this back-up-the-Brink’s-truck event is best captured by continuing to borrow from Charles Dickens. It has had the best of times and the worst of times. There has also been a parade of colorful characters and achievers.
The worst of times was in 1990, when the sport had its gut punched with the fatal fall of Go For Wand. Nineteen years later, a husky lady named Zenyatta brought with her the best of times.
Before, during and after, there has been so much.
It has happened as the Breeders’ Cup has rotated from Churchill Downs in Louisville, to Belmont and Aqueduct in New York, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita in Los Angeles, Gulfstream in Miami, Lone Star Park in Dallas, Arlington Park in Chicago, Woodbine in Toronto and Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
The first Breeders’ Cup, then a one-day, $10-million, seven-race show, went off at Hollywood Park in 1984, and the main event, the Classic, was a near three-way dead heat. After a long wait, it was ruled that 31-1 shot Wild Again had edged out bigger-name, better-bred Slew Of Gold and Gate Dancer. It was the moment of a lifetime for trainer Vincent Timphony, who had encouraged everybody to bet his horse. Wild Again paid $64.60, and as the celebrating Timphony contingent left Hollywood Park, several tossed $100 bills over the balcony.
In 1986 at Santa Anita, an interesting pair combined to win the Juvenile Fillies with Brave Raj. Mel Stute was the trainer and a man who has never seen a wager he doesn’t like. Dolly Green, an elderly new owner, was as delightful as she was rich. The daughter of oilman Burton Green, she once told a reporter her wealth was from her father’s founding of Beverly Hills.
Just how much of Beverly Hills did he own, the reporter asked. “All of it,” Green said.
In 2001 at Belmont, another interesting pair shared the winner’s circle. Trainer Julio Canani, who speaks eight languages, often in the same sentence, saddled Val Royal to the Mile title. The owner was Hollywood producer David Milch. Ten years later, Milch brought a series to HBO called “Luck.” It included several quirky racing figures, some speaking eight languages in the same sentence. “Luck” had none. Several horses died during production and the show was canceled.
Curlin won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park in 2007, bringing much introspection from his wealthy owner, Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson Winery. Would Jackson allow Curlin to run on Santa Anita’s controversial synthetic track in 2008? A scheduled workout before the Breeders’ Cup brought Jackson in. He and a party of six arrived from Northern California, spent 10 minutes observing, had lunch at the Derby and flew home. Curlin ran and lost to a European horse better on synthetics, Raven’s Pass.
In 2005 at Belmont, a Bob Lewis-owned horse named Folklore won the Juvenile Fillies. Lewis, a retired beer distributor, had come to racing in 1990 with money and a personality as big as his booming voice. He barely missed winning Triple Crowns twice and set a fire under a simmering sport. Leading trainers then were D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert. Owners jockeyed to get either. Lewis had both. Four months after Folklore won, Lewis died and so did a little of racing.
Breeders’ Cup greatness has punctuated great careers.
Lukas is 77 and still going. He has won a record 18 Breeders’ Cup races. Baffert is 59, has so many horses he needs a census taker and has won seven Breeders’ Cup races. But neither had a day like Richard Mandella’s in 2003, when he won four races.
Jerry Bailey rode his 15th Breeders’ Cup winner in 2005 at Belmont Park, then retired the next year. That 15 looked difficult to reach. Then Mike Smith turned for home in last year’s Classic at Churchill and kept going on Drosselmeyer, to a record-tying 15th win.
Go For Wand went down in 1990 at Belmont.
The year before at Gulfstream, Ron McAnally’s Bayakoa won the Ladies Classic and Go For Wand the Juvenile Fillies. That set up a much-hyped Ladies Classic for the next year. They went neck and neck down the never-ending Belmont stretch until Go For Wand shattered a leg at the 16th pole, directly in front of a large crowd and an even larger TV audience. Go For Wand was euthanized and part of the sport’s fan base also departed.
Nineteen years later, the ever-present Smith loosened the reins on an unbeaten mare named Zenyatta, 1,275 pounds of come-from-behind muscle, and urged her past the main grandstand at Santa Anita and past the rest of the field. The call from Trevor Denman was in perfect cadence to Zenyatta’s closing lunges. “Un-Be-Lieve-A-Ble,” Denman bellowed, over a screaming, goose-bumped crowd.
A female horse, especially one so beloved, had never beaten the boys in this toughest of races. It took nearly two decades, but racing had an antidote to Go For Wand.
This year’s version of the Breeders’ Cup, Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita, is now 14 races worth more than $25 million. Zenyatta is in Kentucky having babies, Dolly Green died in 1990, Vincent Timphony in 2010 and Jess Jackson in 2011.
But Stute is around, looking for a dream superfecta, Denman still has the microphone, Smith has rides and Canani still speaks Mandarin Latin.
More best of times await.