• Kate Richards

Advent of the Breeders' Cup: the summit of speed and speculation

When serious thoughts occurred to John Gaines, he knew more serious action was required. In his Lexington farmhouse study, after watching a CBS “60 Minutes” feature in 1980, Gaines realized the perception of his sport. Horse racing was cruel and drug riddled. All trainers were crooked. The sport was un-regulated. And this, he conjectured, came after the roaring ‘70s saw television ratings race alongside the golden track warriors that were Secretariat, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid. Nowadays, the casual cable news watcher knows that a well-placed smear can disrupt even the most glittering of reputations. Kernels of fact can be built into a tsunami of ugliness. Gaines knew it even then. John Gaines, even as a ‘son of the boss’ of inherited largess, lived in a competitive bloodstock arena where stallion managers had to produce viable racing progeny to survive, much less get these foals to the training track and, beyond that, to a stakes race. Analysis depended on cool-eyed assessments of relative strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — a SWOT methodology practiced by competitive leaders that want to stay in the race. He understood that the breeding industry survival and its racing product’s viewership depended on consistently solid entertainment value Competition is visual, and there are few things more exciting than a horse race. Yet, the business end of a racehorse, its bloodlines and fostering of same, however, are more oblique to a sports viewer. Gaines also realized that maybe this sport of kings had a elitist champagne image when more of a beer taste was required. What American racing needed, he thought to himself, was a fall racing meet that broadened the racing schedule and continued public interest beyond the Triple Crown series John Gaines also recognized a gap in the narrative of racing as a sport and a televised competition. What he saw was a need to romance the story of horse racing, by exampling its many storied chapters, from the breeding shed through the training to the track laced with the skills that peopled these champion barns. There had been racehorses throughout recorded history that had lifted the human spirit, sheltered dreams and inspired national pride. Gaines knew that the occasional fan only saw the obvious: the burnished coat of the winner and the smiles of the winning horse’s connections after a fast display of athleticism. The backstories featured on telecasts usually concentrated on the rare few equines that had beaten the odds of risk and reward The few, the proud, the best of the umpteen thousand foals born in a year could not be expressed in statistical analysis. Then there were the tele-induced tidbits of supposed facts, like that CBS report that betrayed the alchemy and legitimacy of thoroughbred sport and failed to revere how racing, as a contested sport, was as ancient as recorded history would allow. History can be an iterative para-science subjective to interpretation. Gaines, himself, was fascinated with the origins of racing and, moreover, the service that horses had performed for mankind in the development of nations. From the Middle Eastern desert to the bluegrass of Kentucky, the thoroughbred story is woven into the ascendancy of many cultures including the United States. Horses worked the fields, transported families, carried men and munitions into battle and then entertained and lifted our spirits through their athletic agility This was a significant story hardly ever told to a broadcast public. As Gaines mused, he began to outline a plan…a plan to establish a fall event that would celebrate the best in the world and provide a canvas for telling the story of the bloodlines and the practice of breeding the best of equine talent, or as doctrine has it: breed the best to the best and hope for the best. Gaines had an idea and envisioned a summit for champions, scheduled for the fall of every year — an idea that became known as the Breeders’ Cup. He wanted a Super Bowl for racing. Crazy? Many sage observers thought so. In hindsight, “crazy” becomes innovative genius. Moreover, crazy ideas cost money. While woodshedding the original concept with Nelson Bunker Hunt and John Galbreath, the question became how to raise the original operating and winning purse cost and, most importantly, how to get the most prominent stallion operations involved with the organization Banking on his connections within the Kentucky breeding community and some goading from Hunt, a meeting was called, and his plan detailed to the assemblage. From Claiborne, they recruited Seth Hancock, along with Windfield’s Charles Taylor, Will Farish from Lane’s End and Leslie Combs from Spendthrift. John Nerud, Brereton Jones from Airdrie Stud and oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt were also included along with Walmac’s John Jones. During that meeting, the concept was generally accepted, yet there was suspicion of the hidden agenda that included: favoritism on host track location, qualification of equine entries for first two yearly runnings, seed money, and television interest for national broadcast of all of the proposed seven races. As Gaines, himself, was later to reflect, “There is always somebody trying to shoot down a good idea. The naysayers speculated on the Breeders’ Cup’s potential failures and weaknesses. But the core idea and the group continued to consider the details of launching such an ambitious project. The Breeders Cup, originally franchised as Breeders Incentives, LTD, in ’81, was reincorporated in its present form in ’82. Gaines resigned his leadership position within the group shortly afterward, as he felt that some of the divisiveness centered on him and not on the idea. Yet Gaines continued to promote the Breeders Cup and is remembered as its founder. In my study of corporate cases that focus on failures of organizational leadership to adjust to events, anticipate risks and/or fail to anticipate and react to competition, status quo maintenance is a dangerous mindset. This thinking renders an organization vulnerable to a takeover, brand dissolution and destruction of consumer trust. I believe Gaines sensed that stagnation in the breeding industry’s marketing of itself, therefore making it vulnerable for an ambitious broadcast producer to take a turn at attacking what was perceived as an elitist operation. How does one sell the word ‘breeder’ much less the concept of pedigree ‘nicking’ to a television audience? The term almost sounds medical. Ask the powers of CBS and ABC that passed on the original Breeders Cup because they didn’t think that they could sell it. NBC got it as they absorbed the storytelling aspect of the concept. Gaines’ idea concentrated on showing the results of those same careful breedings: racing the best against the best. The Breeders Cup was generated by a visionary who had a concept, the tenacity to persuade a confederacy of doubters and humility to allow the idea to reign. Dear John Gaines: Thank you for one crazy good idea. Cartoon by A.E. Sabo at www.offthepace.net

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