DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN: Breeder’s Cup Origins and HISA

July 27, 2022

The late, great player and baseball manager of the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, used that phrase and it is often used to describe something that “has been seen before”. Malapropism aside as Berra was so famous for, this writer was struck by the parallel instance of the Breeders’ Cup introduction in 1981 and the inauguration of the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act (and Authority) in 2020 and its sell-in in 2022.

The first line of the parallel was drawn on an afternoon in 1980, when a retired businessman and Versailles horse breeder named John Gaines watched a CBS “60 Minutes” feature on the dark side of the sport of horse racing. The broadcasted points that were made, inferred that racing in general, was cruel to the horse, that drugging the horses was rampant and that regulations either were nonexistent or adjudicated by a polyglot of regional officials with differing sets of rules. Gaines knew from his business experience that a kernel of fact often results in a tsunami of furious public outrage and this before the advent of the algorithmic harvesting in Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Gaines concluded after much thought, that the racing competitions revealed on television had done little to educate the casual sporting fan with the breeding of racehorses and how sport horses were intrinsically a part of the American culture, moreover world culture. How does one explain the concept of nicking to a casual viewer, moreover the combination of art and science that goes into mating two equines. And then there are the ‘rags to riches’ racehorses that seemingly are referred to as ‘outrunning their pedigrees’ when to a wise breeder, an outcross simply pushed the best attributes forward. Chance and romance are the pillars of the sport. Buy the best, breed to the best and then hope for the best on any given Saturday. It has always been so. Racing remains the most ancient of equine sport, represented by the still viable 2,300 year-old tome “Art of Horsemanship” written by legendary soldier-philosopher and student of Socrates, Xenophone (430-354 BC).

The American thoroughbred owes its genesis to the ancient breeding practices of the tribes in the Middle East, whose breeding ledgers were considered intrinsic to tribal prestige and value. The movie, “Hildago” centers around an American mustang, borne from early Spanish conquistador mounts and sold to the main character, Frank Hopkins by his friends in a Sioux tribe. The story, since debunked, is centered around the mustang, Hildago, that races in competition against tribal champions and an English mare, the mare ironically descended from those tribal pedigrees. The race, called in the story the “Oceans of Fire” evidently did not exist but what the narrative did evoke was the capture of the breeding ledgers. Breeding ledgers again factor in Francis Ford Coppola’s production of Walter Farley’s book “The Black Stallion” and its sequel.

The novel “Seabiscuit” enchants by capturing a racehorse hero who raised the spirit of a depressed America. Romance again based on the value of bloodstock as the script depicts the horse’s ancestors and the irony of a skipped generation of racing talent. Accurate history supports that the sands of the desert produced the progenitors of racing. English officers fighting in middle Asian conflicts imported the Darley Arabian, the Byerly Turk and the Godolphin Arabian to enrich English racing bloodstock in the mid and latter 1600s. Importing the Italian breeder/trainer Federico Tesio’s Neartic and Nasrullah among others, in the 1900s resulted in a legendary Northern Dancer sire line that is coveted, ironically, by Middle Eastern owners.

Lexington, the home and host of the 2022 Breeders’ Cup was also the name of an outstanding “blue” stallion named Lexington, a direct descendant of the Byerly Turk and a racehorse that factored in the Civil War period, as a champion ‘heat’ racer and in the stallion shed. As a foal, Lexington was called Darley but assumed the town name for racing. Blue is often the color that refers to a bloodline consistency as it is also applied to the tail or dam line as in ‘blue hen’. History often offers a lens into the future. Dr. Elisha Warfield, the breeder of the stallion Lexington could not have imagined today’s social media although there were significant regional agendas, some violent, being pursued in Kentucky pre, during, and post-Civil War that impacted both breeding and racing.

Breeding and pedigrees are fundamental to the sport of Breeders Cup racing, as true now as when the American thoroughbred began to dominate the interests of breeders worldwide. Gaines saw the science of the pedigree and animal husbandry contributing to what he saw as a testament to everything that was right about racing as well as how the American story of ingenuity and progress was tied to the history of racing. John Gaines developed a core of an idea that would romance the sport to the public and would also offer incentives to racing breeders as well as to embrace fan education about the historical importance of racing and America’s growth.

The idea was the Breeders’ Cup racing series.

Gaines took his idea to his bloodstock cohorts wherein the idea was glad-handed yet the politics were ever-present. In change management, that is called a “yes, but.” Yes, the breeder incentives should be a part of racing, and ‘yes’ the public relations narrative needed work, and ‘yes’ a racing series promoting the pedigrees would educate the average horse fan, BUT, whose track would host, where would the initial purse money come from and what incentive would the breeders have with their prospective buyers at the horse sales. Moreover, where would choose the qualifying horses to compete in what distance and on which surface?

Complicated as most new things and ideas are, an organization was formed in 1981, the Breeders’ Incentives LTD, and reincorporated as a potential racing series in 1982. Gaines remarked that “There is always somebody that tries to shoot down a good idea”. Then, as now, relative to HISA, there are plenty of naysayers. Eleven states have joined the Horsemen Benevolent Protection Association to protest the constitutionality of a Federalized agency and a complicated set of regulations. 

As with the infant Breeders’ Cup, it comes the questions of how, what, why and who pays. Broadly, what entity pays for local and state HISA enforcement and education, who sanctions medication testing and violations uniformly, how are jockeys and racehorses better protected, how are track surfaces better regulated, and which drugs are therapeutic versus performance enhancers. Complicated, yes. Vital issues that will take years to work through to some degree of satisfaction and functionality. Yet as John Gaines envisioned, when there are public misconceptions that rule the narrative, to sustain the racing sport, there has to be change and innovation.

Today’s Breeders’ Cup is acknowledged as the summit of horse royalty and a gathering of champion trainers, owners and breeders. In 1981, the Breeders’ Cup represented a change as well as an answer to public perception. Some thought of it as a crazy concept. Looking back it is an interesting parallel second line can be drawn with the advent of HISA, the Horse Integrity and Safety Act with its requisite ‘have to and don’t do’. The goals are there and universally acknowledged to be a work in progress. Change is hard but a negative narrative is mortal. Deja Vu all over again.

Photo: Breeders’ Cup Logo

Great article and you are absolutely right. However your piece is sensible and logical- something that doesn't register with the opposition (who rely on emotion and "siege tactics")

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