Three Decades: A Breeders’ Cup Journey by Vic Zast (Part 1)

by | 10.24.2013 | 3:41am
Zast family members Vic, Biz, Maureen and Annie at Santa Anita in 2008.

Horse racing writer and fan Vic Zast is among the rare few who have attended all 29 Breeders' Cups. Unfortunately, Vic's streak may come to an end this year as 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 must be told, and he begins sharing it here.

Anatomy of a Streak

Repeating the same thing over again for 29 consecutive years is not easy. To keep a streak such as this alive, you have to be flush, lucky and healthy and, in the case of attending the Breeders' Cup, that's an improbable trifecta. Moreover, you're not on your own when facing the challenge. There are people and circumstances that can stop you from keeping your record intact.

Someone with the name Zast will attend the 30th Breeders' Cup, ticketed for November 1 and 2 at Santa Anita Racecourse in Southern California, but it may not be this Zast, the one who has attended each of the previous 29. It'll be my wife Maureen, who I've loved for 50 years, or my son Jon, a creative director at a Manhattan ad agency who has been by my side at a dozen Breeders' Cups, or my daughters Annie, a nose in the fragrance business with unorthodox betting habits, and Biz, who was married to Micah Zijac on the Fasig-Tipton auction grounds in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. – a true Z-Team – and plays longshots. We in the Zast family love horse racing.

In late July, I was told that there was a spot on my pancreas that had to be removed. I spent August at Saratoga, preparing for surgery with chemotherapy, toiling under the duress of exhaustion (and the embarrassment of hair loss – my spiked silver locks a proud trademark) to boost my spirits and make me feel useful by writing the Saratoga Diary for for 41 days. But, come early November, I'll be watching Breeders' Cup XXX on television, recuperating, I hope, from a tricky operation to save my life or, at least, prolong it a bit longer. A perfect 30 for 30 was not meant to be, perhaps. I dream of attending another. My string of 29 races was not without its near misses anyway.

Close Calls

How close have I come to missing a Breeders' Cup? Well, on several occasions, I have made it to the site in the nick of time, owing to business that took me to Paris or Frankfurt or some faraway destination I couldn't avoid the week before. I've had to deal at the last minute with some ill-timed emergency such as a flooded basement on the day I was to leave for the airport. In addition, I've been lucky that none of my close friends or relatives had scheduled a wedding, bar mitzvah or funeral on the same weekend the races were run. To wit, it's a self-centered jerk that chooses a sporting event over a milestone.

In addition, only a guy who can triumph over hell or high water will overcome Mother Nature when she wants to be ornery. Making last year's gathering at Santa Anita might have been the most troublesome. Hurricane Sandy submerged the East Coast in windswept ocean a week before, causing chaos and hardship and scrambling travel plans. Electrical power for many storm-ravaged homes wasn't restored until after the races began on Breeders' Cup Friday. Flights from LaGuardia and Kennedy were cancelled through the previous Tuesday. Some horses that had been stabled at Belmont and Aqueduct were detained from leaving for Santa Anita until Monday.

Yet, missing Breeders' Cup I, not Breeders' Cup XXIX, is what limits the number of people with true blue bragging rights. And being among those few hearty souls, I'm not pleased with how my fate has turned sour. Seeing that nobody knew what to expect in 1984, traveling thousands of miles for the inaugural Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park was a costly inconvenience for half the country. If you went to the first event, you most likely attended the next – Breeders' Cup II was in New York, within grasp of the people who found the first one out of their reach – and you were well underway to the run.

Betfair Hollywood Park, as the racecourse was recently named, is scheduled for demolition in January. But on that first sunny Breeders' Cup Saturday nobody who was there could have imagined a hole in its place. A crowd of 64,254 people, including Fred Astaire, Linda Evans, John Forsythe, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor – true A-list stars of the era – filled all but the far end of the stands. My friends and I stood on the Hollywood Park apron on the finish line to watch. The day passed by quickly. Seven Breeders' Cup races were contested and NBC's national telecast kept the mid-morning show moving so it wouldn't run into afternoon college football. The ratings were good, but not Notre Dame-like.

Founder John Gaines' idea to bring the sport mainstream awareness in the fall of each year may have been widely circulated throughout horse country. But the promotional run-up to Breeders' Cup I on a nationwide basis wasn't as it is now – a yearlong effort to focus horse racing around special events. Gaines began pumping up the volume for his idea a little more than two years after simulcasting began at a horse racing tele-theater in New Haven, Conn., in 1982. Gaines was prescient in a many ways but not in his understanding that technology would drive people away from the tracks. Simulcasting has been the sport's savior.

Had I not been professionally involved in providing corporate sponsorship to the Spiral Stakes for Jim Beam and subsequently the president of a company that owned 13 pari-mutuel facilities, I might not have made the effort to attend Breeders' Cup I. As a horse owner and breeder in later years, I responded positively to the emphasis that the event's organizers placed on serving the industry exclusively. After all, I was part of the team – at least I felt that I was. But there were adventures I experienced that have made me think twice that I might have been better off in front of a television set.

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

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