There were no real expectations and a fair amount of skepticism was evident. John Gaines had promised the best day of racing ever, but no one really knew what that meant. Until that smoggy November day in Los Angeles, the competitive year ended in New York and racing's championships were determined in the traditional Eastern races run in autumn at Belmont Park.
The racing world was not changing for the better in a period when the customer began an off-site migration and the sport's leaders were more consumed by worry than adaptation to a shift in the marketplace.
Few were sold entirely on the Breeders' Cup. Racing's varied and fickle constituencies had never sat at the same table and arrived at an accord and this was almost a ballet in its execution. Most of the nation's racetracks agreed to simulcast only select events; many thought the undertaking overly ambitious. At the time, wide television exposure of racing was limited to the Triple Crown while other sports had parlayed the medium's opportunity into unprecedented popularity. Visionary thinking and horse racing lived in very different, rapidly changing worlds. The racing world, however, was not changing for the better in a period when the customer began an off-site migration and the sport's leaders were more consumed by worry than adaptation to a shift in the marketplace.
Gaines, the exception, envisioned an event made for television, delivered as promised and they came to California -- horses and people from Europe and all over the United States, the best of the best on four legs and two.
A sense of uncertainty was still in the air that morning at Hollywood Park, where horseplayers and fans watched the Hollywood elite file through the gates leading toward the newly constructed Pavilion of the Stars. Their presence lent a surreal element to the scene. But there was also an electric anticipation.
Then, in the span of an hour or two, the 4-year-old Princess Rooney brought Gaines' vision to life and it was evident as the first running of the Distaff unfolded in an awesome display of sheer and unmitigated dominance that the game had been changed and would never again be quite the same.
The frenzied stretch battle joined by Wild Again, Gate Dancer and Slew o' Gold that unfolded almost in slow motions and decided the Classic endures as the symbolic grand finale of the first Breeders' Cup, a moment still frozen in time. But Princess Rooney, who won the Distaff in a gravity defying tour de force, the culmination of a brilliant career, was the best horse on the day at Hollywood Park, the first to make a statement in the Breeders' Cup, a resounding, 7-length victory over the Life's Magic, a champion in her own right who would win this race a year later in New York, in which she ran 10 furlongs beneath Eddie Delahoussaye a full second faster than the Classic winner, widening her lead with every effortless stride, leaving a crowd of 64,254 assembled at an unusually early hour at Hollywood Park both exhilarated and dumbstruck.
This was exactly what Gaines had in mind, an in-the-flesh illustration of what this sport is about on a stage never before available to the thoroughbred.
The first Distaff, a race since renamed the "Ladies Classic," was a bellwether. Princess Rooney would become the first winner of a Breeders' Cup race to be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame and many of those who followed her in authoring the history of the event over the next three decades would join here there and underscore what remains perhaps the best individual performance by any horse in any Breeders' Cup.
As much as any of the individual parts, the Distaff and Ladies Classic have defined the event. Four years after Princess Rooney set the bar, on a cold, damp, muddy day at Churchill Downs, the Distaff, shortened to 9 furlongs, provided what remains arguably the best race ever in a Breeders' Cup.
Personal Ensign, undefeated in 12 starts but far behind, obviously uncomfortable and face-to-face with mortality in the run down the backstretch, defied the elements and circumstance with an unforgettable illustration of pure thoroughbred determination and turned an impossible disadvantage into a dramatic nose victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors. Jockey Randy Romero, riding the filly into a deafening roar the seemed almost to propel her over the shimmering mud, pleaded for every inch of ground and the last seconds of an undefeated career defined the Shug McGaughey-trained Personal Ensign who established the standard by which courage in a horse is measured.
While it has produced brilliant efforts for almost three decades, the Distaff is also the race that saw what is without question, the Breeders' Cup's darkest hour in 1990, when the unforgettable Go For Wand was mortally injured a sixteenth-mile from the wire while fully engaged in a pitched battle with the hard-hitting Argentine import Bayakoa, who was defending her title and would eventually be inducted in the Hall of Fame. The crowd at Belmont Park that day watched in stunned, tearful silence as the image burned itself into memory and the 3-year-old, who had dominated her contemporaries since winning the Juvenile Fillies of the year before was euthanized on the track. She too is now immortalized in the Hall of Fame.
Five years would pass before Inside Information, a winner of 13 races from 15 starts for McGaughey and the Phipps Stable, would conclude her brilliant career with the 13 ½-length demolition of a deep and star-studded field that included champion Serena's Song, stablemate Heavenly Prize and Lakeway. Her victory remains the largest winning margin in Breeders' Cup history and Inside Information is another Distaff winner enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Lady's Secret and Paseana won the this race before joining the growing Hall of Fame sorority of Distaff and Ladies Classic winners in Saratoga Springs, the inevitable destination of 2009 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, who was still undefeated when she won the Ladies Classic of 2008.
The Nov. 2 renewal at Santa Anita will be the most anticipated race run over a two-day span in the 29th Breeders' Cup, a race with the potential to take a place among races that will not soon be forgotten.
"As good a field for this race as we've ever seen," said Todd Pletcher, who pre-entered both Love and Pride and In Lingerie, both Grade 1 winners, in the Ladies' Classic. "Even if Royal Delta runs in the Classic."
Royal Delta, though cross-entered, is expected to race in defense of her title, however. "We're leaning toward the Ladies Classic," trainer Bill Mott said. "We just wanted to leave the option open."
Class Included is 7-for-8 this year and may be 30-1 in the betting if she runs. Grace Hall and Include Me Out, both Grade 1 winners, will also be seen as outsiders in a field that has every ingredient necessary to produce the mother of all Ladies' Classics.
For better or worse, the Breeders' Cup has undergone radical change and exponential expansion over the years but, again, 29 years after Princess Rooney demonstrated exactly why we do this, 24 years after Personal Ensign left us speechless, the last race on Friday may very well be the one we remember 30 years from now.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at email@example.com.