In the Beginning

By Billy Reed -- Only once in my 42-year career as a sportswriter have I been present at the dawn of a significant new era in a sport that I cared about. Looking back, it was sort of like being there when Elvis Presley slouched into Sun Records in Memphis and mumbled, "I'm here to make a record for my mama." Or being on the front row the day a young geek named Bill Gates first told an audience that someday computers would run the world.

Sportswriters rarely have the opportunities to cover such cosmic moments. Was a scribe in the room when Pete Rozelle first laid out his plans for the Super Bowl? Was a writer on hand when a college basketball recruiter first told his boss, "You gotta see this Jordan kid because he does things I've never seen before." I seriously doubt it.

My rendezvous with destiny, to borrow a phrase, came 20 years ago this week. I was then sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and one day John R. Gaines, one of the world's most successful Thoroughbred breeders, called to tell me he was receiving an award at the "They're Off" luncheon, which used to kick off the annual Kentucky Derby Festival. As I recall it, Gaines said, "You might want to come because I'm going to announce something that you might be interested in."

I knew Gaines to be a serious, no-nonsense type who had long fretted about the way racing was losing fans to other sports. Part of the problem, he felt, was the lack of a year-long racing calendar that culminated with a series of races to determine the champions in every division. Racing, in other words, was less cohesive and more difficult for the average fan to grasp than the major professional leagues. Gaines also thought racing suffered from a lack of national TV exposure. But what to do? Especially considering that, historically, racing welcomed new ideas about as enthusiastically as Camilla Parker-Bowles embraced Princess Di.

When I arrived at the luncheon, intrigued by what Gaines had up his sleeve, I discovered that Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form was the only other writer in attendance. This excited me. Then, as now, Hirsch was the most important, influential, and widely read columnist in the sport. I figured he wouldn't waste his time unless something big was in the works.

By now you've probably guessed that this was the luncheon where Gaines announced the concept that was to become the Breeders' Cup. At the time, his working title was "Parade of Champions."

Looking back at the column I did for the next morning's paper, it's interesting to note that Gaines' ideas for financing the event were pretty much adopted. Before making his announcement, he had wisely gotten all his ducks in a row. The sport's most influential horsemen--Seth Hancock, Warner Jones, John Galbreath, Ogden Phipps Sr., Paul Mellon, and many others--all had signed on, with various degrees of enthusiasm. Gaines said the first event might be held as early as 1984.

When I arrived in the Churchill Downs press box the next day, the first person I saw was Andy Beyer, the noted handicapper and racing writer for the Washington Post. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

Beyer: "I read your column about John Gaines."

Me: "Yeah?"

Beyer: "It'll never work. It's preposterous to think that all the elements of the industry will get behind the idea. I give him credit for trying to do something, but it'll never fly."

As I've said many times since, mostly in jest, that was the exact moment I knew the Breeders' Cup would succeed. And it has, providing racing with its biggest day and me with the special little sense of pride that comes from being there at the birth of something good. b

Billy Reed is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.