Chief's Crown was the first ever winner of a Breeders' Cup race when he won the 1984 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Photos courtesy of Horsephotos.com)
Anyone who has been a longtime fan of horse racing has probably visited a lengthy number of racetracks.
Mine, for a 40-year association with the sport, is relatively small.
I’ve never been much of a traveler or flier, even though I grew up less than 10 miles from Kennedy Airport and large chunks of my youth were spent looking up at landing gear. So my own list numbers a little more than a dozen active Thoroughbred tracks. It’s a group that includes Belmont, Saratoga, Aqueduct, Monmouth, The Meadowlands, Del Mar, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Hialeah and Suffolk.
There are also about a half-dozen others who have closed their doors.
They include Garden State, Rockingham, Northampton Fair, the original El Comandante and, in less than a week, Hollywood Park.
The final program at Hollywood Park will place on Sunday, Dec.22, bringing down the curtain on one of America’s most famous racetracks.
There’s surely no shortage of fans with great memories of the Inglewood, Calif., track, including this writer who was there for the most important day in the facility’s 75-year history.
As hard as it may to be believe right now, there was indeed a time when the concept of the Breeders’ Cup was scoffed at. But through the vision, perseverance and determination of people like John Gaines and John Nerud, horse racing’s championship day became a reality.
It was seven races, each worth at least $1 million, on a single card that offered a mind-boggling $10 million in purse money and an unprecedented four hours of national television exposure.
THE POSTER ADVERTISING THE FIRST BREEDERS' CUP
The entire day was a novel and exciting notion, akin in some ways to playing all seven games of the World Series on one day. At a time when Belmont Stakes Day would feature a single stakes, the promise of seven Grade 1 stakes on a single $10 million card was more than enough to entice even this reluctant flier to jet to the West Coast for the first time.
The potential for something great was in place, but everything had to work out perfectly in its inaugural edition to silence the skeptics.
And that’s what happened on Nov. 10, 1984 at Hollywood Park.
On a gorgeous, sunny day just outside Los Angeles a new era in racing dawned, and thanks in a large part to Hollywood Park it became a vital component in the very fabric of the sport. A collection of outstanding horses from both the United States and overseas gathered at Hollywood Park and put on the kind of show racing had never seen before but would be treated to for the next three decades on an annual basis.
The day started early, especially for someone visiting the Pacific time zone for the first time. At 11 a.m., 10 2-year-olds broke from the gate in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race that was a remarkably accurate harbinger of what was to come in the following spring’s Triple Crown. The top three finishers – Chief’s Crown, Tank’s Prospect and Spend A Buck - would account for wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, a second-place finish in the Preakness and a third in the Derby and Belmont Stakes.
The next race, the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, featured the disqualification of a 74-1 shot (Fran’s Valentine) and the elevation of a 22-1 shot, Outstandingly, who was owned by the same Harbor View Farm that campaigned 1978 Triple Crown champion Affirmed.
As the card continued, Eillo confirmed his status as a champion by winning the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint and a filly, Royal Heroine, beat the boys in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Mile.
ROYAL HEROINE WINS THE BREEDERS' CUP MILE
Princess Rooney came into the Breeders’ Cup with a reputation as the nation’s best older filly or mare and proved it through a powerful seven-length win in the $1 million BC Distaff.
The $2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf lost some of its luster when John Henry was injured and unable to race, but it still produced a memorable result when France’s Lashkari pulled off a 53-1 upset over the great turf mare and reigning Horse of the Year All Along.
The day’s final and richest race, the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, presented a stage for Slew o’ Gold to seal the deal as Horse of the Year. But in a thrilling and controversial three-horse stretch duel, it was 31-1 shot Wild Again who crossed the wire first by a head over Preakness winner Gate Dancer. Slew o’ Gold, the 3-5 favorite, was another half-length back in third but was moved up to second when Gate Dancer was disqualified for drifting in and crowding Slew o’ Gold, who, according to the chart of the race, was “severely roughed between rivals in the final sixteenth.”
AN EXCITING CLASSIC ENDED THE FIRST BREEDERS' CUP
It’s hard to believe Gaines, Nerud or anyone else connected with the Breeders’ Cup could have envisioned a day as successful and spectacular as the one that took place at Hollywood Park in front of a national television audience.
Put those same races in a cold, rainy, dreary setting and perhaps racing fans and horsemen might have lost interest in the series. But Hollywood Park was the perfect host and the memories of that wondrous November 1984 day in Inglewood, crafted the series into an event strong enough to withstand the cold and rain that came when it shifted to New York, Kentucky and even Canada in future years.
A new chapter in Thoroughbred racing was born at Hollywood Park and as a result the sport had its fall complement to the Triple Crown and as well as a longer season that culminated with a much-needed series of definitive races that would crown champions.
In his long history, Hollywood Park was home to many more renowned races than the seven that comprised the 1984 Breeders’ Cup. Yet for all of the famous stakes at the historic racetrack, it was a single day at Hollywood Park that had a greater impact on the sport than any of those individual races.
Soon Hollywood Park will be shuttered, but the gift it gave Thoroughbred racing will live on and in 2014 that present to fans and horsemen will return to California. Santa Anita, for a third straight year, will be the Home of the Breeders’ Cup and a new set of unforgettable moments will be ushered in.
Meanwhile, the Birthplace of the Breeders’ Cup, will be nothing more than a grand memory of great races and spectacular days, like the one in 1984 that changed the course of racing’s history.
And for that, Hollywood Park will always have a warm spot in my heart and anyone else who belongs to a thankful generation of fans and horseman whose memories of that glorious Nov. 10, 1984 afternoon will never leave them.