10/23/2008 11:00PM

Postcards from Cup road


ARCADIA, Calif. - The impact of the Breeders' Cup has been debated since its inception. It has been hailed as a reason for the general public to care about Thoroughbreds beyond the Triple Crown. It has been described as nothing less than racing's own Super Bowl. It has been criticized for dimming, even dooming, traditional late-season events, and decried for its disproportionate influence on determining the champions of the game.

There is little doubt, however, about the effect the Breeders' Cup had on this particular reporter when it was first unveiled at Hollywood Park in 1984. Attendance was mandatory - there was no question about that - but there was a minor snag. The boss had me scheduled to work and wouldn't budge.

So I quit.

As a career strategy, such a move is not necessarily recommended. I was the father of a 2-year-old child, and there was a mortgage involved. There was a plan, sort of, and a fall-back position, so everything seemed to turn out all right. But at the time, the idea of missing what figured to be a watershed event in the history of American horse racing was unthinkable. How could I have faced my son, 20 years down the line, when he asked me about that first, glorious Cup?

"Um, well, I was in the office. Across town. On a Saturday. Missed it."

For those who believe in such things (as a Scorpio, I don't), there was an element of fate involved. John Gaines, John Nerud, D.G. Van Clief Jr., and the rest of the Breeders' Cup pioneers practically demanded my presence by scheduling that first Breeders' Cup on my birthday, Nov. 10, a date I shared with Richard Burton, Roy Scheider, Donna Fargo, and Martin Luther. Next to the American Racing Manuals my grandmother gave me each birthday growing up, it was the best present ever.

I would like to say that, in compensation for my sudden status as "freelance," I swept that first Breeders' Cup card and went home that night freighted with cash. Didn't happen. But at least I did not suffer the heartbreak of betting on the Cal-bred homegirl Fran's Valentine, who was disqualified after winning the Juvenile Fillies at 74-1 because Pat Valenzuela nearly dropped Fernando Toro and Pirate's Glow at the top of the stretch. And there was no way I could have played Wild Again at 31-1 in the inaugural Classic, even though I'd spent the week watching John Hertler worry over the cracked and spackled hooves of Slew o' Gold, and could never in a million years play the erratic, earmuffed Gate Dancer.

The first time for anything sears the mind, and so it was with the '84 Cup. Californians had followed two fillies all year long with abject devotion and were rewarded for their loyalty by Royal Heroine and Princess Rooney. The traffic corridor between the hotels near LAX and Hollywood Park were rendered unnavigable. Celebrities were out in force, many of them under 70. We also remember where we were when the inaugural Turf fell to pieces, first with the news that John Henry had gone wrong (I was looking at him in his stall - he was not happy), and then when Europe's Seattle Song broke down (a lot of us were watching).

The Breeders' Cup file I carry around is full of such mental snapshots.

* Breeders' Cup eve, Nov. 4, 1988, Louisville, Commonwealth of Kentucky. Leaning on a balcony railing alongside colleague Bill Mooney in the lobby of the Galt House Hotel. Mooney says, "Look, outside." I did. It was dark. "Now look at the time." It was about 5:30 p.m. So what? "This time tomorrow," Mooney said, "it will be post time for the Classic."

* Gulfstream Park, Nov. 2, 1989, at the big media party two days out from Breeders' Cup Day. It's a celebration of all things Florida, including both alligator wrestling and alligator meat. "Not so tough," said Charlie Whittingham, who had Sunday Silence ready to run the race of his life. He was talking about the wrestling.

* The day after the Cup, Nov. 3, 1991, again at Churchill Downs, and the survivors were assembling to acknowledge such winners as Black Tie Affair, Arazi, and Dance Smartly. That's when it began to snow.

* Belmont Park, and the glorious, rainswept Cup of Oct. 28, 1995. Earlier in the week, Cigar had battled a bout of hives, but now all was well. Bill Mott, walking behind Cigar on the way to the paddock for the Classic, pulled up his socks, pointed to his $20 Wal-Mart mud shoes, and borrowed a stick of gum. Cigar won for the 12th straight time.

* Woodbine, Oct. 26, 1996, the first international Breeders' Cup and the last dance for Cigar, his chance to go out in a blaze of glory in the Classic, despite foot problems that had nagged him most of the year. Cigar looked great, and he had trained great for a Mott crew that knew Cigar's every twitch or whim. Then, on the way to the paddock, horseshoer extraordinaire Jim Bayes mumbled under his breath, "He doesn't have to win today," with an inflection that meant, "He might not." At least one heart sank. Courageous to the last, Cigar missed by a nose and a head.

* Losing one superstar certainly hurts, and Big Brown will be missed this time around. But consider the carnage of 1997, leading up to the Cup at Hollywood Park, and start counting those blessings. Silver Charm, Gentlemen and Formal Gold peeled away from the Classic, one by one, leaving Skip Away to save what was left. The lasting image, at least for these eyes, will be that of Michael Stoute emerging from a fogbank shrouding the Hollywood grass course after Singspiel, the favorite for the Turf, was injured in his final breeze.

* Back to Churchill Downs, in 1998, and it was already a good year for Mike Pegram. He owned the place in May when Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby, and now he was back with his Silverbulletday (named for his beverage of choice), trying to win the Juvenile Fillies. Wedged into bad seats past the finish line, Pegram hoisted his grandson Gator onto his shoulders and together they rooted their filly home a half-length ahead of her Bob Baffert stablemate Excellent Meeting.

* The Belmont Park renewal of Oct. 26, 2001, was played out in the tragic shadow of 9/11. Tiznow, the defending Classic champ who ran in the earlier Woodward, had been stranded in New York briefly in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. He was back, after an ornery workout at Santa Anita, and stabled in a secluded backstretch corner behind the Shug McGaughey barn. Visitors during the week were few (they were usually lost, or looking for Shug) and trainer Jay Robbins had no clue as to how the independent Tiznow would run.

"Ask him," suggested Robbins. "I don't think he's listening to me." Then Tiznow beat Sahkee by a nose.

* Forward to Oct. 26, 2003, and the last time the Cup came to Santa Anita. After winning four of the eight Cup races, including the Classic with Pleasantly Perfect, Richard Mandella went back to the barn, stripped off his jacket, and rolled in his precious patch of grass, yanking tuffs of turf and tossing them skyward. In the course of that historic afternoon, the grazing ground had gone from off-limits to sacred shrine. Mandella was heard to utter, "Whee!"

As for that job I quit in 1984 to witness that first Cup, it was with the Daily Racing Form, which for the last 10 years has turned out to be a pretty good vantage point after all. My perfect Breeders' Cup attendance record was spoiled in 2007 when the fires of San Diego County kept me home, watching the darkening skies. I hear it rained in New Jersey that week. We should have been so lucky.