By Ben Bowers
on 1.30.14
Photo by Bradley Hasemeyer

A
sk any casual fan what the Superbowl of horse racing is and they’ll answer the Kentucky Derby. Pose the same question to a member of the horse racing community and they’ll quickly point to the Breeders’ Cup. Deciding who’s right depends on the measuring stick. History, attendance records and cultural recognition easily favor the Derby. But when it comes to cold hard cash, the Breeders’ Cup is clearly king.

MORE RACING: Racing Home: A Visit to Keeneland | Off to the Races at Saratoga | Interview with

The idea of the annual thoroughbred horse racing series is credited to pet food magnate John R. Gaines, who in 1982 proposed creating a year-end championship that would rotate between the country’s best race tracks. The goal was to create an elite series of stakes races to determine the best thoroughbreds on the track. Convincing the community turned out to be easy. Money was all that was required. Copious amounts of it.

The inaugural event held in the fall of 1984 boasted an unprecedented $10 million in winnings, including the most lucrative horse race at the time in the form of the $3 million Breeder’s Cup Classic purse, immediately giving the spectacle notoriety as the “richest day in sports”. In 2007, additional Grade I races were added to run on Friday, transforming the event into a two-day affair with even more money at stake.

Today the $5 million purse of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, presented as the last of the 14 races during the Breeders’ Cup weekend, is more than double that of the Derby’s $2.18 million purse and stands as the richest race in North America. There are also six other races during the event with purses of $2 million or more. In total, $25 million in purse money is distributed across all 14 races. Talk about ponying up.

And while its attendance by the public has always trailed the legs of the Triple Crown, every Breeder’s Cup has been televised since its inception thanks to contracts with NBC, ESPN and NBC Sports Group, helping to boost the spectacle’s profile beyond the eyes of horse racing loyalists. This year’s classic was even broadcast in a coveted primetime spot via NBC.

We were invited to experience the scene for ourselves during the 30th anniversary of the lauded event at historic Santa Anita park, California’s oldest race track, for the second consecutive year. Like the Breeder’s Cup, the art deco masterpiece located in the suburbs of LA is revered among fans of the sport. One stroll through the faded green and yellow hallways out towards the massive grandstands quickly proves why.

In total, $25 million in purse money is distributed across the Breeders’ Cup’s 14 races.

The mile-long natural dirt course and inner turf track speckled with tall palms poses perfectly at the feet of San Gabriel Mountains, offering a sight that’s convinced many to call Santa Anita the most beautiful race track in the world. Its history is equally eye-opening. It was here that the implementation of photo finishes and the use of starting gates in the sport was first conceived. In its prime moments, Seabiscuit revealed himself to the country and returned years later to earn his final win and Hollywood icons like Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant and Bing Crosby could be spotted gracing the the high roller sections. In its darkest hours, 17,000 Japanese Americans (including a young George Takei) were imprisoned on the grounds during its two years as an internment center during WWII.

Today, the landmark is once again on the top of its game. 2013 marked the second year in a row of Santa Anita hosting the Breeder’s Cup, and course’s seventh time overall. History will repeat itself again on October 31 and November 1st of 2014, giving the track an unprecedented threepeat as home of the Super Bowl of horse racing.

As anniversaries go, the 30th running of the Breeder’s Cup proved worthy of fanfare — the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic to close the week of racing was named as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s “moment of the year”, and for good reason. World-renowned jockey Gary Stevens, whom many may recognize through his acting roles in Seabiscuit and the now-defunct HBO show “Luck”, returned to the sport in January at the age of 50 after his second brush with retirement. The bold move proved wise.

Stevens won the Preakness for the third time in his career and, after 15 attempts, finally won the Breeders’ Cup classic. He was the only jockey alive to have ridden in both the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984 and in the 30th. His winning horse, Mucho Macho Man, tasted victory too, beating Will Take Charge by a nose after placing second in the 2012 Classic. His trainer, Kathy Ritvo, also made history as the first woman in the sport to win the $5 million championship. How’s that for a Superbowl finish?

Curious to know more? America’s Best Racing is an ideal resource for all things horse racing online.

ADVENTURE IS ONE CLICK AWAY

Subscribe to GP for a daily dose of the best in gear, adventure, design, tech and culture. 5pm sharp.