LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Racing went on a search for its champions of 1991 yesterday and probably found its Horse of the Year, but the sport may have uncovered something even greater in Breeders' Cup VIII.
Black Tie Affair won the $3 million Classic, the world's richest race, in gritty wire-to-wire fashion, a triumph that could earn the gray 5-year-old the Horse of the Year title.
But it was a performance by Arazi, a 2-year-old, that really awed the Churchill Downs crowd of 66,204 at the seven-race Cup. NTC Making his American debut and his first start on dirt, the French colt won the Juvenile by nearly five lengths with a blistering rally from well back.
Although he was the favorite, Arazi's stunning move was fitting for the day: Huge long shots won three races, making for no perfect tickets in the national Pick-7. The co-mingled wager, which drew a pool of more than $8.5 million, was split 29 ways among tickets with six winners.
European domination was evident from the outset of the seven-race, $10 million program. Sheikh Albadou, from England, won the Sprint at 26-1, as Housebuster, the 2-5 favorite, finished ninth when incurring an injured ligament. Four foreign horses -- three from Europe and Dance Smartly, the Canadian star -- were victorious.
Arazi, a son of Blushing Groom, posted the most notable European victory. The colt broke from the No. 14 post and was angled to the rail by jockey Pat Valenzuela, then gained steadily before overtaking Bertrando in a win that immediately prompted talk of the 1992 Kentucky Derby.
"Cancel the Derby!" cried one exultant British journalist.
"We ran against the best horse in the world today," said Bruce Headley, who saddled Bertrando. "He could be the next Secretariat or Swaps."
Valenzuela said: "I was easing him up in the last 60 yards. He may be the Kentucky Derby winner for 1992. I sure hope so. I've never been on a 2-year-old this good."
"He should be the Horse of the Year, for sure," said Allen Paulson, who co-owns the colt after selling half-interest to Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum of Dubai for a reported $5 million earlier this year.
But results of the Classic seem to give the Horse of the Year issue a greater clarity. Arazi's seven previous starts all came in France, while Black Tie Affair has crisscrossed much of the United States, winning big race after big race at different tracks; the Classic marks his sixth straight win.
To prevail again, he had to repulse a strong stretch bid from Twilight Agenda after breaking alertly under Jerry Bailey. In the final yards, he edged away to win by 1 1/4 lengths. "I thought I could get away with a slow pace," said Bailey.
"People said he couldn't beat this horse, couldn't beat that one," said trainer Ernie Poulus after the Classic. "He's beaten them all now."
Poulus, 65, is a colorful Chicagoan who emphatically predicted victory for Black Tie Affair on the day before the race.
"This world is a funny thing," he said when asked whether Black Tie Affair should be voted Horse of the Year. "Some people think one thing, the other half think another. The ones in the middle are always right. This horse has traveled 14,000 miles this year. God, who do I have to beat? I have to go around looking for horses to beat? I know one thing -- we got all the money."
The Classic is worth $1,560,000 to owner Jeff Sullivan, on whose behalf Poulus bought Black Tie Affair from Walter Reese, a New Jersey-based trainer, in February 1989 for $125,000. Sullivan said the Classic may have been Black Tie Affair's last race.
While Unbridled and Festin tried vainly to rally from far back in the stretch drive of the 1 1/4 -mile Classic, Twilight Agenda crept closer to Black Tie Affair. "I was very aware there was a horse putting pressure on me," said Bailey. "But my horse had a very good finish. When I got him about his business, he really gave his all to me."
Unbridled rallied for third, another 2 1/2 lengths back. Strike the Gold was fifth and Festin, the 3.10-1 favorite, was sixth. Summer Squall was a disappointing ninth.
Going into the program, In Excess and Tight Spot were considered the top Horse of the Year candidates, but their performances in the Mile were equally disappointing -- literally -- as they finished in a dead-heat for ninth. Both horses were in contention in the early stretch, but Opening Verse, another 26-1 shot, surged past to win by a length over Val Des Bois.
Trainer Bruce Jackson was philosophical about his decision to enter In Excess, who had blossomed into a main-track star, in the Mile instead of the Classic.
"I wouldn't change anything," he said. "This is the distance we wanted for him."
"No excuse," said Gary Stevens, who rode In Excess. "He handled it [the turf] well, but he just didn't have anything down the stretch."
In the other Breeders' Cup races: Pleasant Stage, also the
recipient of a ground-saving trip after breaking from the No. 14 post, nipped La Spia in the Juvenile Fillies; Dance Smartly, the eighth odds-on favorite in as many runnings of the Distaff, became the sixth to win; and the French filly, Miss Alleged, pulled the day's biggest upset in the 1 1/2 -mile Turf. Miss Alleged, fifth in the Budweiser International at Laurel Race Course 15 days ago, paid $86.20.
Breeders' Cup winners
Sprint.. .. .. .. ..Sheikh Albadou
Juvenile fillies.. .Pleasant Stage
Distaff.. .. .. .. .Dance Smartly
Mile.. .. .. .. .. .Opening Verse
Juvenile.. .. .. .. Arazi
Turf.. .. .. .. .. .Miss Alleged
Classic.. .. .. .. .Black Tie Affair