A Glorious Mess: The First Breeders’ Cup

Zenyatta, from her facebook page

This year it’s Zenyatta, Zenyatta, Zenyatta. (And let’s not forget that other great filly, Goldikova, both vying for three-peats at the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.) But that first year, the guy running the Breeders’ Cup barely had a moment to consider the horses. He was presiding over near disaster. My story on the Breeders’ Cup runs in Louisville Magazine this month. It’s on the newsstands now and will be available online at loumag.com later in November. But this is a jennilaidman.com exclusive. You can only read this story right here.


It was a glorious success, that first Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park in California — unless your name was D.G. Van Clief Jr.

Van Clief, the Cup’s executive director that year, noticed that the sky was so clear he could see the mountains from the racetrack, as though God had divided LA’s smog in an act of benevolence toward the maiden 1984 event. And if God’s blessing wasn’t enough, there was Frank Sinatra’s. The Chairman of the Board crooned at a prerace party.

Other stars glittered on race day. Not only did Sinatra place bets, but Burt Bacharach, Joan Collins, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor gave the first running all the celebrity bling its founder, John Gaines, could hope for.

But neither God nor Sinatra worked behind the scenes. There, Van Clief was in hell.

“Talk about putting out fires,” he said. “I would love to go back and be 35 years old again, but not if I had to run the first Breeders’ Cup.”

His small crew — a group that miraculously raised $20 million to launch the richest race day in history — was in virgin territory. So, they quickly learned, was track management. All were overwhelmed  by the 64,000 who showed up that day. If that was not enough, track employees staged a work slowdown and a number of waiters, busmen and mâitre d’s decided to stay home. “Food service collapsed in some areas of the track,” Van Clief said.

Many people who ordered tickets didn’t get them, and arrived uncertain where to go or what to do. The tickets that did go out didn’t have seat numbers printed on them. “We had parties double seated in the same seats,” he said. “I had owners threaten to pull horses because their seating was so bad.

“We didn’t have cell phones in those days, but I did have a walkie-talkie. Around the second race, I threw it away in a corner somewhere.”

There were so many reporters, his crew set up temporary press facilities adjacent to the dining room. One reporter headed to his assigned seat and, instead of finding a phone line and fax, found a plate of dinner rolls.

Reporters were to receive souvenir lapel pins memorializing the day, but instead Van Clief purloined several boxes of them and used them as staff credentials.

“We were pretty naïve – well, I’ll speak for myself — I was. I thought once we raised $20 million and had … four hours of live television, I was naïve enough to think we could turn it over to racetrack management and the rest would be easy.”

“It’s hilarious looking back,” Van Clief said.

Not so much at the time, though.

What people remember from the day, isn’t the chaos, however. It’s the horses. A heart-stopping three-way battle at the finish line between winner Wild Again, Gate Dancer and Slew of Gold crowned the event.

“The day was saved by the fact it was an incredible day of racing. The best horses showed up and we had a much stronger contingent from Europe than we thought we would get,” Van Clief said. “Logistically, it was a nightmare.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s