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

by | 10.28.2013 | 2:06am
Vic and Maureen Zast with Fort Larned winning tickets, 2012

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.

I viewed the 1986 Breeders' Cup from a Turf Club table which faced the Santa Anita finishing post at a 15 degree angle. Those seats today sell for $900 apiece, yet I paid nothing more than the price of admission, which I believe was no more than $20. Still what I remember best about Breeders' Cup III was a party in the Hollywood Hills that ran late into the night afterward. Bruce Willis played in a pop-up band that showed up at midnight after a bounteous buffet was cleared.

In 1987, my place for the victory by 1886 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand over 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba was a skybox in Hollywood Park's Cary Grant Pavilion, an icy monstrosity that track owner Marge Everett conceived as homage to herself. I was so far high up and so past the finish line I felt apart from the embrace of the crowd, even though my hosts meant for me to feel pampered. By the way, 56-year-old jockey Bill Shoemaker edged the winner past the place horse by a nose.

When the event came back East to Churchill Downs, I was at a table on what used to be called Millionaire's Row. Lukas, still riding an incomparable wave of popularity, won three races of the seven races but not the one he wanted most. He sent out the Kentucky Derby heroine Winning Colors to take on the undefeated Personal Ensign in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and had victory in sight until jockey Randy Romero miraculously presented the Ogden Phipps-owned, Claude “Shug” McGaughey-trained mare at the wire. It was dark and cold when Alysheba won the Classic, a beacon on the finish line providing the dramatic effect of horses as boats returning to harbor at night.  Alysheba, after losing to Ferdinand the previous year, looked troubled when he stumbled in mid-stretch, but he gallantly swam on.

You meet all sorts of people over a stretch of 29 years. And it came to pass that the most despicable guy that I met in that span was with me that Saturday. This no-good individual was a partner in a business my friends and I sold. You could count on him to act unethically whenever given an opportunity.

A later involvement in the case that eventually led to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's conviction for corruption proved the point. To describe his lack of good judgment, he blew through $12 million of his proceeds from the sale of our company betting on horses in three years and then lost another $3 million when a holdback came through.

In a rare occasion of mutual understanding, however, he and I thought we had won the Pick Six. That score might have given him a few more weeks, if not days, of money to spend on his addiction.

Unfortunately, Is It True defeated the odds-on Easy Goer in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint in the wager's last leg. Perhaps it was good that we lost. Still, I never fell in love with Easy Goer – a horse I consider an under-achiever – or the guy who bet with me, ever since that defeat. For the record, I wagered against Easy Goer every time in his fabled rivalry with Sunday Silence and did pretty well financially. My tradition included the Breeders' Cup Classic that Sunday Silence won the next fall at Gulfstream Park in Florida, a Top 10 Breeders' Cup highlight.

In any case, there were 71,000 people at Churchill Downs for Breeders' Cup V, a new Breeders' Cup attendance record, despite the dreadful climate. Louisville seeks the Breeders' Cup every year and, by the numbers, probably deserves it. But compared to Florida and, especially the West Coast, where sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s are the rule, the conditions generally turn uncomfortable.

By the end of the day you are freezing or rain-soaked. For what it's worth, temperate Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, on the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, Calif., just announced the track was widening its turf course to compete for the 2015 Breeders' Cup. Current Breeders' Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel used to work there. Woodbine and Arlington Park would like the event back. The fans pine for Hialeah.

Meanwhile, Frank Stronach appears to be having second thoughts about the downsizing he instituted at Gulfstream Park. Last year, he announced that the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, will expand Gulfstream to 70,000 seats and pursue the Breeders' Cup again. Where the Canadian auto parts magnate from Austria – one of North America's leading Thoroughbred breeders – will find 70,000 people for a Breeders' Cup at the tail end of hurricane season is a question that needs answering.  Yet, if he pulls this off (because past is prologue), there will be a lot of fan sentiment for a Breeders' Cup renewal in Hallandale, FL.

Only the Kentucky Oaks, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes at times with a potential Triple Crown champion in the field are North American horse racing events that consistently draw more than a Breeders' Cup day. It's no coincidence that these turnouts owe to the fact that they are social events as much as they are horse races. The first 23 single-day Breeders' Cups averaged 57,048 fans. The last six – all two-day events with wider, more inclusive of parties squeezed in between – attracted 93,763 fans for their Friday through Saturday totals.

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

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