Thousands of racing fans might not be at Churchill Downs in Louisville this weekend cheering the world’s fastest Thoroughbreds if not for a Californian-turned-Kentuckian who could work the phones like no one else.
The late John Gaines was the father of the Breeders’ Cup, as many in Lexington can tell you.
Less well known, Pamela Blatz-Murff, who died earlier this year, was its mother hen.
Of all her many legacies to racing and the Bluegrass, perhaps the greatest is her dedication to equine safety and her work toward a day when all Thoroughbreds in this country, as in Europe, race drug-free — not just because she loved horses, but also because she loved the sport and wanted it to survive and thrive so her grandchildren could love it too.
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As for the Breeders’ Cup, having its 35th installment Friday and Saturday, “her fingerprints are everywhere,” says D.G. Van Clief Jr. who was head of the new organization in 1983 when it was trying to raise the initial $10 million from stallion owners. The owners were intrigued by the idea of a year-end racing extravaganza, yet not all that eager to put up the money. The event already had been declared dead once because of industry infighting.
Thanks to a broodmare’s complicated pregnancy, Pam and her husband, Clay Murff, a Merchant Marine and cook on tugboats between Hawaii and Alaska , were new residents of Lexington. The Blatz family were fans at Del Mar (where the surf meets the turf) and owned some Thoroughbreds. Pam rode and had shown quarter horses. One spring, her mother sent Pam and Clay to Kentucky to be on hand when her mare Flack Flack delivered a foal by Secretariat. The foal was late, which gave the couple a few weeks to drive around horse country. They decided to move here. (Naturally.)
At that point, Pam had been selling commercial real estate for 10 years in southern California for Coldwell Banker. She walked into the Breeders’ Cup offices in Lexington seeking a part-time job and found a lifetime’s passion.
“Pam was without question one of the best cold-call sales people I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve seen some good ones in the horse business,” says Van Clief. Being a newcomer may been an advantage, I suspect, because she didn’t know how resistant to change the horse industry is.
Soon, in addition to cajoling money out of stud farms, she was deep into every aspect of pulling off what racing writer Bill Christine had dubbed a brilliant idea that would never happen. She oversaw nominations, racing, stable-area security and served as horseman’s liaison. She set out to make the Breeders’ Cup truly international. “She really worked on building those relationships,” said Dora Delgado, who started as Blatz-Murff’s assistant and is now senior vice president for racing and nominations.
Imagine the risk and expense of flying a high-strung, million-dollar animal across an ocean from, say, England to California or Florida in late October, to run in the “wrong” direction on an unfamiliar surface after being quarantined for three days at an airport. Blatz-Murff soothed a lot of fears by working on and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow a shorter quarantine, at the track where stalls could be equipped with fans and misters, and horses could be exercised much sooner.
“She was one of those humans who doesn’t believe ‘no’ is an appropriate answer. It was one of the most infuriating but wonderful things about her,” says Pam’s daughter, Tiffany Murff Wesley, who lives in Dallas with her husband Brandon, who works for Toyota Financial Services, and their two children.
Her attention to the welfare of the horses, and their people, did not end once they were bedded down. It never ended. Blatz-Murff — and the Breeders’ Cup — have been champions for safer, drug-free racing and top-flight veterinary care, though progress on the drug front is maddeningly difficult because of industry resistance and infighting.
When she was laid off in 2010 after upheaval in Breeders’ Cup management, some top British trainers signed a letter of protest, calling the decision “incredibly sad and of great concern” and saying “she will be sorely missed by a vast number of people.” British racing writers gave her a Lord Derby Award for Services to International Racing in 2001.
At the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, Pam was pregnant. The event and Tiffany grew up together. “I trick or treated on the backside of racetracks.” There’s not room for all the great Pam stories I heard. She died in July at 70 of a recurrence of cancer.
Delgado remembers her “great humongous laugh put everyone at ease,” while Clay fortified the staff with homemade chicken soup during stressful times and brought bacon sandwiches from the track kitchen when they were working round the clock at a host track. (Keeneland will host in 2020.)
Not until the last horse had crossed the finish line and been safely cooled out could her mother eat, breathe or “sit in the racing truck and have a glass of wine,” said Wesley who also remembers her “love of logistics.” Several people told me that, because of her attention to their every need, the horsemen loved Blatz-Murff.
She saw European horses stay fit during longer careers — without the pain-masking and performance-enhancing drugs on which many U.S. trainers rely. She believed in breeding, not for “designer pedigrees,” but for safety and soundness.
The general public and would-be bettors never see the meticulous care that Thoroughbreds receive. They do see when a horse breaks down and is euthanized during a race. Wesley said her mother believed, “We have to show future generations we’re taking care of them, not just running them for money.”
Jamie Lucke is a Herald-Leader editorial writer.