Who were the founders of the Breeders' Cup and what legacy did they create?

October 31st, 2022

On April 23, 1982, John Gaines made a surprise announcement at the Kentucky Derby Festival's "They're Off" luncheon, revealing his vision for an international racing event known today as the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

Before his proclamation, not even John's wife, Joan, knew about John's idea, which he had been developing over the last three years.

John, an enterprising businessman who owned commercial stallion station Gainesway Farm and who came up with the idea for the Kentucky Horse Park, wanted to launch a new championship day in horse racing that would consist of seven prestigious races for horses of various ages and sexes run at the same track on the same day and broadcast around the world. The marquee race on the one-day card would be a $3 million "classic" race open to all ages and sexes.

The founding of the Breeders' Cup

John privately discussed his dream with a few prominent industry folk, such as Nelson Bunker Hunt, a breeder in Texas, and trainer and owner John Nerud, who went on to serve as chairman of the Breeders' Cup marketing committee.

But Gaines initially had trouble getting the Breeders' Cup off the ground. He had made his share of rivals in the breeding industry, and one of his main challenges was to get the majority of them to support his vision. Many of them championed the idea but did not want to participate if Gaines himself were involved.

Thus, in order to see his objective become reality, he resigned from the Breeders' Cup board of directors.

On Saturday, Nov. 10, 1984 at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California, the inaugural Breeders' Cup was held, consisting of seven races — the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf, and Classic.

In front of a crowd of 64,254 track attendees, 31-1 longshot Wild Again, under jockey Pat Day, collected the $3 million prize in the Classic after defeating Slew o' Gold and that year's Preakness S. (G1) winner Gate Dancer.

Gaines' goal of creating a championship event to bookend the calendar year of Thoroughbred racing had become an instant success. The following year, NBC's broadcast of the Breeders' Cup aired in 40 countries, while journalists from all across the world, from France to Sweden and Japan, were in attendance to report on the one-day event, that year held at Aqueduct in New York.

In addition to the $10 million awarded at Breeders' Cup, another $12 million was dispersed throughout the year by Breeders’ Cup Limited (formed in 1982) as premiums for stakes races at 85 racetracks in the U.S.

By the early 1990s, the Breeders’ Cup was considered equal to the prestige of the Triple Crown of racing. Consistently serving up electrifying drama each fall, the Breeders' Cup brought together two Kentucky Derby heroes, Alysheba and Ferdinand, in the 1987 Classic, marking the first time two Derby winners had raced against each other since Affirmed and Spectacular Bid squared off in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The meeting proved remarkable, as the result was decided in a photo finish, with then-four-year-old Ferdinand beating three-year-old Alysheba by a nose.

Then, in 1993 at Santa Anita, the Breeders' Cup shocked the world when 133-1 longshot Arcangues of France pulled off one of the biggest upset victories in horse racing history, which paid out $269.60 on a $2 win bet.

Breeders' Cup expansion in the 2000s

Building off the Breeders' Cup's prosperity, in 2007, interim President and CEO of the Breeders' Cup Greg Avioli expanded the Breeders' Cup to a two-day event with a focus on growing the international market. He also introduced the "Win and You're In" Challenge Series, which helped draw further attention to the Breeders' Cup ahead of the event, which was hosted at Monmouth Park that year.

The initial Breeders' Cup Challenge Series featured 24 races. Today, that number has increased to 82, with 39 International qualifying events and 43 in the U.S.

In 2008, the first day of the Breeders' Cup was dedicated to female horses, with the overall purse increased to more than $25 million across 14 different races, earning the Breeders' Cup the distinction as the "richest turf festival in the world" by the New York Post.

The following year, the Breeders' Cup was telecast in more than 140 countries.

Since its inception in 1984, the Breeders' Cup has been held every year in the U.S., with the exception of 1996, when Woodbine Racetrack in Canada hosted the 13th edition.

From 2008 to 2014, either Churchill Downs or Santa Anita was home to the Breeders' Cup, but in 2015, the Lexington racetrack Keeneland entered the mix and has since hosted the 2020 renewal and the 2022 Breeders' Cup.

The 2015 Breeders' Cup was also special in that American Pharoah became the first horse to win the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing, comprised of the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).

The Breeders' Cup today

Although Gaines, the "father of the Breeders' Cup," passed away in 2005, his legacy continues on through the ever-evolving Breeders' Cup World Championships, held annually in either late October or early November.

In 2022, on Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, Keeneland will host the 39th running of the Breeders' Cup, with 14 Grade 1 races across both days. The two-day event will begin with Future Stars Friday, which includes five races for two-year-olds — the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1), Juvenile Fillies (G1), Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1), Juvenile (G1), and Juvenile Turf (G1).

On Saturday, nine more Grade 1 races are on tap, culminating with the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Winning a Breeders' Cup race is not only considered a career-defining feat, but many horses that win a Breeders' Cup event go on to claim the Eclipse Award in their respective division. Like the Triple Crown, which takes center stage during the first half of the racing season, the Breeders' Cup is the feature act that closes out the campaign, and gives both casual and diehard racing fans something to look forward to year after year.