10/27/2017 2:36PM

Hovdey: Breeders' Cup brings Del Mar back to the top

Barbara D. Livingston
Dare and Go upsets Cigar to win the 1996 Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Del Mar has never had what you’d call an inferiority complex. One glowing sunset over the cliffs of Solana Beach is enough to cure any feelings that karma has given the seaside track short shrift.

It is a fact, however, that in its 80 years of operation, Del Mar has risen to the upper reaches of the national sports consciousness only four times – and now five counting the Breeders’ Cup to be run next weekend.

The most recent was Aug. 10, 1996, when Horse of the Year Cigar came to Del Mar for the Pacific Classic on a streak of 16 straight victories that began in the fall of 1994. He was, as Tom Durkin intoned at the end of the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic, every inch the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable” racehorse that had held the wider sports world in thrall for going on two solid years.

With a then-record crowd of 44,181 clinging to the rafters of the new grandstand, Cigar emptied his tank but could not hold off the finishing rush of Dare and Go, a colt of occasional brilliance who was perfect on the day for trainer Richard Mandella.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Mandella would recall. “After the race, there was silence. You would have thought somebody had died.”

The first of the four Del Mar moments in the sun occurred on Aug. 12, 1938, just 13 months after Del Mar opened for business. Bing Crosby, the principal owner, knew that the only way the rest of the sporting world would take Del Mar seriously was if serious horses turned up to compete. And the most serious horse of the moment was Seabiscuit.

By then, Seabiscuit was a bona-fide blue-collar darling, racing far and wide for Charles Howard and trainer Tom Smith, and match races were a powerful tool in the promotional arsenal of racetracks. Crosby and his racing partner, Lin Howard, the son of Seabiscuit’s owner, had a good horse from Argentina named Ligaroti they deemed worthy – with a 15-pound weight break – to challenge Seabiscuit one on one for a $25,000 winner-take-all purse.

The race was a mile and one-eighth. More than 20,000 fans showed up for what was a non-betting exhibition. Crosby hosted a national radio broadcast, and the Howards had a side bet, with Charles putting up $15,000 to Lin’s $5,000. The race itself came off as advertised, and then some, with the two horses head and head all the way around – Seabiscuit and George Woolf on the inside and Spec Richardson laying on top of them with Ligaroti.

In the furious final sixteenth, something happened between the two riders that is still unclear to this day. The various scenarios have Richardson grabbing Seabiscuits saddle towel, Woolf whipping Ligaroti on the nose, Richardson grabbing Woolf’s wrist and hooking his leg, and Woolf reaching for Ligaroti’s bridle near the wire.

Whether or not any or all of it happened, Seabiscuit hit the line a nose in front, and that’s what history records. There was an inquiry, and both riders received suspensions, as well as national headlines. Del Mar was on the map.

The next time Del Mar was noticed came on Labor Day, Sept. 3, 1956. Johnny Longden, either 46 or 49 at the time, went into the card with 4,868 winners, two shy of the world’s record held by Sir Gordon Richards. Longden was a Yorkshire boy, while Richards, 26 times British champion, hailed from Telford, west of Birmingham. Their common roots added spice to the story, and they had been friends for several years.

That did not stop Longden from pursuing the record with passion. He shook off an eye injury sustained over the Labor Day weekend to win two early races on the holiday program and equal the Richards mark. The record would be on the line in the featured Del Mar Handicap, in which Longden would be riding the defending champ, a 5-year-old former Calumet horse named Arrogate. They won by a nose, giving Longden winner number 4,871.

Bill Shoemaker was not at Del Mar that day. He was otherwise occupied at Washington Park in Chicago, riding Swaps to victory in the Washington Park Handicap. The world turned a few times, Longden finally retired in 1966 with 6,032 winners, and by 1970 Shoemaker had become a regular at Del Mar during the summer.

Again, Labor Day brought Del Mar the national spotlight. Shoemaker was on a roll, winning races at a ferocious clip and on his way to his seventh Del Mar title. He entered the day at 6,032 winners, prompting a Shoe watch by national media still fascinated by the little giant from Fabens, Texas. Shoemaker was convinced that the only reason he was invited to a state dinner with President Richard Nixon on the Friday before was because of the publicity ginned up from his record chase.

Shoemaker broke the record going wire to wire on the filly Dares J. for trainer Ron McAnally. In the winner’s circle after the race, the rider praised his old pal Longden, famous for putting horses on the lead so jocks would have to, in Longden’s words, “go where I’ve already been.”

“I’m glad that I could ride it in his style – in front all the way,” Shoemaker said.

Longden replied in kind.

“I think it took a good man to make this record,” he said, “and it took a damn good man to break it.”