1986: Santa Anita's First Breeders' Cup

On November 1st, 1986, more than 69,000 fans became part of Santa Anita Park's timeline.

In 1986, the venerable Arcadia racetrack had firmly established itself as one of the premier facilities in Thoroughbred racing, and was the home of several of the sport's greatest figures.

Champion after champion had left his or her mark at the Great Race Place, from Seabiscuit to Swaps to Native Diver to Bill Shoemaker to Laffit Pincay, Jr to Charlie Whittingham. Only two years earlier, the racetrack was woven into the Olympic fabric when it served as host of the equestrian events for the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

On that autumn day in November of 1986, though, Santa Anita would add more history, for the sport's greatest met at the Great Race Place for the third running of the Breeders' Cup during the prestigious Oak Tree meeting, which had been a part of the Southern California racing calendar since 1969.

An idea that hatched from the mind of John Gaines, the head of Gainesway Farm, the Breeders' Cup was unveiled to the racing world earlier in the decade. It took some planning as well as a team effort within the sport, but the Breeders' Cup, designed to be a day where the sport's best horses met in a series of contests, was brought to fruition and had its inaugural running in 1984. Southern California became part of the historical occasion when Hollywood Park became the appointed venue for the extravaganza. After moving to Churchill Downs in 1985, the Breeders' Cup returned to the Southland, this time opting for Santa Anita.

The live crowd and those watching on television watched seven Breeders' Cup events that day, and they all saw spectacular racing at one of the sport's iconic tracks.

The Sprint featured a thrilling battle between Smile and Pine Tree Lane. The fractions were swift, but Smile would not tire from the pace on that day, pulling away from Pine Tree Lane to capture the event and subsequently champion sprinting honors.

The hometown crowd was thrilled with the outcome of the Juvenile Fillies, for Brave Raj took advantage of a quick pace to make a dynamic charge on the inside in the far turn. She seized the lead after turning for home and was unchallenged the rest of the way, winning by daylight with Patrick Valenzuela. The victory concluded a banner year for Brave Raj's trainer, Mel Stute, who guided the popular California bred Snow Chief to a brilliant three year old campaign that year, highlighted by a triumph in the Preakness Stakes. Snow Chief was not the only talented horse in the Stute barn, however, for Brave Raj had a fine 1986 in her own right, winning several stakes across the country, including the Grade 2 Del Mar Debutante. She also gave the Southern California fans pride as she won one for the circuit on what was a significant day in racing for the Golden State.

The Mile had a Hollywood flavor, for one of the entrants was named Fred Astaire. Another had the moniker of Last Tycoon, which was the name of the final novel by noted author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The latter had done well in Europe, winning many group stakes contests. The pace was fast in the mile, and Last Tycoon, an Irish bred, was able to find an opening between two horses and held off a fast closing Palace Music to achieve victory, the last in a career that featured eight wins in thirteen starts.

The Turf proved to be one of the day's most exciting contests. Estrapade led for much of the way before being overtaken late by Theatrical. In the later stages of the Turf, Theatrical looked to be the winner, but Manila, who had been tracking the pace, made a valiant final surge to snatch the win from Theatrical. Manila's comeback was quite impressive, for he tried to move along the rail earlier in the stretch. That tactic proved unsuccessful, so jockey Jose Santos moved him to the outside and the duo pulled off the comeback. With the victory came the Eclipse Award for Champion Grass Horse of 1986, followed by more stakes wins the following year.

The Distaff featured one of the sport's undisputed stars, and the race had major implications for her.

Lady's Secret, the daughter of renowned champion Secretariat, had been in excellent form in 1986. Going into the Distaff, Lady's Secret had raced fourteen times that season, and was no worse than third in any of them. Nine times she was a winner, and all of those victories were in graded stakes events at Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, Santa Anita, and Saratoga. A win in the Distaff would have an effect on Horse of the Year, and in a season where Lady's Secret had been sublime, a win on Breeders' Cup Day would be a fitting conclusion to her brilliant campaign. It could be said the Southern California crowd would have been happy to see Lady's Secret win, for she had ties to California. Among the tracks where she owned a victory included Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita.

Once the gate opened, Lady's Secret and Pat Day went right for the front, and her performance was symbolic of her year. After a half-mile, she was already four lengths in front. None of her opponents seriously challenged her the rest of the way, and Lady's Secret made it ten graded stakes wins for the year after crossing the wire. California bred Fran's Valentine finished second, adding a good finish in a year that saw her win several stakes on the circuit. In a way, it was a 1-2 finish for California racing.

The Juvenile attracted a field of thirteen, and the post time favorite was a local horse named Capote. This colt by 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew had been on a roll going into the Juvenile. After losing his debut in a maiden special weight contest at Del Mar in September of that year, Capote followed that up with a good Oak Tree meeting. He broke his maiden by 11 lengths, and followed that up with a win in the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes. It was clear he could handle the Santa Anita main track, and he also liked to be out front, for both of those wins came with Capote leading at every point of call.

That proved to be his running style in the Juvenile. Capote and Laffit Pincay, Jr. seized the lead early and never relinquished it, clear winners at the wire. With that victory came an Eclipse Award for Champion Two Year Old a little later on. It marked another race where Southern California connections had reached the winners' circle.

The finale was the Classic, and Southern California was represented in the main event. Precisionist owned victories at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita, and was the previous year's champion in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Rather than defend that title, Precisionist was pointed to the race where he had finished seventh in 1984. Joining him was Skywalker, who was well known to the locals as well. Skywaker was a debut winner at Hollywood Park, and later captured the 1985 Santa Anita Derby. The second half of 1986 had largely gone well for Skywalker, for he won the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar and the Longacres Mile in Washington state. Following a second in the Col. F.W. Koester Handicap at Santa Anita, Skywalker was a member of the eleven horse field in the Classic.

Laffit Pincay, Jr. was in the irons for Skywalker, and the duo would become part of a quartet that would be at the front for a large part of the contest. While in the far turn, though, Skywalker emerged as the frontrunner. Racing along the rail, Pincay and Skywalker turned for home. Turkoman unleashed a furious run late, but ran out of racetrack. Skywalker joined Wild Again and Pure Truth as champions of the Classic, and Pincay celebrated his second Breeders' Cup victory of the day. The race was also a special occasion for the Whittingham family, for Michael Whittingham, the son of Charlie, was the winning trainer in the Classic.

Millions were wagered on Breeders' Cup Day in 1986, but there was so much more to the event than money.

For the owners, trainers and jockeys that won a Breeders' Cup race, they could lay claim to being associated to a champion horse. They could also say they owned a victory at racing's highest level. D. Wayne Lukas was the big winner among conditioners that day, winning the Distaff and Juvenile. In the years since, Lukas is the winningest trainer in Breeders' Cup history with twenty.

The seven horses who were winners became part of Breeders' Cup lore, and ensured their respective places in racing history. This was especially true for Lady's Secret, whose victory in the Distaff propelled her to Horse of the Year honors.

The fans who were inside Santa Anita saw thrilling racing, world class competition, and champions crowned. Horseplayers made triumphant walks to the betting windows, cashing in winning tickets and pocketing their winnings.

For Santa Anita, it was not just a historic day, but it was the beginning of something special. Since that first visit thirty years ago, the Breeders' Cup has returned to Arcadia on eight more occasions. Overall, only Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders' Cup as many times as Santa Anita.

The sport of horse racing is filled with moments of wonder, joy, and history.

All three were in abundance on Breeders' Cup Day at Santa Anita on November 1, 1986.

Entry added April 2, 2019. AF