In the waning light of an autumn afternoon in southern California, November 10, 1984, it became clear that this new event called the Breeders' Cup worked -- worked exactly as it was intended to work; better than expected.
The first Breeders' Cup Classic, with Wild Again, Gate Dancer and Slew o' Gold bouncing off one another, their riders -- Pat Day, Laffite Pincay Jr. and Angel Cordero Jr. -- driving with a sense of dramatic urgency framed perfectly at Hollywood Park by the first $3 million race ever run, unfolded in a series of remarkable performances, leaving no doubt that the racing game had been changed forever for the better.
What had been billed as the greatest day of racing ever staged in this country was exactly that, and the sense of change was shared by virtually everyone who saw that first Breeders' Cup. Titles were won, Cinderella stories written and the memory of that day remains etched not only in the history of American racing, but in its soul.
The Breeders' Cup was meant to provide a stage where horses would define themselves, and at no point in its history has it seen the potential for the high drama that Curlin and Big Brown would bring to the table.
The long-awaited, but not exactly inevitable, meeting of Big Brown and Curlin is generally seen in advance of the silver anniversary renewal of the Breeders' Cup next month at Santa Anita to be a race in which the 2008 Horse of the Year title would be determined mano a mano. The Classic at its best, 10 furlongs that would decide beyond argument whether the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner or the 4-year-old widely believed to be the world's thoroughbred on dirt will be Horse of the Year in 2008.
But Jess Jackson, who owns controlling interest in Curlin, has long-established reservations about running the defending Classic winner and Horse of the Year on the untested synthetic surface at Santa Anita. And though he has not ruled out the possibility, Curlin's absence on October 25 would certainly not qualify as a surprise.
This scenario is entirely plausible:
Big Brown wins this Saturday at Monmouth Park, a turf-course prep for the Classic, which he also wins in the absence of Curlin.
Two weeks later, Curlin wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second time -- adding that prestigious trophy to those emblematic of Grade I titles earned this year in the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster Handicap and Woodward Stakes -- and Jackson announces plans to run next in a prep for the Japan Cup Dirt, in Tokyo. Curlin wins both.
It is already preordained that Big Brown will be retired after the Breeders' Cup. Jackson weighs the options and decides the time is at hand to commence Curlin's contribution to the thoroughbred gene pool.
The ensuing debate would be almost as much fun as the process.
In 24 years, 11 Classic winners -- including the last four -- have been anointed Horse of the Year. So winning the last race of the Breeders' Cup event, while invaluable, is not perquisite.
John Henry, Spend a Buck, Criminal Type, Holy Bull, Charismatic, Point Given and Mineshaft were absent from the Classic at the end of their Horse of the Year seasons. Lady's Secret and Azeri clinched Horse of the Year titles in the Distaff, Kotashan in the Turf; Favorite Trick in the Juvenile. Cigar and Skip Away were named Horse of the Year after suffering defeats in the Classic. But none of those post-season polls were preceded by the volume of passionate debate that would result from Curlin and Big Brown both running the table without ever having met in competition.
Supporters of both would inevitably accuse the other of ducking the issue. Curlin would have won on three continents, ended the season Grade 1 placed on turf and in residence as the sport's all-time leading money winner -- by a pole. Big Brown would claim two legs of the Triple Crown, the Haskell Invitational, an inconsequential turf race in New Jersey and the Breeders' Cup Classic -- easily enough in most years to win Horse of the Year honors.
Neither camp is exactly rhetorically challenged. The exchange of barbs would certainly provide a good deal of interesting if not controversial post-season publicity in advance of the Eclipse Award ballot.
While most would prefer to see the issued settled by the principals, the alternative scenario brings the potentially beneficial effect of making what is actually an imagined rivalry a point of debate well beyond October 25, keep the sport on the mainstream media's radar into the winter and conclude with a dramatic announcement at the Eclipse Award dinner in January.
It is, after all, en election year.
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 has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.