10/26/2012 2:26PM

Hovdey: Breeders' Cup favorite memories - you had to be there

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta, winning the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic, came back a year later and ran well again to just miss.

There is a very good chance some very memorable moments will emerge from the two days of Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita next Friday and Saturday. You can’t stuff so much money and talent into 15 races and expect otherwise. Having witnessed all but one Breeders’ Cup in person since its debut in 1984 (I passed on Monmouth in 2007 to deal with wildfire evacuation warnings back home), I can only hope that this year’s 29th running will add fresh tales to these vivid recollections:

Breeders’ Cup II in 1985 was at Aqueduct. No joke. Aqueduct, the Youngstown, Ohio, of racetracks. Precisionist off the bench to win the Sprint. Tasso nodding Storm Cat in the Juvenile. Shadeed blowing the first turn of the Mile and still finishing third to Cozzene. Proud Truth beating earmuffed Gate Dancer in the Classic. In a hotel lobby on the night before the races, Charlie Whittingham, lightly lubricated but clearly on edge, having spent a hunk of his money to supplement Hollywood Gold Cup winner Greinton to the Turf for $240,000, lured two writers named Jay into a false sense of bonhomie by placing his strong Marine Corps hands on their shoulders. They smiled, basking in the glow of the great man, then he cracked their heads together. The smiles faded, and so did Greinton, who finished seventh to Pebbles.

[BREEDERS' CUP 2012: Pre-entered fields with odds and comments]

Breeders’ Cup V in 1988 marked the debut of the event at Churchill Downs which, as most locals know, is at the extreme western border of the time zone known as “Eastern.” That there is nothing remotely eastern about Louisville, Kentucky, goes without saying, but they had to draw the line somewhere. Unfortunately, someone had the bright idea to set post times so that the Classic would go off at around half past five, thinking that the sun might bestow a few last rays upon the Classic as it disappeared over the Western horizon. Forty-eight hours before the race, turf writer Bill Mooney stood on the mezzanine overlooking the lobby of the Galt House Hotel and tapped his watch. “Look at the time,” he said. It was 5:30. “Now look out there.” Out there in the street it was dark, illuminated by headlights and street lamps. Mooney supplied the punch line: “It’s post time for the Classic.” Rumor has it Alysheba beat Seeking the Gold in a thriller.

In the Belmont parking lot after Breeders’ Cup VII in 1990 I ran into Gary Stevens getting into his car. I was on foot, he was floating. He was 27 at the time, and having already won a Kentucky Derby he was well on his way to making a case for entering the Hall of Fame. But as that day dawned, for Stevens the Breeders’ Cup had been a six-year march of bitter frustration, with four seconds, two thirds, one near disaster, when Angel Cordero nearly dropped him in the 1984 Juvenile Fillies, and one total whiff, when he had to sit out the 1987 running with injury. When Stevens bellied down on In the Wings in the Turf that day to beat Canadian Triple Crown winner With Approval by half a length a great weight was lifted, and he was off and running. “I’m ready to win a lot more now,” he said. He retired with eight.

The Breeders’ Cup, with its warp-speed unfolding of major dramas and accompanying intensity, creates crowd scenes like no other horse racing event. Snapshots fill the album. Henry Cecil strolling through the Santa Anita throng, anonymous and loving it, barely an hour after winning his first Breeders’ Cup race in the 2009 Filly and Mare Turf with Midday.Trainer Julio Canani wearing his fancy Stetson backwards as he descended from the stands to greet Sweet Catomine after winning the 2004 Juvenile Fillies at Lone Star Park. Getting happily caught in a swarm of Irish supporters celebrating Johannesburg’s victory in the Juvenile at Belmont Park in 2001. The sight of Frank Whitham’s ashen face as he made his way somberly to the winner’s circle after the 1990 Distaff at Belmont Park, where Bayakoa would be saluted just yards from where Go for Wand was being euthanized.

When I married Julie Krone in 2001 I did not marry a jockey. I married a retired jockey, then she went and made that comeback that somehow found her aboard favored Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies at Breeders’ Cup XX in 2003 at Santa Anita Park. For some selfish reason I watched the race as alone as I could be, down past Clocker’s Corner where the mile and a quarter chute meets the main course, and it was there Halfbridled made her move on Ahsado and Victory U. S. A. As they disappeared down the stretch it was left to Trevor Denman to let me know what happened, but knowing the filly, and the rider attached, I was fairly certain they wouldn’t get caught. Outrider Tom Tollett galloped past, following the field home, and gave me a shout, then asked me later, “Were you crying?” No, I absolutely was not. There is no crying in horse racing.

In the 1975 film “Night Moves,” the private detective played by Gene Hackman asks the mysterious dame, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Her answer: “Which Kennedy?” Not to be irreverent, but the same will be asked of hardcore fans some day, maybe already, about Zenyatta’s pair of Breeders’ Cup Classics. For Breeders’ Cup XXVI in 2009, at Santa Anita Park, I found myself deep in the crowd at about the sixteenth pole on the grandstand terraces as she went after poor Gio Ponti like he was something good to eat. At Breeders’ Cup XXVII in 2010 at Churchill Downs, I watched standing on a chair near the grandstand tunnel with Pam Gomez and David Flores.

Gomez was there because her husband, Garrett, was riding Blame in the Classic. Flores was there from California not because he had mounts that year on either day of the Cup, but because he had ridden Zenyatta in her first three starts and, without giving it a second thought, "I had to be here for my girl."