A world-weary journalist walked into Hollywood Park on the day of the Breeders' Cup and observed, "You know, there's no real excitement or electricity here. This feels like just another day at the races."
I had to agree with this observation, but I thought I understood the phenomenon.
None of the 64,254 people at the track knew exactly what to expect. Racing fans who go to the Kentucky Derby know that when the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home" and when the starting gate springs open, those moments are sure to be charged with high emotion and drama. For the Breeders' Cup, we had no such sense of anticipation because we had no idea what it was going to be like.
But now we do. And after experiencing Saturday's races here, I know for certain that my pulse is going to quicken on Nov. 2, 1985, when the second Breeders' Cup is run at Aqueduct. I thought Saturday's extravaganza was just what its promoters envisioned: the greatest day in racing. The day was consistently exciting; indeed, it was almost overwhelming.
Bringing together all the best horses, jockeys and trainers in the country produced one memorable moment after another. There were two undeniably brilliant performances, both by fillies: Royal Heroine equaled a world record in the one-mile turf race, and Princess Rooney won the Breeders' Cup Distaff by seven lengths, suggesting that she might be the best thoroughbred of either sex in the country.
But the ultimate moment of drama was, of course, the stretch run of the $3 million Classic, which found America's three greatest jockeys -- Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr. and Pat Day -- head and head, inches apart, in a supreme test of their strength and skill. By keeping Wild Again on a straight course, enabling him to survive a stewards' inquiry, Day delivered a $1 million ride -- a phrase that no longer is just a figure of speech.
Aside from the drama of the races, there was an element of the Breeders' Cup that its television audience probably couldn't sense: the drama of the betting.
Because Pick Six wagering was conducted on the final six Breeders' Cup races, serious handicappers and casual fans here focused intensely on all horses in all races. The interest level from the betting standpoint was extraordinarily high, as reflected by the fact that more than $700,000 was bet on the Pick Six alone, and $11.4 million was wagered on the whole day's card -- a staggering $178 per capita.
Nobody could have felt the excitement of the day any more intensely than one member of the press corps, Gordon Jones of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
Jones' syndicate of investors had the first five winners on its ticket, including Outstandingly ($47.60) and Lashkari ($108.80), and needed Gate Dancer or Slew o' Gold to complete the sweep for a Pick Six payoff that would surely exceed $100,000. When Wild Again held on in that stretch drive and survived a stewards' inquiry, the owners of Slew o' Gold and Gate Dancer weren't the only people in a state of shock. (The Slew o' Gold people were particularly upset because it was the final race for their horse, who has been retired to stud.)
Betting interest is one of the things that the Breeders' Cup needs to be a success, even if that concept offends the purists who run it. The reason that the Kentucky Derby attracts a rapt national audience has to do in part that every office in America has a pool on the race. Increased simulcasting from other tracks, with increased opportunities to bet on the Breeders' Cup, will give the country a taste of the excitement felt by people who were at Hollywood Park.
The Breeders' Cup also needs to make one change to ensure it will be the best possible attraction. It must liberalize the rules for making supplementary nominations.
The cost of the supplementary fees is onerously high, and the Breeders' Cup is sure to lose star performers in future years. The inaugural running wouldn't have had its most memorable moment except for the fact that the owners of Wild Again were irrational enough to spend $360,000 to make him eligible. That turned out to be one of the greatest winning gambles in the history of the sport.
The Breeders' Cup raised every decision by owners and trainers, every move by a jockey, every performance by a horse to a whole new level of importance, intensity and excitement.