The 39th annual Breeders’ Cup World Championships is set for Nov. 4-5 at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. The event – plus the festivities preceding it – promises to be one of the most exciting experiences for fans around the world, whether they in person or watch the races live on NBC Sports and FanDuel TV and bet on them via simulcast outlets or online.
Here are 10 interesting facts about the two-day extravaganza, which originated way back in the early 1980s when a former Hollywood movie star was President of the United States, most people got only four or five channels on their television, and gas prices averaged just over a dollar per gallon.
1. John Gaines is considered the “father of the Breeders’ Cup.” Gaines (1928-2005), who owned Gainesway Farm in Lexington, is credited with developing the idea of a world championship series for Thoroughbreds. Gaines saw this as a way to both promote the sport of Thoroughbred racing with a marquee fall event to accompany the Triple Crown in spring/summer, and to strengthen the bond between the day-to-day racing industry and the breeders that produce horses to compete in those races. Gaines announced his idea at a luncheon just prior to the 1982 Kentucky Derby, and less than three years later (and after a lot of persuading industry leaders), the first Breeders’ Cup was held Nov. 10, 1984, at Hollywood Park in California in front of 64,254 fans and a national audience viewing on NBC.
2. Moving to a two-day event has helped boost both the betting handle at the Breeders’ Cup and its appeal to fans. In 2007, Breeders’ Cup officials expanded to a Friday-Saturday event, held for the first (and so far only) time at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. The race schedule over the two-day period has been tweaked several times since then, and currently the World Championships are divided into a Future Stars Friday featuring five races for 2-year-olds and a Super Saturday with the remaining nine Breeders’ Cup races geared for horses age 3 and older. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar set a record for overall handle, with $183,260,128 wagered on the 14 championship races.
3. California leads the list of states that have hosted the Breeders’ Cup with 15 total events. Hollywood Park in Inglewood, which was closed in 2013 and is now the site of SoFi Stadium, hosted the Breeders’ Cup three times. Santa Anita Park in Arcadia is the all-time leading host venue with 10 events. And Del Mar, two hours south on I-40 from greater Los Angeles and roughly 30 minutes north of San Diego, held its first Breeders’ Cup in 2017 and its second last year. Kentucky ranks second on the list, having hosted the Breeders’ Cup 11 times (Churchill Downs nine, Keeneland two) with the 12th just around the corner.
4. At least one horse based outside North America has won a Breeders’ Cup race in 34 of the 38 prior events. The marketing intent is clear in this event’s title: it’s a world championship series of races. So it follows that foreign horses have been standouts from the very beginning of the Breeders’ Cup back in 1984. Four years saw no trans-oceanic shipper reach the winner’s circle: the 1989 and 1992 Breeders’ Cups at Gulfstream Park; the 1998 tilt at Churchill Downs; and the first time the Breeders’ Cup was held over two days, 2007 at Monmouth Park. By and large, the foreign horses excelling have come from European countries and have been on turf races, although the 2021 championships at Del Mar also was highlighted by two Japan-based winners – one on turf (Loves Only You), and one in a major upset on dirt (Marche Lorraine). The record for most foreign-based winners during a single Breeders’ Cup event is six in 2009 at Santa Anita Park.
5. Two Hall of Fame racemares hold the record for most total Breeders’ Cup wins at three. In all, 24 horses have won more than one Breeders’ Cup race in their careers, but only two have captured three. Irish-bred and European-based turf star Goldikova shipped to the Breeders’ Cup four years in a row from 2008-’11, and the first three of those years she won the Breeders’ Cup Mile with powerful stretch rallies. She came up short in a bid for a Mile four-peat when third in 2011 in one of the most exciting races in the event’s history. Beholder, based in California with super trainer Richard Mandella, excelled despite significant interruptions: she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at age 2; won the Distaff at age 3; and then, after missing the next two events due to injury, came back at age 6 and won the Distaff again. That final victory in 2016 over Songbird is also undisputedly one of the all-time best races in Breeders’ Cup history. Goldikova was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2017, and Beholder was welcomed last summer.
6. Ireland has produced the most Breeders’ Cup winners aside from the U.S. The land of leprechauns, shamrocks, and Liam Neeson has bred 388 horses that have competed in the Breeders’ Cup through the years, and 38 of them have won, including Modern Games, Space Blues, and Twilight Gleaming in 2021. Great Britain is next, having served as the birthplace for 24 winners, followed by France with eight. Horses bred in the U.S. have won 289 Breeders’ Cup races through 2021.
7. Twenty-five horses that won a Breeders’ Cup race have gone on to sire a Breeders’ Cup winner. If one of John Gaines’ goals for the World Championships was to highlight the contributions of breeders to the horse racing industry, then these 25 sires have aided that cause. The late Unbridled’s Song, winner of the 1995 Juvenile, leads the list having sired six Breeders’ Cup winners, led by 2016 Classic winner Arrogate. Awesome Again, who won the 1998 Classic, is next with four progeny who won Breeders’ Cup races, his best being 2004 Classic winner Ghostzapper. Ghostzapper in turn sired 2014 Filly and Mare Sprint winner Judy the Beauty. Three mares that won Breeders’ Cup races have produced Breeders’ Cup winners – including one, the legendary Personal Ensign, whose Breeders’ Cup-winning daughter My Flag produced her own Breeders’ Cup winner, Storm Flag Flying.
8. Richard Mandella and Brad Cox hold the record for most wins by a trainer at a single Breeders’ Cup with four. There’s a major difference, though. Cox, a rising star in the sport who was honored as Outstanding Trainer in both 2020 and 2021 by Eclipse Award voters, won his four during the two-day World Championships at Keeneland in 2020, with two horses winning on Friday and two more the following Saturday. Hall of Famer Mandella won four races at the 2003 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita when it was a single-day event consisting of eight total races. One of those four winners, Johar, shared first in the Turf with High Chaparral – the only dead-heat finish for first in Breeders’ Cup history.
9. Six Kentucky Derby winners have trained on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, four of them winning both races in the same year. Ferdinand and Alysheba wore the garland of roses at Churchill Downs as Derby winners in 1986 and 1987, respectively, and each of them won the Breeders’ Cup Classic the year after – Ferdinand, in fact, defeated Alysheba by a nose in 1987. In 1989 and 1990, two more legends, Sunday Silence and Unbridled, backed up their Derby wins earlier in the year with victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Sunday Silence’s neck win over Easy Goer was the fourth race in a classic confrontation that ended 3-to-1 in Sunday Silence’s favor. There was a long gap after 1990, but the wait was worth it as American Pharoah became the first 3-year-old to sweep the Triple Crown and then win the Breeders’ Cup Classic later in the year when he romped by 6 ½ lengths at Keeneland in 2015. His achievement was called the “Grand Slam” by some racing scribes, fans, and marketing people – a phrase borrowed from baseball just as baseball appropriated “Triple Crown” from horse racing. And two years ago, Authentic won a pandemic-postponed Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve in September and then took the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland two months later.
10. There have been eight Breeders’ Cup winners that paid more than $100 on a $2 win bet. The first came in the inaugural World Championships, when Lakshari upset the Turf to the tune of a $108.80 payout. The most recent came just last year, when the above-mentioned Marche Lorraine rewarded longshot players and her Japanese connections by holding on in the Longines Distaff and paying $101.80. The biggest price – one that may never be surpassed – came in the Breeders’ Cup’s grand event, the Classic, back in 1993 when little-known Arcangues shipped in from France, moved from turf to dirt, and shocked all but a few fans and bettors with a two-length win that paid $269.20 for a $2 investment.