Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup

With the 36th Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita fast approaching, international expert Nicholas Godfrey reflects on how the event came about.

  • Tuesday 22 October
  • Blog
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CHIEF’S CROWN. Make a note of the name for quiz purposes, because that was the name of the two-year-old who made history by becoming the first horse to win at the Breeders’ Cup.

November 10, 1984, was the date on which the dream became reality with the creation of an autumnal US championship meeting featuring unprecedented prize-money levels. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was the first of just seven races back then, only two of them on grass, namely the Turf and the Mile; a third was added with the Filly & Mare Turf 15 years later.

Chief’s Crown duly justified odds-on favouritism under Donnie MacBeth en route to championship honours. Tank’s Prospect and Spend A Buck came second and third; the following year, they won the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby respectively. All in all, it wasn’t such a bad way to start.

Watch the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd November.

Fast forward into the modern era and just over a week away at Santa Anita comes the 36th edition of a two-day spectacular, now a longstanding feature of the global racing programme featuring 14 top-class races and $30 million in prize-money and awards.

It wasn’t quite like that at the start, though looking back through the gunsight of history it is no exaggeration to suggest the racing world was utterly transformed by the advent of the Breeders’ Cup – which is probably why the inaugural card was placed at number one in the Blood-Horse’s list of Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments in the 20th Century. Number two was Seabiscuit vs War Admiral.

A few years in the making, the Breeders’ Cup was the brainchild of racing power broker John Gaines, the master of Gainesway Farm, home to a succession of hugely influential stallions such as Lyphard, Riverman, Blushing Groom, Vaguely Noble and Irish River.

Gaines, who died in 2005 aged 76, spent much of the early 1980s lobbying, persuading and generally cajoling the various disparate groups involved in US racing to buy into the idea of a spectacular showcase meeting to heighten excitement in horse racing.
The Arlington Million, founded in 1981, had moved racing into the league of seven-figure purses. The Chicago race was soon to be overshadowed; the Breeders’ Cup Classic would offer a world-record prize fund of $3m.

With Dr. Fager’s trainer John Nerud instrumental as a vocal supporter, Gaines tabled the idea for the new year-end championship at a news conference during Kentucky Derby week in 1982. For the first time, Grade 1 events in many of the major categories would be contested on the same card with the aim of producing championship clashes. Think racing’s answer to the Super Bowl or World Series.

Before the Breeders’ Cup, horses based on the east and west coast could (and did) meet in various Grade 1 races – but they could also easily be kept apart. Avoidance tactics were harder to achieve if a championship depended on running at the Breeders’ Cup. In Britain, Cheltenham is often referred to as jump racing’s Olympics; the Breeders’ Cup offered stature.

If the event’s title sounded a trifle arcane, to be fair breeders were paying for the whole shebang, funded by a proportion of a stallion’s annual fee; foals could also be nominated to the event for a fee eventually agreed at $500. The races were to be operated by Breeders’ Cup Ltd., a company formed for the purpose.

Nevertheless, these initial stages were anything but straightforward, as the Breeders’ Cup required a near-complete overhaul of the second half of the US Graded-stakes calendar and there were considerable objections, which threatened to destroy the concept at birth. “The Breeders’ Cup is in trouble,” suggested the Blood-Horse in August 1982. “Its detractors are many, for myriad reasons, and as of this writing it seems about to be buried under layer upon layer of criticism. The idea is too good to let die.”

Indeed it was. Compromises were reached – DG van Clief took over at the helm, with the combative Gaines stepping aside – and two years later, the first Breeders’ Cup came into being at Hollywood Park, chosen from eight racetracks who submitted a bid to host the new event. Nowhere near that number have thrown their hats into the ring in more recent years.

To the chagrin of a multitude of US racing fans, Hollywood Park is now defunct. What is more, it was never anywhere near Hollywood, being situated in the unlovely (and borderline edgy) district of Inglewood near LAX airport.

However, the glitterati were nonetheless front and centre at the first Breeders’ Cup, where Frank Sinatra got up on stage for a bit of crooning at the gala party, entertaining a well-heeled crowd featuring household names like Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Collins and Gregory Peck.

On the track, the Breeders’ Cup was an immediate success. Covered in an unprecedented four-hour live NBC broadcast, it attracted a crowd of 64,254 to Hollywood Park. The tremors were soon to be felt across the Atlantic, too, as the increasingly global outlook we now take for granted in the modern era was suddenly rendered less of a pipedream.

A handful of European-trained horses were among those chasing the $10m in purses, with the Aga Khan’s Lashkari landing a shock 53-1 victory in the inaugural Turf for France under the legendary Yves Saint-Martin.

He beat his compatriot, the reigning US horse of the year All Along, who had travelled from France to complete a notable hat-trick the previous year winning the Turf Classic, Rothman’s (Canadian) International and Washington DC International , three races that were soon destined – like so many others – to be diminished in status in the shadow of the burgeoning Breeders’ Cup. Australian champion Strawberry Road, by now based also based in France, was fourth.

A long, tall Englishman based in California trained the winner of the Mile in Robert Sangster’s Royal Heroine. You might have heard of him, as his name was John Gosden; fellow expat Neil Drysdale also scored with Princess Rooney in the Distaff.

Among those behind Royal Heroine, who had started life in Britain with Michael Stoute, were top Guy Harwood-trained miler Lear Fan and Greville Starkey, who also teamed up with Leger third Alphabatim, close fifth in the Turf. Barry Hills saddled Prego (ninth of ten in the Mile under Pat Eddery) while Bill O’Gorman’s Reesh was last under Tony Ives on dirt in the Sprint.

Charlie Whittingham, D Wayne Lukas and Richard Mandella were among those represented on the home team but the main event, the Classic, went to one of their less heralded colleagues Vincent Timphony, who gained much the biggest success of his career as 31-1 longshot Wild Again got the best of a dramatic three-way photo under Pat Day. The result of what was then the world’s richest race was confirmed only after a ten-minute stewards’ inquiry.

Unusually, Lukas – the winningmost trainer in Cup history with 20 victories – wasn’t responsible for any of the seven winners on that first card. But he was left in little doubt about what he had experienced, saying: “I told (son) Jeff and my staff that this is going to be bigger than anyone imagined.”

D Wayne wasn’t wrong, was he?






Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup
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