Commentary

Breeders' Cup nostalgia

Updated: October 21, 2012, 11:54 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Personal Ensign wins 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff by nose over Winning Colors.Horsephotos.comPersonal Ensign's 1988 Distaff victory over Winning Colors was a great moment for racing fans.

The greatest Breeders' Cup ever, in my view, was the 1988 renewal. The track was muddy, and as darkness descended, it made vision increasingly difficult for many. The atmosphere was eerie; expectations mingled with anxiety. But at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch, those blue and white diamonds that had become so familiar during the season emerged through the haze and into view. And the Classic concluded, you might recall, with announcer Tom Durkin saying, "Alysheba, America's horse, has done it."

Will there ever be another Breeders' Cup like it?

Early in the day, on the grandstand apron, fans had unfurled a banner that urged, "Alysheba for President." Alysheba never before had won a wet track and, in fact, had run horribly the previous year in a sloppy Travers, hence the anxiety. But after that Classic performance, after he won by a half-length over a determined Seeking the Gold to become the richest of racehorses, Alysheba probably would have won any election among voters at Churchill. And if not Alysheba, then Personal Ensign, who earlier had got up in a final surging stride, on an overwhelming wave of volition, hers and Randy Romero's and all her fans', to win the Distaff by a nose over Winning Colors and keep her record unblemished.

Will there ever be another Breeders' Cup like that 1988 edition? With a declining foal crop and a furosemide ban, with the British Champions Day at Ascot scheduled for Saturday, where European stars Excelebration, Nathaniel and, of course, Frankel, will race just two weeks prior to the Breeders' Cup, we can only hope.

Any assessment of great Breeders' Cups unavoidably becomes personal. And some observers might insist that the greatest Breeders' Cup culminated with Tiznow's winning for America, or Zenyatta's dramatic charge through the Santa Anita stretch or Sunday Silence's third victory over Easy Goer. I won't argue against any of those. But I remember being so overcome with the experience of that 1988 Breeders' Cup, so moved and dazzled by the proximity of greatness that I collapsed into a chair when it was all over and sat there for several moments before I could even begin to think of writing.

A few years ago, I think it was, racing fans voted for what they thought to be the greatest Breeders' Cup moments. Personal Ensign's victory topped the poll, and Alysheba's victory wasn't far behind. That 1988 Breeders' Cup produced the best day of racing I have ever seen, and I'm not sure I'll ever see another like it, but, of course, I can only hope.

Alysheba (right) beats Ferdinand (center) and Good Taste to the wire in the 1988 San Bernardino Handicap at Santa Anita Park.
Horsephotos.comAlysheba gave fans some memorable moments in 1988.
One of the reasons for my skepticism is mathematical. For 1984, 1985 and 1986, the North American foal crops totaled 150,967, according to The Jockey Club. For 2008, 2009 and 2010, the North American foal crops totaled 93,397 (the 2010 crop is estimated to be 26,000). In other words, far fewer horses are racing today than in 1988. With fewer horses on the track, there are fewer superlative horses in the Breeders' Cup.

And yet there are more races. Back in 1988, the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships consisted of seven races, and they were indisputably championship contests. In 1999, an eighth race, the Filly and Mare Turf, was added. In recent years, the sport's championship event has been pullulated with populist additions, such as the Marathon and the Juvenile Turf. On Monday, pre-entries will be taken for 15 Breeders' Cup races, more races now than there are championships. And so, if three foal crops can be assumed to reflect the horse population, about 38 percent fewer horses are on the track than 24 years ago, but they have 114 percent more Breeders' Cup races to run in.

That has led inevitably to a dilution of quality. With today's format, would Seeking The Gold even have been in the Classic to challenge Alyshbea? Seeking The Gold had won seven of his 11 races at distances shorter than 1 1/4 miles, but only one of four at the Classic distance. Would Thirty Six Red, who ran third in the 1990 Classic, and Congaree, who ran fourth in 2003, have gone instead into the Dirt Mile?

And what about Very Subtle, Safely Kept and Desert Stormer? They all won the Breeders' Cup Sprint. With today's format, would they instead have raced in the Filly and Mare Sprint? For 2001, Xtra Heat was named the champion 3-year-old filly in part on the strength of her narrow loss in the Sprint. With today's format, would she have had the opportunity to test her speed against males? And wouldn't Groupie Doll, who'll probably be heavily favored in this year's Filly and Mare Sprint, be an intriguing addition to the Sprint field?

But that won't happen. And I fear a Breeders' Cup like 1988's won't happen again either. But we can all hope.