When John R. Gaines invented the Breeders' Cup in 1982, it was one of a multitude of efforts in his life to unify horse racing. But not even a consummate optimist could have projected just how big it would become.
Over 27 years and 222 races, (not including the former Steeplechase race,) the Breeders' Cup has become not just the most important weekend on the North American calendar but a championship event for many of Europe's, Asia's, and even South America's best thoroughbreds.
What was one seven glorious races at Hollywood Park during 1984's mid-fall sunshine has morphed into 15 races. They are the biggest and best under artificial lighting.
Ten tracks, including Woodbine in Canada, have played host to the Cup. From the sunshine (and near-darkness) of Gulfstream Park in suburban Miami, to the chill of Arlington Park in Illinois, to the rain of the Jersey shore at Monmouth, the Breeders' Cup has been a crowning event to scores of champions.
And most importantly, it's brought these races to places where top horses would never be otherwise.
Despite a strong history (Triple Crown winner Assault was born and bred in the Lone Star state,) Texas has never been a horse racing hotbed.
At tracks like Sam Houston in Houston and Retama in San Antonio, crowds are meager on big race days and non-existent the rest of the year.
Yet in 2004 when the Breeders' Cup went to Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, a suburb situated right in between Dallas and Fort Worth, capacity had to be increased to 50,000.
Sadly, 50,000 did not show up.
No, 53,717—or nearly 4,000 above capacity—came through the turnstiles, the most at a non-Churchill Downs Breeders' Cup since 1993 and the highest single day total outside California or Kentucky. It was more than Belmont Park or Gulfstream, two established tracks with a long history of hosting major races, could ever bring in.
Arlington Park, which hosted its only Breeders' Cup in 2002, brought over $12 million in on-track handle, posting the highest non-Churchill on-track handle since 1986. The overall handle that year was a new record.
In fact, of the four one-time tracks (excluding Aqueduct,) only Woodbine was a failure, with a crowd barely over 42,000 and under $6 million in on-track handle.
Quite simply, people took advantage of the chance to see great horses they wouldn't otherwise get to see. Fans who might never see a major race saw seven or eight championship events all on one day.
But soon after Monmouth Park hosted the first two-day Breeders' Cup in 2007, the event became something different.
The competition's dynamic was changed by two consecutive events at Santa Anita, (the first time any track hosted in back-to-back years,) followed by two consecutive at Churchill Downs, along with consistent rumors that the Breeders' Cup could look for a permanent host.
So too did the expansion of the program to 14 races—double the seven that were contested in 1984—necessitating a move to two full afternoons of racing.
Which makes none of last week's three major announcements even close to surprising.
First came the addition of a 15th race, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint. This means that one-third of the program is for two-year-olds.
Second was the hiring of Craig Fravel, Del Mar's President, to replace Greg Avioli as President and CEO of the Breeders' Cup. Fravel, who had been at Del Mar for over 20 years, was widely considered the favorite for the job. It is too early to judge what direction he will take the event.
Nonetheless, with his background, he seems a safe hire to keep the Cup churning just as before.
Third, and least surprisingly of all, was the confirmation that the 2012 Breeders' Cup would be held either at Santa Anita, Churchill Downs or Belmont Park, as if any other track would ever be given the opportunity to host again.
But this wasn't just the death of a nationwide rotation of the Breeders' Cup. No, the Breeders' Cup made other unwritten guidelines into visibly vibrant policy.
After two Breeders' Cup on the synthetic surface of Santa Anita, 2010 marked a return to natural dirt at Churchill Downs.
And just as the Breeders' Cup abandoned synthetics, so too did Santa Anita, returning to dirt for the start of the winter meeting this past Boxing Day.
Del Mar, who many thought was next in line to host a Breeders' Cup, had its synthetic surface shunned by the Breeders' Cup, even as its former president took the reigns in Lexington, Ky. Synthetics, once hailed the arrival of the future, are silently vanishing before critical analysis of them can be completed.
But while the Breeders' Cup seems complacent to expand the number of races while shrinking the list of suitable venues, the rest of the sport may just yet come together.
Calls for an interstate commission to regulate horse racing have never been louder, and the U.S. Congress may take it upon itself to issue some ultimatums.
The most immediate issue forwarded by Congress, an end to race-day medications, led the New York Racing Association to stage an international summit on the issue. This just two years after horse racing almost uniformly banned other steroids and drugs across the board.
Most importantly, this dialogue occurred without the push of a public tragedy. Steroids were banned only as part of the public outcry after Eight Belles' destruction following the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
Moreover, the growth of the Horseplayers Association of North America has given the bettors a voice, unifying a large segment of the industry that was long taken for granted.
At this point, a widespread unification and consolidation of rules and regulations is almost inevitable.
Six years ago, when Gaines sadly left us due to complications of diabetes, the Breeders' Cup was a compact championship event that unified North American thoroughbred racing during one fall day somewhere on the continent.
Simulcast betting was only just beginning to be an option, and most tracks still did not have the capabilities to export or import a signal.
But by 2005, it had already visited nine tracks—eight alone in the previous nine years—and had established itself as the goal of almost every top horseman in the country. Money comes in from every nook and cranny of the continent. Through the internet, money comes in from all over the world.
For almost everyone involved, it has lived up to its billing as a World Championship.
And that's what it was supposed to be, as Bill Nack so summed up in his Sports Illustrated recap following the inaugural running in 1984.
“It did indeed bring together, at one racetrack on a single autumn day in Southern California, more good racehorses and first-rate jockeys than had ever competed at any one place on any day in history.”
It also brings together more top-rate handicappers than almost any other horse race.
Now, with a record 15 events over two full days of racing—half a dozen more championships than horses who should ever be considered champions—Gaines would be hard-pressed to recognize what was once his.
But talking about the Breeders' Cup in the same terms as just five or six years ago is impossible.
For better or worse, it's not the same event, and for fans outside New York, Los Angeles and Kentucky, it's for worse. The Breeders' Cup has made it very clear that nationwide rotation is not in the future plans. The many of us who want to the see the Breeders' Cup anywhere and everywhere have lost.
It's a bitter pill to swallow.
The synthetic vs. dirt issue will also divide the event, and the almost hypocritical defiance of synthetics over the past two years seems a reaction to European dominance at the two synthetic Breeders' Cups.
No one seems to remember that European horses also dominated in 2003, the last time the Breeders' Cup was held over a dirt track at Santa Anita.
Even the number of races is a controversy.
But at the same time, for better or worse, it's not the same sport.
And as horse racing moves together in other fronts more so than ever before, it's more than a little ironic that Gaines' marquee achievement has begun to divide the sport.