LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When the Breeders' Cup was held at Churchill Downs three years ago, some of racing's brightest moments unfolded on an otherwise dark and dreary day.
The championships return to the historic track today with a promise of less wetness, more sunshine, a breakthrough innovation -- and perhaps as many theatrics.
Rain drenched the Louisville area early yesterday, before the sun peeked through in mid-afternoon. Sun and mid-40s temperatures are forecast for the seven-race, $10 million card that should settle a number of questions concerning the 1991 racing season.
When he won the $3 million Classic in 1988 in virtual darkness, Alysheba ended a drama-filled program run on a muddy track. This year, race officials expect the track to dry out significantly before the Sprint leads off the program at 12:16 p.m. today, and ample daylight will remain when the Classic concludes the series at 3:35 p.m.
The turf course, however, should have some give, and that could favor European runners in the two races on the inner oval, the Mile and Turf.
Two of today's first three races have solid favorites -- Housebuster in the Sprint and Dance Smartly in the Distaff -- but the remaining five are extremely competitive. The program seems a natural partner for the national Pick-7, a co-mingled wager that is being offered for the first time.
An on-track crowd of about 70,000 is expected, along with millions watching on national television and at simulcast outlets throughout North America, including Laurel and Pimlico race courses.
Dance Smartly, if she goes off at less than even-money, would continue a trend in the Distaff, which has had an odds-on favorite every year. Only Infinidad, fourth in 1987, and ill-fated Go for Wand, who broke down and was destroyed last year, have failed to win.
Dance Smartly, a 3-year-old Canadian filly, has won 10 of 12 lifetime starts and has drawn accolades as one of the most talented female runners in years -- and, if things go a certain way today, the possible 1991 Horse of the Year. "I've seen her win," said Carl Nafzger, trainer of another Distaff runner, Til Forbid, "but I've never seen her run. She is one special filly.
Housebuster, who makes the 22nd and final start in a career that includes 15 prior wins, will be an even shorter favorite. A minor hoof irritation has aroused some interest among reporters, but trainer Jimmy Croll said the problem has been greatly exaggerated and will not affect Housebuster's performance.
The major question in the Juvenile is Arazi's ability to handle the dirt after breaking from the No. 14 post. The colt has won his last six starts in France, all on turf.
"He feels like a good horse," said Pat Valenzuela, who worked the horse Thursday and will ride him today. "He had dirt coming up in his chest, and he handled the turns good."
American runners in the Turf and Mile may be compromised by soft turf, said Wally Dollase, who will saddle Itsallgreektome for the Turf. "I'd like to see a truly run race," said Dollase. "The Europeans definitely move up on a soft course."
NOTES: A victory by Dance Smartly would make her the leading female earner in history with nearly $3.1 million. . . . Eillo (1984) is the only favorite to win the Sprint. . . . European horses are 0-for-6 in the Juvenile. . . . Counting Kentucky's intertrack outlets, the Breeders' Cup record attendance should be broken, but the on-track count may not top the 71,237 that saw the series in 1988. Kentucky had no intertrack network for its last Breeders' Cup. . . . Laffit Pincay has ridden the most Breeders' Cup winners (6). He's followed by Pat Day (5), Jose Santos (5) and Angel Cordero (4). . . . Pincay has won the Juvenile 3 times, as has trainer D. Wayne Lukas. . . . No winner has ever led wire-to-wire in any of these four races: Fillies, Mile, Turf or Classic. . . . Solar Splendor, who ran poorly on a soft course at Laurel, was scratched yesterday from the Turf, leaving a record 89 prospective starters in the 7 races. . . . The Breeders' Cup events are Nos. 2 through 8 on a 10-race Churchill card. . . . Allen Stacy rode 2 winners at Churchill Thursday, marking his initial victories in Kentucky since moving from Maryland. The second winner, Princess Lee, paid $140.20 to win.
Breeders' Cup facts, figures
What: 8th Breeders' Cup championships
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
When: Today, first post 12:16 p.m.
Purses: $10 million for 7 races
Simulcast: Laurel/Pimlico, all races
TV: NBA (Channels 2, 4)