Breeders' Cup - At The Races

The early years

    Paul Haigh takes a unique look at the formative Breeders' Cups, giving his take on some of the colourful characters who made up both the press room and the training ranks.

There’s no way to go about this in the style that readers of modern racing journalism have grown used to. Now journos are super-serious. No frivolity.  All info. You can almost see them frowning as they write.

We didn’t do it that way in those days. Of course information had to flow, otherwise what was the point in us? (A question we often pondered, usually late at night just before the bar closed). But the main idea was not just to inform – the sub-editors would help us out if we failed in that respect – but to entertain as well. And not just readers. Our colleagues were the ones we wanted to make laugh, or at least smile. It was just plain showing off really.

This is going to be episodic - if it works at all. Partly because it was a long time ago. Partly because we tended to act as though The Breeders’ Cup was just a big party to which we’d been lucky enough to get ourselves invited.

There were characters at the early Breeders’ Cups. Not at the first one. I don’t recall anyone else from the press being there from Britain except photographer George Selwyn. Or did George turn up a year later?

Hollywood Park seemed like a wonderland. Waving palm trees, the sort of sunshine you don’t get on our side of the Atlantic. The prize money seemed ridiculous. The first Breeders’ Cup race of all was the Juvenile, won by CHIEF’S CROWN. Now there’s a question somebody might use in a pub quiz sometime. The Classic was went to WILD AGAIN. A well named horse who raced with his ears stuffed with cotton wool, his head covered by an enveloping white hood that made him look like the mount of one of the Four Horsemen.

George and I stayed in a cheap hotel off La Cienaga. When they heard where we were staying US hacks took bets each day on whether we were going to make it to the track. You could see the losers looking disappointed when we did. The windows were cracked, and the cockroaches comfortable, and one of our fellow inmates (guests is too gentle a word) buttonholed us in the bar one night and warned us that the Sandinistas had an air force and were about to strike Los Angeles at any moment. He’d been to Nicaragua and seen the planes. Hundreds of them. “What colour are the planes?” we asked alertly. “Black. All of them black”.

Has anyone heard of Jimmy Swaggart? He was an arm waving foot-stomping hot-gospeller. One of the old school. He was also Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin. Every time you turned on the TV there he seemed to be, hopping from foot to foot warning us all of the hellfire that would descend upon us all if we didn’t send him large subscriptions. Alas poor Jimmy. Poor Hollywood Park too. It’s a supermarket now.

One year LASHKARI won the Mile. Was it the same year we went to a bar called Drinkers Hall of Fame and used the juke box to listen over and over again to David Lee Roth doing ‘Just a Gigolo’. The barmaid, who said she’d lost 120 pounds in weight by getting her stomach stapled, and actually looked pretty good on it, although maybe that may just have been the Bourbon, said Louis Prima did it better. Think that’s hat was a matter of mood rather than taste.

How did that happen? Lashkari not Dave Lee Roth. He was a French five furlong sprinter.  We were innocents then. We didn’t know then that sprinters could win mile races in America. Or that American horses were not invulnerable to Europeans in California.

They certainly weren’t in New York. At Aqueduct, where one of the vivid memories is of the hotel room doors being so full of static they actually gave you fall-back-wringing-your-hands electric shocks, ‘England’s Super Filly …. PEBBLES!’ as the commentator called her and Pat Eddery “beat the boys” including the ex-Aussie Strawberry Road in the 1985 Turf.

Americans still thought then that the idea of a filly beating the colts was contrary to all nature and something to be marvelled at. Clive Brittain never beamed any more broadly, and Clive has given beaming lots of practice. Was it her triumph that encouraged what was, for many years afar, my biggest ever losing bet?

Could have been. Pebbles was good. But Dancing Brave was a god. If she could win the Turf, then surely the greatest Arc winner since Sea Bird could do it laughing. The Americans had murdered his win price though. He opened up on the tote at 1/9. So, full of animal cunning, I put $1200 on him to place.

The Yanks might not have been quite so sure of him if they’d seen Guy Harwood looking worried in the days leading up to The Big Day at Santa Anita. (Euros didn’t bother too much about the Classic in those days. They thought it was just an American eccentricity to run any race on dirt).  Or if they’d heard him asking a lowly hack on his way up to the stands “Can he do it, Paul?” A man like Harwood had to be feeling very nervous to have done that.

A couple of days earlier at a press conference he’d been saying wonderful things about Dancing Brave, all of them justified. When asked how, if the horse was so good, he’d managed to lose the Derby, his trainer had replied “Piss off” before the question was even finished.

He wasn’t going to say anything quotable about the ride he’d got at Epsom from Greville “The Dog Barker” Starkey. Maybe Guy was trying to be friendly to make up for that reply, which made the Americans, used to thoughtful politeness towards the press from trainers, gasp and laugh. Politeness to the press is something British trainers have learned from the Americans since 1984. It’s taken a while though.

Starkey, who wore his hair combed down towards his right eye in the style favoured by the late Fuhrer, was known as The Dog Barker because he could imitate the sound of a yapping terrier to dangerous perfection. Sometimes he did it at the start. If he were around now he’d probably win Britain’s Got Talent. He was an excellent rider (except in what should have been Dancing Brave’s Derby) but not always the most elegant. A year or two earlier he’d won one of the minor races on the day before a California Breeders’ Cup on a British import. “Who is this guy?” yelled an American hack. “He is kamikaze! I want him for Pomona”.

You don’t hear much of Pomona these days so perhaps we can assume it’s defunct. But then it was a track where coups were frequent and the stewarding, it seems reasonable to suppose, less than fastidious.

1987 was First MIESQUE. Just as 1988 was Second MIESQUE. We visitors of whom there were now many, almost multitudes, still tended to think of the Breeders’ Cup only in terms of which of our, that’s to say European, horses won, and she was far too good for the “Septics”, which made us all feel warm and fuzzy and also gave us some pictures of Ben Franklin to count.

The clearest memory of that year though - or was it the year after? - was of wandering round a shopping mall near Churchill Downs looking for a shoe shop called  Swag’s with Tim Richards and Michael Seeley. Tim needed some trainers to run in and made us choke with laughter at the mock reverential way in which he used to refer to Swag (a real man) as though he was a national hero or a famous philosopher rather than a souped up shoe salesman. Seeley ate three chocolate bars in two minutes because he was a diabetic and worried about getting a hypo.

The world deserves to know more of Michael Seeley. If there were characters among the press, there were very few like him, and almost certainly there are none now. He was a man of great charm, a  brilliant journalist and a beautiful writer, a very likeable, if slightly wicked, man. But he was a total alcoholic who had to have an electronic instrument inserted in his body to make him vomit whenever he tasted alcohol to give his liver an each-way chance.

He was ingenious though and found a way of switching it off. Once at a Churchill Breeders’ Cup he hired a car, then destroyed all the tyres by missing the exit and driving out over the spikes at the entrance. Another time in New York (Belmont?) he was in his hotel room entertaining a voluptuous lady. His teeth were in a glass by the bed. The then Mrs Seeley decided to make an unannounced visit to New York and obtained a second key to the room. When she opened the door Michael moved the lady who was obstructing his view and said “Hello dear. What a lovely surprise”.

At Mrs Seeley’s funeral some years later he seduced the young girlfriend of a much younger relative – Michael was then in his sixties - and later married her. But that’s not a Breeders’ Cup story so it doesn’t belong in this article. They don’t make ‘em like Seeley these days. Or if they do, they probably fire them.

Tim Richards deserves more mention too, not least because he developed a habit of going up to diners in Jim Porter’s restaurant in Louisville, putting his face very near their food and saying, in his very posh English accent, “I say. That looks rather good. What is it?” Americans didn’t have a clue how to react.

Temptation’s too much though and here’s a Seeley-Richards story that just needs telling. Or re-telling. Seeley had a habit of talking to Richards several times a day, and after pressing redial just continuing the conversation without preamble. This was a policy that tempted fate. Once he pressed redial and said “You’ll never guess what that lying wop just told me”. “Michael” Luca Cumani replied, “this is the lying wop”.

I think we have to stop the clock on Breeders’ Cup: The Early Years at 1989. We were all learning then. The trainers, the jockeys, maybe not so much us hacks.

The trainers obviously were the most important. All through the first six years there were two different views amongst them about the best way to bring a horse in for the big meeting. One school said the thing to do was to bring them in early and give them time to acclimatise (or ‘acclimate’ as the Americans comically put it).

The other said the thing to do was bring them in late so they never really knew they’d gone abroad. On the whole it seems the second school has won the day. The jockeys have learnt so much about American racing and judgement of pace it’s hardly any disadvantage to an incoming horse to have his own rider on board. The hacks of course have learnt nothing, or nothing much except how to look serious. We hardly ever do.

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