Three Decades: A Breeders’ Cup Journey by Vic Zast (Part II)

by | 10.25.2013 | 2:09am
Vic Zast at Churchill Downs before the 2011 Breeders' Cup

Horse racing writer and fan Vic Zast is among the rare few who have attended all 29 Breeders' Cups. Unfortunately, Vic's streak will likely come to an end this year as he recovers from an operation, and the World Championships celebrate their 30th anniversary. Still, Vic's dedication and determination to the sport's greatest two-day event is a tale that should be told, and he continues sharing it here.

Attend enough Breeders' Cups and something extraordinary will most certainly happen to you. You'll squeeze into a subway car crowded with toe-to-toe drunks on the rail spur to Manhattan from Belmont Park and get verbally frottaged. A Louisville taxi driver will drive you from a downtown hotel to a neighborhood restaurant, a distance of three miles, and charge you $70. The airlines will lose your luggage and you'll need to rent a tux so that you don't have to wear chinos, a tee-shirt and sneakers to a black-tie affair. Not to worry. The bumps in the road are a roller coaster ride.

What I've learned about Breeders' Cups is that the races are artifice. The swirl of the event lends color to engagement – an aesthetic where the art of storytelling develops without plan, the same as it does in real life. An unwritten script provides context to memories that arise from the darnedest developments. My family and I have had things happen to us that were unimaginable. We've made close friends of people we meet only one time a year. We've crashed parties to which we weren't invited. Desperate for winners, we've cashed tickets on horses the world's biggest dreamers wouldn't wager on.

Regardless, it's quite possible that my interest in the Breeders' Cup would have faded in time, if not for a much-needed revitalization in 2006. It was then that Greg Avioli, a young lawyer with big ideas that few people could predict at the time of his hire, came along to replace the incumbent, a conscientious custodian in practice, as president and CEO. In quick order, despite criticism and controversy, under Avioli's leadership the Breeders' Cup expanded from one to two days, added races in neglected categories, raised purses significantly, promoted international involvement and probably led to the prevailing belief that the event would be best situated in Southern California on a permanent basis. He understood that everyone would prosper with change and expansion, although neither has come easy. There's some question if stasis has returned to the office now that Avioli is no longer involved.

In any case, the lasting public image of that inaugural Breeders' Cup that I remember, as clearly as dawn, is of jockey Pat Day in the winner's circle, peering up into the heavens, the sun on his face like a ray of grace and his helmet in his hand like a miter. Day, who became a born-again Christian only a few years before, was a small-town Colorado cowboy who put behind decades of substance abuse. In an ironic twist of fate, he sat aboard the ironically-named Wild Again, the declared winner of a disputed Breeders' Cup Classic over Slew O' Gold and Gate Dancer in a three-horse photo finish following a stretch run that was earmarked by NASCAR etiquette. The photo had everything an evangelist could ask for. Horse racing seemed on the edge of a golden era.

Things ran smoothly, although not as aesthetically, in year two as the event shifted coasts. Somber, unimaginative Aqueduct Racetrack in dreary Queens drew almost 12,000 fewer racegoers than sunny Hollywood Park. I sat under a canvas roof on the wrong side of the clubhouse and had to walk through the building to watch the action live. It was the last time I went to a Breeders' Cup while expecting to be in a tent. But not the last time I was.

That Breeders' Cup II, to save on the high cost of a New York City hotel room, I spent the night in my daughter Annie's apartment, a two-room flat on the corner of Watts and Varick Streets in Manhattan that she shared with three friends. The place was so tiny that you could wash dishes in the kitchen while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom. It was so noisy that one of her roommates, a quirky guy with little tolerance for odd behavior aside from his own and a megaphone, would direct frustrated drivers in the cars entering the Holland Tunnel to stop honking their horns pretending to be a cop. The cozy confines were a far cry from the louche Plaza Hotel where I'd stay overnight in the future.

Nevertheless, the action on the track justified any inconvenience I might have endured. Breeders' Cup II included the upset of Storm Cat by Tasso in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the triumph by the English filly Pebbles over male horses in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Pebbles' victory served as a novelty for horseplayers. American handicappers didn't realize how far along the European horses had progressed and how favorably they compared to ours.

Later that afternoon, nonetheless, in winning the Classic, Proud Truth, owned by Darby Dan Farm, gave Breeders' Cup founders an indication that they'd win their share of the lucrative prize money being offered by an event they conceived, funded, and originated. Wagering soared as simulcast betting outlets increased, setting the stage for two breakthrough Breeders' Cups on the West Coast and a third at Churchill Downs.

Those next three years established the Breeders' Cup as the quintessential occasion on which the top horses could rise to be champions, longshots would routinely surprise the experts, and European-based competitors could justify the expense of traveling to the United States. The period was marked by the ascendency of three Breeders' Cup race winners to Horse of the Year Eclipse Awards – Lady's Secret in 1986, Ferdinand in 1987, and Alysheba in 1988. This year's Preakness and Travers-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, trainer du jour of the time, captured a third of the 21 Breeders' Cup races during this period en route to his current event-leading total of 19. At least two of the races in this Breeders' Cup stretch are considered the best of all time.

Alas, even the world's most proficient fortuneteller is unable to predict when a history-making Breeders' Cup moment will occur. There are signs – the storylines developing for this year's edition, for example, center on a whopping 18 horses that won or placed in last year's Breeders' Cup.  But who is able to tell of a finish as stirring as the one between Ferdinand and Alysheba or the exploits of Bayakoa, Conduit, Da Hoss, Goldikova, High Chapparral, Lure, Midnight Lute, Miesque, Ouija Board, Tiznow and Zenyatta – the 11 horses that have won two or more races – beforehand? Uncertainty is the element that places horse racing atop “other” sports on news outlet websites and makes the Breeders' Cup its ultimate advertisement.

Stay tuned for another Breeders' Cup recollection from Vic Zast on the Paulick Report.

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