From the time Wild Again, Slew O' Gold, and Gate Dancer dueled down the lane together in the first Breeders' Cup Classic in 1984, the race has lived up to its billing as the showcase race on a showcase day of racing. Strategically placed as the last of the seven Cup races, a certain amount of dramatic tension is built up each year on Cup day as the day winds its way to the Classic. Rarely does the race let racing fans down.
The first Classic produced the first of many Classic surprises, with 31.30-to-1 longshot Wild Again outlasting his more fancied foes to claim the $1.35-million first place check. The race solidified Pat Day's prominence among the nation's leading riders and sent a clear signal the race would be unpredictable and exciting.
The next two years saw outsiders triumph through Proud Truth (7.40-to-1) in 1985 and Skywalker (10.10-to-1) the next year. But 1987 saw the most formful and dramatic Classic to date. Kentucky Derby winners Ferdinand and Alysheba worked their way past Judge Angelucci and Candi's Gold inside the eight pole, then staged a pulsating duel the final 100 yards, with Ferdinand getting up by the slimmest of margins to clinch Horse of the Year honors. Undaunted, trainer Jack Van Berg brought Alysheba back to the Classic in 1988, and this time the bay son of Alydar would not be denied, defeating Seeking the Gold by a half-length to sew up 1988 Horse of the Year honors and wind up his career with record earnings of $6,679,242.
The Classic was blessed with another classic duel in 1989, as that year's leading three-year-olds, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, filled the top two positions, Sunday Silence prevailing by a rapidly diminishing neck on his way to Horse of the Year honors.
The 1990`s kicked off with another Pat Day triumph, this time aboard Unbridled. But the Classic would soon be known for the exploits of another leading East Coast-based jockey, Jerry Bailey. Bailey won his first Classic in 1991 with a crafty, front-running ride aboard Black Tie Affair (Ire). After Eddie Delahoussaye guided A. P. Indy to victory in 1992, Bailey's lock on the Classic took hold. Riding Arcangues, a French-based son of Sagace who had never run on dirt before and was dismissed at 133.60-to-1, Bailey produced the biggest shock in Cup history in the `93 Classic, drawing away from favored Bertrando to win by two lengths. Bailey would win the next two Classics aboard Concern and the incomparable Cigar, giving him four victories in five years in the world's richest race. His bid for a fifth victory was thwarted in 1996, when Cigar, making his career finale, could only finish third, beaten a nose and a head.
In 1997, Skip Away turned in the most dominating performance in Classic history. The four-year-old, ridden superbly by substitute jockey Mike Smith, moved to the lead with five furlongs remaining, then drew off with disdain to triumph by six lengths, setting a Breeders' Cup Classic record with a time of 1:59.16.
A similar effort was not in the cards the next year at Churchill Downs, however. Racing over a track he was not comfortable on, Skip Away finished sixth as the 1.90-to-1 favorite. Awesome Again, undefeated in 1998, won a stirring, unusual stretch drive with Silver Charm and Swain (Ire), who went almost to the outside rail under Lanfranco Dettori. The race's purse, inflated by supplemental fees, was $5.12-million, making it the richest race ever run.
Day made it back-to-back Classics in 1999, expertly guiding 19.60-to-1 longshot Cat Thief to a 1 ¼-length victory over 26.50-to-1 longshot Budroyale. Surprisingly, the victory was Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’s first in the $4-million race.
The attendance at the Breeders' Cup varies, depending mainly on the capacity of the host track. Santa Anita Park set the highest two-day attendance figure of 118,484 in 2016. The lowest two-day attendance was 69,584 in 2007 at Monmouth Park. The attendance typically only trails the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Oaks (and in some years, the Belmont Stakes); for more information see American Thoroughbred Racing top Attended Events.
With the addition of three races for 2008, a total of $25.5 million was awarded over the two days, up from $23 million in 2007. With the subsequent removal of two races, the purses for the remaining thirteen races totaled $24.5 million in 2014, plus awards for foal and stallion nominators. Prior to the 2016 running, the total purses were raised from $26 million to $28 million. The purse of the Classic was raised from $5 million to $6 million, and the purse of the Longines Turf was increased from $3 million to $4 million. In 2018, total prizes and awards were increased to over $30 million after another race, the Juvenile Turf Sprint, was added and the purse for the Sprint was increased to $2 million.
Each Breeders' Cup race presents four Breeders' Cup trophies to the connections of the winner and a garland of flowers draped over the withers of the winning horse. Many Breeders' Cup winners will go on to win the Eclipse Award in their respective division. For example, of the eleven flat racehorse categories, seven of the Eclipse winners in 2015 had also won a Breeders' Cup race, while three others were in the money.
In the 2015 listing of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), three Breeders' Cup races are ranked among the top Grade 1 races in the world: the Classic (4th), the Turf (10th) and the Mile (12th). The Distaff is ranked second among the top Grade 1 races for fillies and mares.