ARCADIA, Calif. -- An event that would present the world's richest and best racing to an international audience and would insist that competition, not voters, confer championships -- that was the vision 30 years ago, and that, for the most part, hasn't changed. The golden Eclipse Award -- symbolic of the Horse of the Year -- a congregation of titles and a flock of honors all beg to be won Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita during the 15-race, $25.5 million extravaganza known throughout the world as the Breeders' Cup. Fortunes will be made and lost -- reputations, too -- and greatness might be glimpsed, maybe even defined, all in the tradition of the Breeders' Cup as it was envisioned 30 years ago.
But the sport itself has changed significantly. And the Breeders' Cup has reached a crossroads.
Back in 1982, when John Gaines of Gainesway Farm announced plans for the Breeders' Cup, he imagined that horse racing could have a championship event comparable to the World Series, although compressed, as is the nature of the sport, into a single day. Two years later, Chief's Crown won the very first Breeders' Cup race, the $1 million Juvenile, and the great Princess Rooney romped in the $1 million Distaff. After three horses converged on the wire in the inaugural Classic, 64,254 fans at Hollywood Park along with a national television audience waited for a photograph to reveal and an inquiry to confirm Wild Again as the winner of the richest race in the world, the $3 million Classic.
Even though its purse has grown to $5 million for Saturday's 29th running, the Breeders' Cup Classic is no longer the world's richest race. The Japan Cup, Melbourne Cup and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe are all more lucrative -- and, some might argue, more alluring. The World Cup in Dubai has trumped the Classic with a $10 million purse.
"It's the Olympics of racing," said trainer Aidan O'Brien, of Ireland, who has saddled six Breeders' Cup winners. "All over the world people want to run in the Breeders' Cup. It's massive."
And so again, the Europeans have arrived in force. How do America's horses rate? How do they stack up against the world's best? That remains one of the enduring storylines, even though the Europeans have been dominating recent Breeders' Cup races on the turf. No American-based horse, in fact, has won the Breeders' Cup Turf since English Channel in 2007. Last year at Churchill Downs, O'Brien won the Turf with St. Nicholas Abbey.
And St. Nicholas Abbey is trying to repeat. Again he'll be ridden by the trainer's son Joseph. But this year they'll face Point Of Entry, who has won five consecutive races, including four stakes.
The most telling race, however, in this enduring rivalry will be Saturday's Breeders' Cup Mile. Despite living, and often running, in the shadow of a horse named Frankel, regarded by many as one of the best of all time, Excelebration has been rated as one of Europe's finest milers. He has lost only six times in his life, and five of those losses were to Frankel, whose perfection never seriously got questioned in a 14-race career. With Frankel's retirement, Excelebration, could be the best miler in Europe, maybe in the world, but he'll have to prove it Saturday, against America's best.
And that's Wise Dan, who has won three consecutive major stakes. He has won on synthetic surfaces and on dirt, he has won sprints and routes, and he has often sparkled. At a mile on the turf, he's superlative.
Back in 1984, seven horses who raced in the initial Breeders' Cup were named champions, or Eclipse Award winners. Nor has that changed. Wise Dan and Point Of Entry are racing not just for the money, but also for a title Saturday; one of them will be the champion turf horse of 2012, maybe even Horse of the Year.
But if Game On Dude wins the Breeders' Cup Classic, he'll win the sport's highest honor. With major stakes victories piled five-high, and with the richest of American races included in that gaudy pile, the golden Eclipse would belong to the Dude. That's certain. Another Eclipse would probably go to his trainer, whose jocular demeanor sometimes conceals a relentless attention to detail. In Dubai in March, Bob Baffert had a heart attack. And so, he said, everything that has followed is his bonus time, and he intends to enjoy and cherish his bonus time. So far this year, horses from Baffert's barn have won 30 percent of all their starts, including 32 major, or graded stakes, and have earned nearly $13 million.
Second in the race a year ago, Game On Dude is the 9-5 favorite for Saturday's renewal at Santa Anita. But he'll probably have to run the race of his life if he's to keep that record intact. The appropriately named Mucho Macho Man is a giant of a horse who possesses a sizeable talent and he's capable of an upset, as are Fort Larned and Richard's Kid and a half-dozen or so others.
But perhaps the most serious threats to the Dude come from the stable of trainer Bill Mott, who won the Classic a year ago with Drosselmeyer. Mott has three horses in the Classic -- Flat Out, To Honor And Serve and Ron The Greek, who won the Santa Anita Handicap early this year. All three have trained impressively since arriving in California from New York.
But the appeal of the Breeders' Cup might even go beyond what was imagined 30 years ago, beyond the millions and the championships. Why, after all, do people watch and love sports? Could it be for the chance to approach greatness and for the opportunity to see greatness made vivid?
And Friday, there will be an unprecedented array of greatness. The field for the Ladies Classic includes three champions: My Miss Aurelia, Awesome Feather and Royal Delta, who won the race a year ago on her way to being named champion 3-year-old filly. My Miss Aurelia, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2011, and Awesome Feather, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2010, have both returned from serious injury and are both unbeaten. Yes, they're racing for the $2 million purse and for championships, or at least they represent those quests, but in truth they're racing to define, or redefine, their greatness.
But the Breeders' Cup, like racing, is changing. Since the 1980s, the country's foal crop, or the number of Thoroughbreds born in America, has dropped about 38 percent. And yet in 1984, there were seven Breeders' Cup races, and today there are 15.
Last year, 64 horses ran in the five Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds. This year, no more than 52 will run. The decline can be attributed, at least in part, to a ban on Lasix, or furosemide, which is a medication that discourages pulmonary bleeding. Lasix is used in every racing jurisdiction in the country, and most horsemen regard its use as a precaution. But suddenly, Lasix isn't permitted for 2-year-olds racing in the Breeders' Cup.
Breeders' Cup president Craig Fravel said this ban represents the "first step toward extending the policy to all" Breeders' Cup races next year. Or, when combined with declining foal crops and increased international competition, is it a step toward a dangerous uncertainty and a precarious future? The races on Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita could provide the answers.