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Squeezing Into The Limelight
William Nack
November 19, 1984
The first Breeders' Cup, a $10 million equine extravaganza, opened in a burst of speed and closed with a bumpy thriller
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November 19, 1984

Squeezing Into The Limelight

The first Breeders' Cup, a $10 million equine extravaganza, opened in a burst of speed and closed with a bumpy thriller

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It was, in that final quarter mile last Saturday, all that the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup series had promised to be, all that anyone might have hoped it would be, a ding-dong race among three superb, dead-game thoroughbreds joined in a desperate struggle to the wire. Suddenly, there the three were—Wild Again charging on the rail. Gate Dancer ranging up on the outside and heavily favored Slew O' Gold pinched right between them—their necks thrust out and straining, heads bobbing together, as the riders, three of the best and strongest in the business, pushed and pumped and drove them home.

There was Pat Day, rhythmically hand-riding Wild Again, holding hard to the left rein as he tried to keep the colt from drifting out into Slew O' Gold. There was Laffit Pincay Jr., the most physically powerful rider in the world, slashing Gate Dancer lefthanded while laboring to keep him off Slew O' Gold. And there was Angel Cordero Jr., hitting Slew righthanded, glancing repeatedly at the onrushing Gate Dancer and Pincay before finally putting his stick away because he simply had no more room to swing it freely.

"I was in so tight!" Cordero would say. The three pounded to the wire together, with Slew O' Gold fading after being bounced back and forth off the other two. In the last jump Wild Again held on to win it all by a short head from Gate Dancer, who later was disqualified and placed third for his part in the slaying of the mighty Slew.

So ended one of the roughest, rousingest finishes in years. Fittingly, it came in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest horse race ever run, a mile and a quarter romp over the dirt course at Hollywood Park that climaxed a seven-race series worth a total of $10 million. The series certainly came off as it had been billed in the months leading up to it. The richness of the record purses aside, 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.

"We sought in this Breeders' Cup to create a Super Bowl of the sport, an equine Olympics," said the Cup's founding father, Kentucky breeder John R. Gaines. "We did it. We've had a sampling of everything here today."

For sure, it was a day of diversity and drama at the newly refurbished Hollywood Park, which was chosen as host of the first Breeders' Cup about two years ago. The track had lengthened its main oval from a mile to a mile and an eighth and had added a $30 million clubhouse pavilion. A crowd of 64,254 put $11,466,941 through the betting machines, a record single-day handle in California, and they saw all the sport has to offer—from dashes for 2-year-olds to turf racing at a distance. They also saw winning front-runners and stretch runners, the certain crowning of at least three champions, two major disqualifications and three eye-popping upsets.

Each race had its own memorable scene. One of the most touching came after the victory of America's fastest 2-year-old, Chiefs Crown, in the first race of the series, the $1 million Juvenile—trainer Roger Laurin's jubilation on greeting the colt as he headed for the winner's circle. In 1971, Laurin quit training for the Meadow Stable to take over the powerful outfit owned by the Phipps family. His father, Lucien, took on the Meadow horses, and among those Roger had left him were a lightly raced 2-year-old, Riva Ridge, who eventually won the 1972 Kentucky Derby, and a yearling named Secretariat, the eventual 1973 Triple Crown winner, who is regarded by many as the greatest racehorse of modern times. Now Roger had his own winter-book favorite for the Derby. He patted Chiefs Crown on the neck and said, "You are the champion!"

The upsets that followed that scene lighted up the tote board. In the $1 million Juvenile for fillies, Fran's Valentine, at 74-1, won by half a length over 22-1 shot Outstandingly, but only after crashing into Pirate's Glow, who bounced to the right and took out the favorite, Bessarabian. Fran's Valentine was placed 10th, and Outstandingly was declared the winner. And then there was the Aga Khan's Lashkari, the biggest surprise of the afternoon, roaring from off the pace under France's champion jockey, Yves St. Martin, to beat last year's Horse of the Year, All Along, by a neck in the 1�-mile, $2 million turf race and pay $108.80 for $2.

The rest of the card came easier for the form players. Eillo proved once again that he's the fastest racehorse in the land when he bounded to the lead like a frightened hare in the $1 million Sprint, though he was hailing a cab with 70 yards to go and only just lasted to win by a nose. In the most dominant performance of the day, Princess Rooney galloped to the lead at the head of the stretch in the $1 million Distaff and went into hiding to win by seven. Finally, the lone filly in the $1 million turf race at one mile, favorite Royal Heroine, deep-fried nine males through a final quarter in :23[4/5] to set an American record of 1:32[3/5] while winning by 1� lengths.

Such were the preludes to the Classic and Wild Again's surpassing exhibition of speed, pluck and determination under fire. The race was to be the great Slew O' Gold's final appearance before his retirement to stud in Kentucky. The son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, from a Buckpasser mare, had been the best 3-year-old in the land last year, and before Saturday he had gone undefeated in five '84 starts, with his last three victories in the most important fall races in New York—the Woodward, the Marlboro and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was the first horse ever to pull off that hat trick. A beautiful bay with a chiseled head and magnificent physique, Slew O' Gold looked every bit the best racehorse in the country.

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