Breeders’ Cup: re-live that momentous first meet 35 years ago

The moment that stood out: Wild Again (2) holds off Gate Dancer (5) and Slew O’Gold to win the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic. Photo: Breeders’ Cup

The year was 1984, the month November, and the winds of change were blowing with more than their usual vim and gambol.

That was the month president Ronald Reagan won by a landslide a second term in office, shaping national politics in his image for the foreseeable future and beyond, Anna Lee Fisher was aboard the space shuttle Discovery’s satellite-deployment mission, making her the first mother to enter space, while Argentina and Chile buried the hatchet over a long-gestating maritime dispute.

It was also the month the first ever Breeders’ Cup was held, at Hollywood Park, altering in its wake the landscape of the industry like an overzealous bulldozer operator given no other commands but Go!

“It was the talk of the sport — something entirely new,” said Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens of the $10 million showcase, which featured the richest race ever held at that time: the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“We’d never raced for that kind of money. I’d never raced for that kind of money,” Stevens added.

“The season had always finished up in New York in September and October,” explained Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale, about the design of the racing year pre-BC. “It did — it reshaped it. Now it finishes wherever the Breeders’ Cup is, and all the races are leading to the Breeders’ Cup.”

Leading up to the event

Not that all the augurs before the event sprung were hopeful. That January, a headline in the newspaper of record, the New York Times, proclaimed the Breeders’ Cup to be “plagued by problems”.

Because the event was in its untested infancy, the peculiarities surrounding eligibility — a nomination fee of $500 to be paid the year the horse was foaled, along with the sire’s annual nomination — meant that more than 60 percent of horses in training “are not eligible to earn the bonuses or compete in the rich November races because they were not nominated”, the NY Times warned.

On top of that, many feared the hefty supplementation fee for horses that weren’t nominated — 20 percent of the purse for any particular race — would turn connections of many a top horse away from the event faster than a power outage at a sewage treatment plant.    

There was further consternation closer to home.

During the build-up, Hollywood Park itself underwent a series of facelifts at the behest of the track’s director and Catherine the Great-like matriarch, Marje Everett. 

The main track was extended from a mile to a mile and an eighth, and a new pavilion was erected beyond the wire. But not everyone thought the nip and tucks were necessary — nor especially inspired.

The new pavilion was an “architectural monstrosity”, said Blood-Horse and TRC columnist Jay Hovdey, who worked that day as co-manager of the Breeders’ Cup notes team. 

“This was a faux-modern, slab-sided cube of no appreciable style or grace,” Hovdey added. “On top of everything, it had awful angles of viewing.”

But when the Breeders’ Cup eventually arrived, questions of aesthetics were put firmly aside as the seven-race, four-hour telecast extravaganza erupted before a crowd of nearly 65,000. What’s more, the assembled fields boasted a rich and starry cast of headline acts that would have made Robert Altman green with envy, with a script that was equal parts melodrama, divine intervention, and down-and-dirty street-fight.

“I remember that day vividly,” said Alan Balch, who, at the time, was assistant general manager and director of marketing at Santa Anita.

“The weather was absolutely beautiful — spectacularly clear,” Balch added. “I was thinking, ‘my god, they’re going to blow the top off this thing.’”

‘Hindsight doesn’t get you anywhere’

In terms of sheer imperiousness, the day belonged, inarguably, to Princess Rooney, who powered to a seven-length victory in the Distaff (see video below) with the inevitable brilliance of Evelyn Ashford pitted in a 100-meters dash against the cast of the Golden Girls. 

Not that the race should have had such a lop-sided look to it, for it contained the winner of that year’s Kentucky Oaks (Lucky LuckyLucky), the winner of the next year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Life’s Magic), the six-time G1 winning Miss Oceana, and the two-time G1-winning Adored.

“She came into the race in excellent shape,” explained Drysdale, Princess Rooney’s trainer. “She’d just improved and improved.”

In fact, so confident was he of Princess Rooney’s bona fides, Drysdale and the horse’s owner, Jim Tucker, considered running the daughter of Verbatim in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was worth $2 million more than the Distaff.

“The night before we did the entries, we went out to dinner to discuss where to run her,” said Drysdale. “I said to them, ‘she’s so good right now that she could win the Classic.’”

Tempering those ambitions, however, was Princess Rooney’s failure at two and three to secure the imprimatur of champion, despite exceptional campaigns both years. 

“I said, if she goes to the Breeders’ Cup [Distaff] and wins it convincingly, she will be 4-year-old champion,” said Drysdale. “But at the same time, you do have the option of putting her in the Classic and she could win that.”

In the end they hedged their bets, and Princess Rooney streaked home before the huddled masses at Hollywood Park in a time nearly a full second faster than the winner of the Classic. 

Does Drysdale regret not running her in the ‘big one’ that year? 

“No,” he replied, emphatically shaking his head. “Hindsight doesn’t get you anywhere.”

‘The most star-crossed animal in America’ 

Excellence, however, isn’t calibrated only in the sublime. And, while Princess Rooney’s Distaff performance was a masterclass of master class, there was that day another performer whose triumphs over adversity propel her into rarified air.

“Long story short, Royal Heroine is one of the most courageous horses I have ever had the honor of being close to,” said Hovdey, of the John Gosden-trained filly who swept to a cozy win in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Mile in the colors of Robert Sangster.

But the ease of Royal Heroine’s victory belies a series of trials leading up the race that would have made even Job buckle.

Earlier that year, Royal Heroine was involved in a messy and tragic spill in the Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita, in which three horses went down and only one would eventually stand up.

“Back at the barn that afternoon, she was still kind of shaking, as though the adrenaline was still leaving her,” said Hovdey about Royal Heroine, who miraculously came out of the incident with scratches and bruises only. “John was a little bit shell-shocked, understandably.”

That wasn’t the end of it. In a breeze at Hollywood Park when preparing for her comeback, Royal Heroine’s mechanical equilibrium once again failed her.

“She slips and falls and goes belly-first along the turf, and it’s like, this is the most star-crossed animal in America,” said Hovdey. “But she gets up, she’s fine, she’s not even embarrassed. John takes a deep breath, draws a line through the training chart that day.”

Afterwards, things appeared on the good foot. Royal Heroine won her next two races in the Inglewood and Beverly Hills Handicaps. She then put up a series of very commendable performances in some of that year’s toughest assignments — she even made the mighty John Henry pull out all the stops with a gutsy front-running performance in the Arlington Million. 

Breeders’ Cup here we come. 

“What does she do the morning of the race? She sloughs a frog,” said Hovdey, about an injury to a vulnerable part of the foot. “Now, they’ve got to attend to her raw hoof. And then she goes out and sets the course record anyways.”

 ‘A disappointment of comprehensive proportions’

Talking of John Henry, the whole complexion of the Breeders’ Cup that day could have been different had the legendary prize-fighter made the line-up in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf.

John Henry’s owner, Sam Rubin, had already stumped up the initial $133,000 in supplemental fees. But a suspensory ligament injury ensured the Breeders’ Cup would unfurl without its biggest draw.

'”They tell me it’s the kind of thing that can come and go, but he probably wouldn’t be ready to run nine days from now,” Rubin told the NY Times, when there was still a slim chance of swift recovery. “If he’s even 50-50 by next Wednesday, we’ll put up the rest of the entry fee, but it doesn’t look good.”

As it turned out, John Henry’s racing career was effectively over. He would later retire a six-time Eclipse Award winner with over $6.5 million in the kitty.

“The fact that John Henry did not make the first Breeders’ Cup was a disappointment of comprehensive proportions,” said Hovdey, emphasizing the horse’s star-wattage. “They had to apologize about that at the top of the show.”

Without John Henry, the French-trained runner, Lashkari, beat a field that included All Along, Strawberry Road and Gato Del Sol, sowing the seeds of Euro-centric dominance in the Turf. Indeed, European-trained runners have won 22 of the 35 iterations of the race.

And what of the other races on the card?

‘Oh my god, my mom and dad are going to see me fall’ 

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Sprint went without hitch, going to Chief’s Crown and the Floridian speedball Eillo respectively. In contrast, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies — well, that was a messier affair altogether. 

The Earl Scheib-owned Fran’s Valentine passed the post first only to be demoted to tenth after a barging match at the top of the stretch. Outstandingly was awarded the winner’s tiara instead.

In a twist of bitter irony, the TV commercial that aired immediately after was for Scheib’s own discount car painting business. “One guy asked me how come I was smiling on television in the commercial that came right after the race. He didn’t realize that the commercial was taped,” Scheib told the LA Times, long after the event.

That wasn’t the only incident of note from the race. 

“We’d gone about an eighth of a mile and we were just crossing onto the main track. [Angel] Cordero was on the outside and he hung a left, shut half the field off, and I clipped heels with him,” said Stevens, about his Breeders’ Cup baptism of fire when just 21 aboard a filly called Got You Runnin’

“All I remember thinking was, ‘oh my god, my mom and dad are going to see me fall on national TV,’” Stevens added. “She went down to her nose, but I didn’t come off.” 

For that maneuver, Cordero, no stranger to the wallpaper in the steward’s room, received a five-day suspension.

As for that entire first Breeders’ Cup, was there a moment that stood out to Stevens above the others?

“Yeah, the Classic,” Stevens immediately replied, about the day’s concluding contest, which he watched from the jock’s room. “Seeing those three horses, Wild Again, Slew O’Gold and Gate Dancer coming down battling, with three legendary jockeys on them, bumping and banging.” 

‘I could hear him grunting’

Drill sergeant-tough and on a six-race winning streak that included five Grade 1s, Slew O’Gold was the heavy favorite under Cordero. But in Gate Dancer, he faced a worthy adversary. 

Though blessed with the sort of wayward temperament that would make Sean Penn look like Saint Francis of Assisi, Gate Dancer was also in possession of a heavenly engine, as evinced by his win in the Preakness Stakes the year prior. 

But Wild Again? There was a reason the horse was a 31/1 shot — in three seasons of racing, he had claimed only one top-flight contest, at Meadowlands two races prior. In his subsequent race, he was beaten in an allowance at Bay Meadows. 

“I can remember the race jump for jump,” said Wild Again’s rider, Hall of Famer Pat Day, about a race that has lasted longer in the wider consciousness than any other moment from that day. 

Breaking from the gates, Day slotted Wild Again into second, smoothly does it. But passing the wire, heading around the first turn, the horse on the inside, Mugatea, baulked into Wild Again’s path, prompting Day to snatch his left rein.

“As soon as I did, he locked onto the bridle and took off,” said Day.

Wild Again tore to the lead, Day bent double against a freight-train. “I couldn’t get him to turn off — just running way too fast.” There they remained, the talented Precisionist breathing fire onto their flanks, until the three-furlong pole, when Slew O’Gold ranged up ominously on Wild Again’s outside. 

Game over. 

“At that point, Wild Again had every license to throw in the towel,” said Day. “I really expected him to do that. I had ridden him before in a race, and he had done that, run off in the body of a race and have no finish.” 

Not so in the 1984 Classic, however. “Wild Again said ‘no, not today.’” 

Together, Wild Again, Slew O’Gold and Gate Dancer locked horns down the Hollywood Park straight, the three of them tighter than a sandwich (see video below). At the wire, it was Wild Again in front, Gate Dancer on the outside a close second, and poor Slew O’ Gold squeezed back into third. The stewards immediately intervened and reversed placings between the second and third.

“I have never been on a horse before and since who tried any harder in the last quarter of a mile than he did that day. He ran the last quarter of a mile with such determination and intestinal fortitude,” said Day, about Wild Again. 

“I could hear him grunting,” he added. “It was like when a ball is snapped in an American Football game, when they get ready to hit each other, they grunt and crunch.”

‘Most influential win of my career’

There’s more than a touch of poetic symmetry to the fact that an event that has played such a singular role in reshaping an entire sport should play destiny-maker in the fate of a single individual. 

Earlier that year, Day experienced a religious epiphany, he said. “I got set free from an addictive lifestyle of drugs and alcohol and sordid living.” Rather than riding for the “fame and fortune” alone, he said, “I was endeavoring to ride for my Lord, doing all that I could with all of my heart.”

And the Breeders’ Cup win aboard Wild Again was “probably the most influential win of my career in terms of catapulting my career to the next level”, he said. Indeed, for his work that year, Day won his first of four Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey. 

“I tell you what, I don’t think the Hollywood screenwriters could have written up a better script to end the inaugural Breeders’ Cup,” said Day. “That was really special, and I was very honored to be a part of it.”

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