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A short history of the Breeders' Cup World Championships


Breeders' Cup winner Zenyatta

Undefeated filly Zenyatta after winning the 2008 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita

© Cindy Pierson Dulay
Updated October 07, 2013

The Breeders' Cup is a relatively new event compared to such famous horse races as the Kentucky Derby and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but in its short history it has grown to become the "World Championships" and the year-end goal of most horsemen. In the early 1980's, John R. Gaines, owner of Gainesway Farm in Lexington, felt that horse racing needed a championship event in the late fall for the major age and sex divisions. Until then, the big fall championship races were scattered across several tracks, including the fall meets at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, and Oak Tree at Santa Anita. The objective was to settle the year-end awards on the track rather than the ballot box and to present the sport positively to the general public by having the sport's equine and human superstars on a major TV network in a 4 hour telecast.

Gaines did not have industry-wide support initially, and he had to convince the major commercial breeders to support the idea as they would fund a large part of the program's expenses through stallion and foal nomination fees. With the industry supporting him, he announced the plan at the 1982 Kentucky Derby Festival for an unprecedented $10 million race day for the world's best thoroughbred horses called the Breeders' Cup, headlined by the $3 million Classic which be the richest horse race in the world at the time. To keep smaller breeders from withdrawing their support, Gaines also devised the Breeders' Cup National Stakes program, a series of races across North America with part of the purse funded by the Breeders' Cup to be paid out only to nominated horses.

In Februrary of 1983, Hollywood Park was named the host of the inaugural Breeders' Cup, selected since the board felt the first running should be in a warm climate for the benefit of television, a similar strategy employed by the Super Bowl. By September, a contract was signed with NBC, forming a partnership that would last until 2006. The very first Breeders' Cup race, the 1984 Juvenile, was won by Chief's Crown with the first Classic ending in a three horse photo where supplemental entry Wild Again won over Slew O'Gold and Gate Dancer.

Over time the Cup grew in number of races and in purses. The Filly and Mare Turf was introduced at Gulfstream Park in 1999 and at Monmouth Park in 2007 another three races were added (Dirt Mile, Juvenile Turf, and Filly and Mare Sprint) and the event was expanded to a two-day Friday-Saturday format for the 11 race program. In 2008 at Santa Anita, three more races were added (Juvenile Fillies Turf, Turf Sprint, and Marathon) bringing the total number of Championship races to 14, doubling the original total. The Classic was increased to $4 million in 1996 at Woodbine, the Distaff (since renamed the Ladies' Classic) was increased to $2 million in 1998 at Churchill Downs, and then in 2006, also at Churchill, all the $1 million events were doubled to $2 million, the Turf increased from $2 million to $3 million, and the Classic was bumped up to $5 million. The new races added in 2007 and 2008 all have $1 million purses except the Marathon at $500,000. In 2011 the Juvenile Sprint was introduced to the program, but was removed again in 2013 due to small fields both years it was run. The new race "borrowed" $500,000 from the older horse Sprint, which purse was decreased to $1.5 million but this was not given back when the race was cancelled.

The Breeders' Cup originally was rotated among various host tracks including Hollywood Park, Belmont Park, Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, Monmouth Park, Woodbine, Arlington Park, and Lone Star Park. The Oak Tree Meet at Santa Anita became the first ever to host the Championship races in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009, followed by Churchill Downs in 2010 and 2011. Santa Anita (not Oak Tree, whose lease was not renewed by track owner Frank Stronach) hosted in 2012 and will also host in 2013 and 2014. There had been talk of a permanent 10 year rotation of tracks but this appears to have fallen to the wayside. It is also very unlikely that Churchill Downs will host again due to rumored failed negotiations with Breeders' Cup Limited. Belmont Park, which had been a regular host in the past, has not had the event since 2001 and is certainly overdue for it again. Certain prominent horsemen in New York, including Mike Repole, have expressed their frustration over this fact.

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