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Monday, October 28, 2013
Evolution of the Breeders' Cup

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

There was no shortage of stars, from Kelso and beyond to Secretariat, Forego, Spectacular Bid and John Henry. Racing may have given up its place on the front burner of American sport as the NFL, driven by ingenious marketing and, the NBA gained market share alongside Major League Baseball.

But, even though the milk-and-honey era that was racing in the '70s saw three winners of the Triple Crown, the sport flagged, began to fray at the edges, yield to shadows cast by the soaring NFL. Change was heavy with an ill wind that still blows cold.

Television was -- and remains -- the most valuable of marketing tools, but they reasoned that exposure of racing on television would keep patrons away from the racetrack.

It was an entirely different sporting world in the early '80s with a playing field level at first but landscaped by insight, foresight, vision and money not universally shared. Almost none of what applies now was germane then. Cable television was in its infancy and primarily local. Legal gaming was local and restricted to Nevada and Atlantic City. Simulcasting was an experiment. The Internet no more than a foreshadowing of what it would become. Personal computers were crude, limited and widely expensive. Phones were still dumb. Twitter was a speech impediment and a blog was something unspeakable sucked from deep in a clogged pipe. Social media was a top-end sound system, a bottle of good wine and a Saturday night date.

The nation came to a standstill for "Monday Night Football." The Super Bowl was becoming an international holiday. A heavyweight championship fight was a huge, pay-per-view spectacle that dominated the news weeks in advance. But if someone wished to see a horse race, bet on a horse or spend an afternoon in the company of kindred spirits, the local racetrack was the only game in town and often required travel. Off-track betting was established widely only in New York and even there it was crude and distasteful.

Racing's movers and shakers of that era surveyed the landscape and neither moved nor shook. Television was -- and remains -- the most valuable of marketing tools. But, they reasoned, employing a sort of pre-Neanderthal brain freeze, the availability of racing on television would keep patrons away from the racetrack.

The metamorphosis of the shrinking media did not happen overnight. At the outset of the '80s, the print media remained robust and racing remained prestigious with most sports editors, a key source for entries, results, selections and daily coverage. News cycles were limited. Sports sections sold papers and racing information was important to the product, particularly in established markets. Press boxes in New York, California, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Kentucky were vibrant -- travel destinations as these tracks hosted major races in a seasonal rotation. Others -- Cleveland, Detroit and San Francisco were staffed by writers and handicappers. Racing's print media was still a long way from passing the wrong way through the looking glass. The destination was, however, inevitable. But newspapers, as decision makers the media grew younger and timid, followed television's lead. Racing's most important leaders eschewed television outside the Triple Crown. Racing depended upon newspapers, and newspapers had already begun to decline.

It made no sense to a handful of Kentucky breeders, led by John Gaines and John Nerud, that as other sports built dramatic momentum toward a finale, racing's various titles were decided piecemeal and primarily in New York. There was no equivalent to the Super Bowl or World Series, only occasional television exposure. It didn't get better than a seven-game series, but racing allowed for no such drama. Racing's most marketable and popular events were confined to the spring.

Finally, moving and shaking in racing actually resulted in things being shaken and moved. In 1982, Gaines announced the formation of Breeders' Cup Ltd., and outlined what they envisioned as the resultant: Best Day of Racing Ever.

If it is true that a prophet is last recognized in his own homeland, Gaines' struggle to win support for the Breeders' Cup concept is a sterling example.

The concept was neither immediately nor universally embraced, and the execution was not assured until NBC signed on to broadcast the Breeders' Cup live over a span of five hours. Those who supported Gaines saw an exciting, long-overdue enhancement of an ancient, moribund sport. Those who did not support his vision sat back and waited for failure, a posture not unfamiliar in the racing industry.

Gaines first faced a daunting challenge -- to win over major commercial breeders to support the idea, as they would fund a large part of the program's expenses through stallion and foal nomination fees. With a sufficient portion of industry supporting him, he announced a master plan for an unprecedented $10 million race day for the world's best horses headlined by the $3 million Classic, which would be the richest horse race in the world. To keep smaller breeders from withdrawing their support, Gaines also devised the Breeders' Cup National Stakes program, a series of races across North America with part of the purse funded by the Breeders' Cup to be paid out only to nominated horses.

In February 1983, Hollywood Park was named the host of the inaugural Breeders' Cup, selected since the board felt the first running should be in a warm climate for the benefit of television, a similar strategy employed by the Super Bowl. By September, the final contract was signed with NBC, forming a partnership that would last and thrive until 2006. Nevertheless, the industry at large was hesitant to stand behind the most important innovation racing has ever seen. Most racetracks chose to simulcast only a few races, including many of the nation's largest ovals.

Still, the world's racing media, lured by a collection of American and international stars, both equine and human, gathered in Los Angeles. The American racing media remained robust in 1984 and many larger newspapers dispatched more than one reporter to Hollywood Park.

That wait for vindication, in both supportive and negative camps, would come to a sudden end in a distinctly personal and unique eureka moment at Hollywood Park in November 1984. The Breeders' Cup was judged unanimously to have been a huge success carried by unforgettable performances and enthusiastically endorsed by the elite of the Hollywood entertainment community, It was the first racing event made for television, and it worked in every sense; the best of the best meet the best of the best.

That was then; this is now.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Gaines' vision was acute and well ahead of the curve, but not for long. The first Breeders' Cup was an explosion of the most that thoroughbred racing had to offer condensed into five breathless hours that would become moments frozen in time. Those who witnessed those seven races each arrived at a point at which it became obvious that the game had been profoundly and forever changed, its character and purpose transformed. The sport of kings could be better, but it never had been.

The American racing media remained robust in 1984, and many larger newspapers dispatched more than one reporter to Hollywood Park.

The event evolved into its present form in small steps while retaining the character of the moveable feast its founders envisioned -- after Hollywood Park, it was hosted by Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park, Arlington Park, Woodbine, Lone Star Park and Monmouth Park. The Filly & Mare Turf was the first expansion of what has become two days of wall-to-wall racing that has grown in size and scope of competition while at the same time contracting in generally available media coverage. It is now designed to maximize duration and scope for cable television and a global social media audience. Only the Classic is blessed with network exposure on Saturday night. It has also become anchored at Santa Anita, as most other potential venues have for various reasons become unsuitable. Many have shifted focus to alternative gambling; others in the East no longer fit the prime-time Saturday format. Alternative wagering platforms and the expansion of simulcasting and Internet-based wagering and international wagering participation have tilled a deep field for bettors.

Still, 30 years after the first Breeders' Cup, it is doubtful the John Gaines would look upon this anniversary with approval. He would no doubt marvel at technological advances he dared not imagine in the '80s. Like those who recall the first Breeders' Cup as the perfect and personal racing event, Gaines would likely rail at the expansion to 14 races run over two days, regardless of the marketing advantages, carp at the inclusion of races meaningless to the determination of championships and almost certainly make known his disapproval of what his 30-year-old child had become in maturity.

Age has its curmudgeonly privilege.

The Internet has changed the world, altered every part of life and the only wonder remaining rests in things we have not yet imagined. Likely, Gaines would recognize this, too.