Jeff Pelline: NorCal horse flops in Breeders Cup Classic |

Jeff Pelline: NorCal horse flops in Breeders Cup Classic

Louisville, Ky. – What does Churchill Downs have in common with Nevada City?

Not much, until you look around more closely: as it turns out, the trademark green-and-white color scheme of the famous race track, with its twin spires, bears an uncanny resemblance to the colors of the National Hotel, a registered historic landmark in our hometown.

This is a popular color scheme for old buildings like the race track and our hometown hotel, more than 2,200 miles away. Churchill Downs held its first “official race” (the Kentucky Derby) in 1875 but was built earlier; The National, no doubt an informal gambling joint back then, was built in 1854-57.

Just as Churchill Downs hosts the oldest continuously held sporting event, the National Hotel is the oldest continuously run hotel (in the West). Historic buildings, huh?

My family and I went to Churchill Downs on Saturday to watch the 23rd running of the Breeders’ Cup, the World Series of thoroughbred horse racing. The $20 million purse for eight races (ranging from 6 furlongs to 11Ú4 miles on the dirt and turf) draws horses from throughout the world.

For us, the big draw was a California-bred thoroughbred named Lava Man.

This horse ran its first race at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds in 2003 (the “fair circuit” is the lowest level of thoroughbred competition) and went on to become one of the state’s biggest winners. Lava Man, a 5-year-old gelding, was claimed for $50,000 and already had earned $3.7 million for its owners. The horse won all seven of his races this year.

Like Seabiscuit, Lava Man offered a chance for California to claim bragging rights in a sport dominated by Eastern blue bloods. Lava Man’s chief rival was Benardini, a 3-year-old Eastern-bred colt that had won 6 out of 7 races and wracked up $2.1 million in earnings.

The matchup of Lava Man and Bernardini in a $5 million race was painted as a 21st-century race of Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938, dubbed the “Match of the Century.” (Remember the movie?) This was another East-West duel – pitting blue blood against blue collar.

Posters in the racing world touted the duel as “The Mane Event.” (Louisville is the hometown of Muhammad Ali and the design of the posters brought to mind an Ali-Joe Frazier matchup.)

But as both of the horses’ trainers explained, 12 other thoroughbreds also were running in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which offers the biggest purse in horse racing. One of them was a 4-year-old named Invasor (Spanish for “invader”), and in Saturday’s feature race, this colt won hands down. Bernardini finished second and Lava Man (our NorCal pride and joy) finished a distant seventh.

As is typical nowadays, the winning Invasor has international roots: the horse was born in Argentina and is owned by a United Arab Emirates sheikh, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The Breeders’ Cup, which we’ve been attending for years, is now sponsored by Emirates Airline of Dubai.

(A note to our vocal, local conspiracy theorists: this race was not rigged by Middle Easterners; it just reflects the current state of horse racing.)

The event drew a crowd of 75,132 on Saturday.

The horse-race result is another reminder how drastically the world has changed since the days when Churchill Downs and the National Hotel opened their doors. At the time, the United States had only 37 states and 45 million people (see ).

The winner of the first Kentucky Derby, Aristides, won $2,850. Now race horses are routinely flown around the world in jumbo jets in quest of $1 million to $5 million prizes.

Next year, the Breeders’ Cup will be run at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. Few, if any, similarities come to mind between our community and New Jersey, but we’ll keep an open mind.


Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His regular column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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