It was, in that final quarter mile last Saturday, all that the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup series had promised to be, all that anyone might have hoped it would be, a ding-dong race among three superb, dead-game thoroughbreds joined in a desperate struggle to the wire. Suddenly, there the three were—Wild Again charging on the rail. Gate Dancer ranging up on the outside and heavily favored Slew O' Gold pinched right between them—their necks thrust out and straining, heads bobbing together, as the riders, three of the best and strongest in the business, pushed and pumped and drove them home.
There was Pat Day, rhythmically hand-riding Wild Again, holding hard to the left rein as he tried to keep the colt from drifting out into Slew O' Gold. There was Laffit Pincay Jr., the most physically powerful rider in the world, slashing Gate Dancer lefthanded while laboring to keep him off Slew O' Gold. And there was Angel Cordero Jr., hitting Slew righthanded, glancing repeatedly at the onrushing Gate Dancer and Pincay before finally putting his stick away because he simply had no more room to swing it freely.
"I was in so tight!" Cordero would say. The three pounded to the wire together, with Slew O' Gold fading after being bounced back and forth off the other two. In the last jump Wild Again held on to win it all by a short head from Gate Dancer, who later was disqualified and placed third for his part in the slaying of the mighty Slew.
So ended one of the roughest, rousingest finishes in years. Fittingly, it came in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest horse race ever run, a mile and a quarter romp over the dirt course at Hollywood Park that climaxed a seven-race series worth a total of $10 million. The series certainly came off as it had been billed in the months leading up to it. The richness of the record purses aside, it did indeed bring together, at one racetrack on a single autumn day in Southern California, more good racehorses and first-rate jockeys than had ever competed at any one place on any day in history.
"We sought in this Breeders' Cup to create a Super Bowl of the sport, an equine Olympics," said the Cup's founding father, Kentucky breeder John R. Gaines. "We did it. We've had a sampling of everything here today."
For sure, it was a day of diversity and drama at the newly refurbished Hollywood Park, which was chosen as host of the first Breeders' Cup about two years ago. The track had lengthened its main oval from a mile to a mile and an eighth and had added a $30 million clubhouse pavilion. A crowd of 64,254 put $11,466,941 through the betting machines, a record single-day handle in California, and they saw all the sport has to offer—from dashes for 2-year-olds to turf racing at a distance. They also saw winning front-runners and stretch runners, the certain crowning of at least three champions, two major disqualifications and three eye-popping upsets.
Each race had its own memorable scene. One of the most touching came after the victory of America's fastest 2-year-old, Chiefs Crown, in the first race of the series, the $1 million Juvenile—trainer Roger Laurin's jubilation on greeting the colt as he headed for the winner's circle. In 1971, Laurin quit training for the Meadow Stable to take over the powerful outfit owned by the Phipps family. His father, Lucien, took on the Meadow horses, and among those Roger had left him were a lightly raced 2-year-old, Riva Ridge, who eventually won the 1972 Kentucky Derby, and a yearling named Secretariat, the eventual 1973 Triple Crown winner, who is regarded by many as the greatest racehorse of modern times. Now Roger had his own winter-book favorite for the Derby. He patted Chiefs Crown on the neck and said, "You are the champion!"
The upsets that followed that scene lighted up the tote board. In the $1 million Juvenile for fillies, Fran's Valentine, at 74-1, won by half a length over 22-1 shot Outstandingly, but only after crashing into Pirate's Glow, who bounced to the right and took out the favorite, Bessarabian. Fran's Valentine was placed 10th, and Outstandingly was declared the winner. And then there was the Aga Khan's Lashkari, the biggest surprise of the afternoon, roaring from off the pace under France's champion jockey, Yves St. Martin, to beat last year's Horse of the Year, All Along, by a neck in the 1½-mile, $2 million turf race and pay $108.80 for $2.
The rest of the card came easier for the form players. Eillo proved once again that he's the fastest racehorse in the land when he bounded to the lead like a frightened hare in the $1 million Sprint, though he was hailing a cab with 70 yards to go and only just lasted to win by a nose. In the most dominant performance of the day, Princess Rooney galloped to the lead at the head of the stretch in the $1 million Distaff and went into hiding to win by seven. Finally, the lone filly in the $1 million turf race at one mile, favorite Royal Heroine, deep-fried nine males through a final quarter in :23[4/5] to set an American record of 1:32[3/5] while winning by 1½ lengths.
Such were the preludes to the Classic and Wild Again's surpassing exhibition of speed, pluck and determination under fire. The race was to be the great Slew O' Gold's final appearance before his retirement to stud in Kentucky. The son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, from a Buckpasser mare, had been the best 3-year-old in the land last year, and before Saturday he had gone undefeated in five '84 starts, with his last three victories in the most important fall races in New York—the Woodward, the Marlboro and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was the first horse ever to pull off that hat trick. A beautiful bay with a chiseled head and magnificent physique, Slew O' Gold looked every bit the best racehorse in the country.
The problem was that he had been plagued in the last few weeks by physical ailments. In the Woodward he was suffering from a bruised frog, an extremely sensitive part of the hoof, on his right front. "He came out of the Woodward dead lame," said one of his veterinarians, Robert Fritz. The bruise was cut away and cauterized, and the colt was fitted with two protective shoes. With them he won the Marlboro.
About 10 days before the Oct. 20 Gold Cup, he developed two quarter cracks, painful splittings of the hoof wall, on the same right front foot. The cracks were patched with fiber glass, and Slew won. Then, four days before the Breeders' Cup, he developed a third quarter crack on the same hoof. To further complicate matters, Slew O' Gold had a swelling of the tendon sheath in his right hock. At 4 a.m. on Friday, veterinarian Judd Butler put a patch on the new crack, and a couple of hours later Slew O' Gold worked a useful three-eighths of a mile, showing no signs of distress.
The colt's difficulties had given others in the race a reason for hope. "If he fires, if he's in top shape, nobody can beat Slew O' Gold," said Wild Again's trainer, Vincent Timphony. Leroy Jolley, the trainer of Track Barron, had the choice of entering his colt in either the Classic or the Sprint, a softer touch, and he finally opted to run in the Classic. Jolley figured he had a good shot under the circumstances.
It was not easy to make a case for Wild Again, at least not on paper. Last year as a 3-year-old, he had missed almost the entire season after having bone chips removed from a knee late in 1982. He had broken a track record at Oaklawn Park last April, but then was winless in six starts before triumphing in the 1-mile Meadowlands Cup Handicap by six lengths on Sept. 3. The challenge now was to get Wild Again fit enough for the Classic.
"He's a poor work horse," said Bill Allen, a Miami insurance executive who, with fellow exec Terry Beal and Dallas real-estate developer Ron Volkman, paid $35,000 for the colt as a yearling. "We had to have a race for him."
So Volkman called an old friend, Harry Krovitz, the racing secretary at Bay Meadows, and asked him to write a race for the colt. What they got was a one-mile sprint on the grass. Wild Again finished third. But thanks, Bay Meadows, the race obviously did the job. Because Wild Again was not eligible for the Breeders' Cup, the owners had to put up $360,000 to supplement him, the largest such fee ever paid in racing history. Those who didn't know Wild Again were laughing at the three.
Slew O' Gold, despite his hard-luck hoof, was the odds-on favorite, with Preakness winner Gate Dancer given the solidest chance to pick him off. The stretch-running colt with the weird-looking ear muffs had since won the Omaha Gold Cup by 5½ and the $500,000 Super Derby by a head. "Knock on wood; he's just as good as you can make him," said Gate Dancer's trainer, Jack Van Berg. "There's plenty of the speed in the race. It should set right up for him."
It almost did, and at the head of the stretch Gate Dancer looked as if he was going to win. By then Slew's stablemate, a rabbit named Mugatea, had pushed the front-running Wild Again through a half mile in a fiery :45[3/5]. As Mugatea faded, another rocket, Precisionist, had taken a run at the colt. But Wild Again stretched his neck and raced to the three-quarter mark in a sparkling 1:10[3/5]. Wild Again still had Slew and Gate Dancer to fight off. Slew raced up next to him on the bend for home.
Slew came to his whiskers, but could gain no more. They straightened out for home, racing in tandem, and that's when that glorious stretch duel began. "When I came to him at the quarter pole, Wild Again got a little tired and started drifting out on me," Cordero said. "He brushed my horse."
Pincay now swooped down on the outside with Gate Dancer. "I thought I was going to win it," he said.
The whips cracked on Slew and Gate Dancer. Once, twice, three times. As they left the eighth pole, the three became one. "I was getting it from both sides," Cordero said. "The inside horse was laying on me. The outside horse coming in on me. I was bouncing off one and then the other."
Wild Again wouldn't yield. "He ran with courage," Day said. "Slew O' Gold had every chance to run by me, and he didn't do it."
Slew hung. So did Gate Dancer. The wire loomed. Now Slew faded, and Gate Dancer made a final charge, but it was too late.
It appeared on tape that Wild Again had come out as much as Gate Dancer had come in, both of them culprits in squeezing Slew, but the stewards took down Gate Dancer and allowed the winner to stand. But then Wild Again had beaten off one attack after another to earn his victory.
"I'm on cloud nine!" Volkman said, floating by.
"Hallelujah!" shouted Day.
Of Wild Again's three owners, Beal was the only one not there to see it. He had undergone quadruple bypass surgery the day before the race. "Terry had the choice of having surgery on Friday or Monday," said Scarlette Booth, the trainer's fiancée, "and he figured he'd better have it on Friday, because if he had to watch the race he might have a heart attack." So Beal watched from his hospital bed and survived not only the stretch run but the inquiry. "He's doing fine," said Nina Martin, Allen's girl friend.
It was Martin who named the first winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. They were all sitting around in New Orleans one night, partying, when someone said, "Let's go out and get wild again."
"That's a good name for a horse," Martin said. "Wild Again." After banking the winner's share of $1,350,000, the winning crew was ready to paint a town once more. "We'll get wild again tonight," Martin said. "For sure."