Keeneland

John Clay: Lexington has never seen anything quite like the Breeders' Cup

At the Breeders' Cup, you don't have time to think.

I was used to the Kentucky Derby. Having seen every Run for the Roses since Gato del Sol's win in 1982, I was used to the pace of the Kentucky Derby. Hurry up and wait. You arrived at Churchill Downs early to find a parking spot and carve out some elbow room. The undercard offered exciting races, but your thoughts were never far from the main event, the one much later in the day.

At the Breeders' Cup, it's boom. And then boom. And then boom, boom, boom.

It's one great race with great Thoroughbreds after another great race with great Thoroughbreds. And so on and so on and so on. If you are a serious horseplayer, or a serious lover of horses, you can get lost in the days of superior horse racing to the point where you think they will never end, until finally they do.

In my experience, that's what sets the Breeders' Cup apart. Lexington has been lucky enough to play host to some spectacular sporting events over the years. The Final Four came here in 1985. The World Equestrian Games came here in 2010. ESPN's College GameDay has been here for college football. There is no place like Rupp Arena when the Kentucky basketball team is playing a really big, really important game.

When the Breeders' Cup finally arrives at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday, it won't necessarily be bigger than those events. It doesn't have to be. It might not even be all that different than those events. Then again, it doesn't have to be.

If the Kentucky Derby is America's race, the Breeders' Cup is the horse lover's event.

If the Triple Crown is drama spread out over a span of five weeks, the Breeders' Cup is drama spread over two days.

I was at the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park in 2001, just six shorts weeks after 9/11. I visited Ground Zero, then in its clean-up phase. This was before cell phones, so I stopped in a drug store and bought a disposable camera. Its photos are stuck in a drawer somewhere. I don't need them to remember what it looked like or felt like that day.

It was at the Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park in 2002 when I first realized this was an international event. Aidan O'Brien, the famed Irish trainer, had brought a strong stable of runners across the ocean. That was the story line, or at least it was until the lightly regarded Volponi awarded 77-year-old Phil Johnson the great distinction of being the oldest trainer to ever win the Breeders' Cup Classic.

I was at the Breeders' Cup in 2003 when the California wildfires left a smoky air at Santa Anita and when the great and likable Richard Mandella won four Breeders' Cup races — a fantastic four — including the Classic with Pleasantly Perfect.

Even for someone fortunate enough to be a veteran of Triple Crown races, I've never witnessed a race like the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 2010. Under the then temporary lights and the Twin Spires, people's choice Zenyatta, the 2009 Classic winner and the only girl in the race, fell hopelessly behind at the start, just as she had done so many times before.

And as she had done so many times before, Zenyatta rallied. And rallied. She kept coming, coming and coming — the crowd roaring with every step — in a heart-stopping rally that, alas, wasn't quite enough.

Claiborne Farm's Blame, a deserving winner, held on to hit the wire first by a head and when he did you could almost feel the air sucked out of the grandstand at the legendary track. The crowd collapsed as it had too run the race.

And then, knowing it had seen something memorable, something unforgettable, the crowd cheered both the winner and the loser.

It was people who absolutely love a sport witnessing the best that sport has to offer.

That's what Lexington will experience Breeders' Cup weekend.

Don't think, just enjoy.

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