When the Breeders' Cup is run Saturday at Gulfstream Park, it will be universally recognized as American racing's most important event. It is the main objective for almost every top-class horse in the United States, and many from Europe as well. It will determine most of the sport's year-end championships.
Yet when the Breeders' Cup was conceived and first run in 1984, many people in the thoroughbred business opposed it and others doubted that it would succeed. The event was born not because everybody liked the concept, but because one man pushed so hard for it.
"There are two ways to build a consensus," John R. Gaines said. "One is to have endless meetings and reduce an idea to the lowest common denominator. The other is to create a consensus because of the validity and common sense of the idea."
Common-sense ideas don't necessarily prevail in the thoroughbred racing industry, whose many factions and fiefdoms can rarely agree on anything. But Gaines commanded enough respect to make people listen to his plan for a year-end championship event.
He made his fortune through the family business, Gaines Dog Food, and he always had a keen interest in animals of all types. But horses particularly fascinated Gaines, because breeding them poses such a great challenge. The object is not to produce a particular physical type but to create such intangible qualities such as courage and character. He initially followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by breeding and racing harness horses, and in 1962 he started a thoroughbred division of Gainesway Farm. By acquiring such great European runners as Vaguely Noble, Lyphard and Blushing Groom, he built Gainesway into one of the great breeding operations in the world.
Gaines conceived of a way to finance a blockbuster day of races that on Saturday will offer $13 million in purse money. Drawing from his background in harness racing, where big purses are typically generated by nomination fees, he envisioned that owners of stallions would pay to nominate each stallion's progeny. He sold this idea to other breeders. "Once we had the major seven or eight stallions owners in agreement, everything fell into place," Gaines said. "You didn't need to convince every element in racing, and this was a good thing. And when NBC agreed to put on the event, that brought it all together."
But some important elements in the industry were unconvinced and uncooperative.
"Everybody [in racing] has his own little fortress," Gaines said. "The major naysayers were in the Eastern racing establishment." If the Breeders' Cup succeeded, it was going to supplant races such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Champagne Stakes, which had been the sport's year-end championship events.
When the first Breeders' Cup was run in 1984, nobody was quite sure what to expect of it. But the afternoon at Hollywood Park was so electrifying that the concept was an instant success. Racing fans had always been accustomed to waiting hours for a single big event, and the pace of the Breeders' Cup--with a championship race every half-hour--was breathtaking. Wild Again's 31-to-1 victory in the Classic, after a stretch battle with Slew O' Gold and Gate Dancer, is still remembered as one of the sport's most exciting finishes.
That race established a pattern for the Breeders' Cup. Year after year, it produced drama that met or exceeded every fan's expectations. In 1987, two Kentucky Derby winners faced each other in a showdown that would determine the horse of the year. Ferdinand and Alysheba each ran the race of his life, and Ferdinand hung on to win by a nose. When Personal Ensign sought to complete an undefeated career in the 1988 Distaff, she had to rally furiously to catch Winning Colors in the last stride. When Sunday Silence and Easy Goer fought the climactic battle of their great rivalry in 1989, Sunday Silence held on to win what was probably the best Breeders' Cup race ever run.
Gaines can justifiably bask in pride over what he created, but he is a realist and he sees where the Breeders' Cup has fallen short.
"It's been an enormous success with racing aficionados, but my goal was for the Breeders' Cup to become part of the psyche of American sports fans as other championships events are," he said. "That has not proved to be the case. When you look at the [television] ratings for the Breeders' Cup, they're pathetic."
Does this mean that racing is permanently consigned to a marginal position in the spectrum of American sports? "We can't accept that," Gaines said. He is hopeful that the creation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association will spur the sport's resurgence, but he recognized, "Our competition is profound and fierce. We neglected our customer base for 50 years. We can't expect to do it in five years."
Perhaps the NTRA will move the game forward by exploiting the possibilities of in-home and interactive betting. But as it tries to do so, the divisions within the industry keep showing. The NTRA may form endless committees in an effort to build a consensus, but it's hard to create bold new ideas this way. What racing needs are a few more men like John Gaines who can tell the sport: "This is the right idea. Do it this way."