Kirk Breed thoroughly believed in horse power.
In the saddle since he was a kid growing up dirt poor in Oklahoma, Breed never lost his love of horses. As a transplanted cowboy in Sacramento, he spent his life trying to maintain that tenuous connection between man and animal in a modern world.
“Horses were his life,” said Mary Ann Breed, his widow. “His whole heart and soul were about the horse.”
Breed, who died of cancer at age 73 on Aug. 7, will be remembered Sunday during a memorial at Scottish Rite Masonic Center followed by a reception at Cal Expo’s grandstand. Mickey, his sorrel quarter horse, will be part of a winner’s circle farewell. About 400 friends and cohorts are expected to attend, including Gov. Jerry Brown and state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton.
“(Kirk) was a special, unique human being,” Brown said after Breed’s death. “He left a mark on everybody he touched – me included.”
During financially challenging times, he helped resurrect Cal Expo and the California State Fair, first as general manager and then as a member of the Cal Expo board. At the statehouse as a consultant and lobbyist, he championed all facets of the horse industry and worked for higher safety standards at racetracks.
Despite his illness, Breed continued to work as executive director of the California Horse Racing Board right up to his death. It was his dream job, his wife said. “He had reached his apex,” she said. “He was so into it, 24-7. He loved everything about it.”
Breed joined the racing board in 2008, but he had been a fixture in Sacramento since 1979 when Brown hired him to be general manager of Cal Expo. Breed was credited with helping the State Fair grow into a premier agricultural showcase.
Aboard his quarter horse Rojo, Breed patrolled the Cal Expo grounds with cowboy flair.
“Kirk would tackle anything,” said longtime friend Steve Beneto, a CHRB commissioner who also served on the Cal Expo board with Breed. “He once rode a Brahma bull at the State Fair. He was a fearless person.”
That can-do spirit fueled Breed’s life. Born on the family farm in Choctaw, Okla., Breed helped his father break, train, race and sell horses. He played football for Oklahoma State University while earning a degree in zoology.
After college, his life detoured to South America, where he served in the Peace Corps for seven years. At age 29, he was appointed Peace Corps director for Colombia. He returned home to Oklahoma in 1972 and became a founding member of the Oklahoma Horse Council.
“I have owned at least one horse my entire life and made a respectable living working for the horse and horsemen,” Breed said in one interview.
Breed brought that same dedication to Sacramento.
“He was really passionate about safety for the horse and rider,” Beneto said.
Breed also had a theatrical flair. Between his stint as Cal Expo’s general manager and becoming a state lobbyist, he portrayed Gen. George Custer in a touring Wild West show.
“He was very quiet and private, but basically he was a showman,” Mary Ann Breed recalled. “He could turn it on. ... He was hilarious. He’d always come out with these one-liners out of nowhere.”
The couple, who made their home in Rancho Cordova, met in 1979. “I was a traffic reporter for KRAK radio,” Mary Anne Breed recalled. “Kirk had just been hired for Cal Expo by Jerry Brown. Kirk said he turned on the radio and I was the first person he heard in California. He said he instantly fell in love with my voice.”
Decades later, their friendship blossomed into romance and marriage in 2000 after Breed eventually taught her how to ride. “We fell in love riding horses,” Mary Anne Breed said.
Together, they had a daughter, Cloe, now 10. Mr. Breed also is survived by three children from a previous marriage and three grandchildren.
“Horses are everyone’s heritage,” Breed once told a Sacramento Bee reporter. “Everyone. Ever since man first got on top of a horse, there’s been this urge to see whose is faster. First, it was a matter of life and death – someone fleeing for his life. But it’s still exciting when it’s just for money.”
Or for love.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington