Breeders’ Cup: Past, Present, and Future

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Tony Bennett sings Tony Bennett sings "The Best is Yet to Come" at 2012 Breeders' Cup

Did you know that the first Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984 drew a bigger crowd than the first Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Coliseum did in 1967? It’s true.

When the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League played the Kansas City Chiefs of the upstart American Football League in a game that wasn’t yet known as the Super Bowl, the LA Coliseum was not even two-thirds full. Only 61,946 of a possible 94,500 showed up. Ticket prices were a paltry $6 to $12.

Seventeen years later, when the inaugural Breeders’ Cup was run, a crowd of 64,254 turned out. Ticket prices were no different than the daily general admission at the “track of lakes and flowers” that the late Marjorie Everett ran with an iron fist.


Not unlike the Super Bowl, the Breeders’ Cup has changed since that first running. Unlike the Super Bowl, however, its course, nor its growth, has always been steady.

The Super Bowl has had explosive growth in the past 46 years, thanks to the cohesion of a strong league office led by commissioners allowed to carry out a long- term vision. The game is the most watched television show each year, and has been for more than 20 years. Viewership in the United States alone is north of 100 million households.

Unless you know someone, you’re not likely to get a ticket for the Super Bowl, and the prices are considerably higher than $12. Wherever the game is played, the local airports are lined with private jets carrying high-rollers from the corporate world who are no bigger football fans than you or me but feel compelled to be part of the scene.

It started out as a game, evolved into a weeklong event, and now is an integral part of the fabric of American life. TV viewers look forward to the commercials that debut on the Super Bowl telecast, they have come to expect A-list entertainers for the half-time show, and tune in for what seems like an endless pre-game show.

The Breeders’ Cup would like to follow that example, even with only modest ambitions.

Hollywood Park secured the first Breeders’ Cup in part because of Everett’s friendship with movie and television stars like Cary Grant, Liz Taylor, John Forsythe and others. She promised to make it more than a day of racing – although an extraordinary day it was, with seven races offering an unprecedented $10 million in prize money. The track was populated with celebrities. It made for a good sideshow to the racing, with organizers hoping non-core racing fans who tuned in might stay around for a while and find themselves liking the sport.

That certainly didn’t happen in 1985, when the Cup shifted to Aqueduct, which in November is about as picturesque as an abandoned warehouse. The racing was good, but the television package was awful. So was attendance, which fell to 42,568.

Over the next several years, the Breeders’ Cup vision evolved from an “event” to a big day of racing. It still decided year-end championships, and there was extraordinary competition on the track. TV ratings sank, and because of the slump in the bloodstock market revenue from stallion and foal nominations declined significantly. Simulcast wagering, which grew steadily, kept the Breeders’ Cup financially sound until the stud fees rose again, making the organization flush with cash at the turn of the century.

Seven races expanded to eight, with the addition of the Filly & Mare Turf in 1999. It spread to two days in 2007, with three new races, then eventually four more for a total of 15 by 2011 (the Juvenile Sprint was dropped this year).

Betting did not increase exponentially with the addition of all these new races, and when stud fees began to fall in 2009, revenue became a concern again for the Breeders’ Cup Board.

Meanwhile, all hope of making the Breeders’ Cup a popular sporting event on television was gone. ESPN lost interest and the Cup, except for the Classic, was relegated to the NBC Sports Network that many viewers did not have (or could not find) on their cable package.

Adding to the Cup’s challenges is the expansion of other racing festivals around the world: Hong Kong, France, England, Ireland, and Dubai now have major events with which the Breeders’ Cup must compete for horses and prestige.

The focus has come full circle, back to celebrities, fashion and food, in the hope that the Breeders’ Cup can become an “event” again in a city like Los Angeles where celebrities and fashion are an industry. So it’s back to Santa Anita Park again in 2014, for the third year in a row.

Can any momentum it gains in the entertainment world be sustained once the Cup leaves for colder climes back East?

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  • Knowitall

    Can we be specific? What are the measurable gains or even the ephemeral anecdotal upside to the B list celebs they parade around on the telecast? How does it translate to success: handle, attendance, eyeballs? Really? Objectively?

    BC (or certain influencers within the organization) have the misguided notion that tying so hard to make their already very niche event an exclusive outing for the rich and famous – and those tacky folk that aspire to same – will increase revenue and mainstream exposure? So far, I have seen nothing in attendance, handle, ratings, to indicate that is true, and that conversely, it pushes away many fans and potential fans with the air of “exclusivity”, lack of access, and prohibitive cost to attend, and an effort to even find it on TV or know when to switch to NBC – which, if you figure it out after the less than seamless throw from NBCSN to NBC you might mistake for a reality show, “The Cocktail Tour of B List Celebs”, instead of a horse race or two.)

    Super Bowl, US Open, The Masters, all these events they wannabe – they have major league interest building all the year long leading up to their events from their fans, they are not presented as a one off event in a vacuum that has absolutely no resemblance to any other weekend in their sport. Even the Triple Crown, which for all of CDI’s effort so far to the contrary, is still about the greatest two minutes in sports for now.

    • nu-fan

      The other sports have a multitude of followers throughout their season, so when it is play-off time, these legions of fans will continue following them through the Super Bowl, the World Series, etc. To get a lot of people paying attention to the BC, the industry needs to have a legion of fans following these horses throughout the year. Do they? Not enough. Not surprising that there isn’t as much interest in watching an occasional big race such as the BC Classic. The Kentucky Derby is one exception because it has “history” but is there a drop-off in viewers for the Preakness and Belmont? Perhaps, a bit, from what I see in attendance at my local track.

  • Glimmerglass

    Leveraging off of ‘celebs’ being at an event to then draw in the “average joe” (who builds up the handle and speak the praises of the event) is obviously a time old tradition. However in the late 1980′s there wasn’t twitter, facebook, the E Channel, Access Hollywood, et al and as such seeing a Liz Taylor live on one of the Big Three networks had more of an impact.

    Today and going forward this country is so awash in stars, wannabe stars, and never going to be as hard as they try stars … the returns from courting and focusing on disproportionally on these people over the horses aren’t there.

    The producers of horse racing for television at these events need to look at other sports. Example, Fox covering the World Series might catch a glimpse of an actor in the stands but they don’t keep the camera on the person for two innings and send over a cub reporter with a mic to make small talk. Their coverage focuses on the game. So too should any production team for the Breeders’ Cup – focus more on the horses.

    Why is it that TVG at Keeneland can produce a vastly more interesting and quality product than NBC leading up to the race? They have a Donna and/or Kaleb giving an interview in the paddock, going back up to the booth with a rundown of the entries with an active trainer like Tom Amoss, they run clips of a horse’s past performance with analysis, and yes because this is a wagering sport they talk about the odds. NBC would rather convey the payouts like its a novelty using 8-point type graphics.

    The 1985 Santa Anita Handicap drew a record on-track attendance (for Santa Anita) of 85,527 when Lord At War ridden by Bill Shoemaker took the victory. Admittedly the race was tipping point for Shoemaker to be first jockey ever to cross $100M in purse winnings but still the SA marketing folks did something right.

    • nu-fan

      “So too should any production team for the Breeders’ Cup – focus more on the horses.” And, I so agree with you on that! The horses should be the stars. They are magnificent, even for those who rarely see a horse in person. And, so many have great stories about them as well as their connections. That is what should be emphasized. It is what separates this sport from others.

    • Knowitall

      I have no problem with celebs and athletes presenting trophies, either. Just the inane suck up interviews that make the celeb look lost, and clearly just there as a BC arm piece insults everyone: the celeb, the fan, the viewer, the racing industry, the sport. Great point about saturated celeb culture exposure now, too.

    • Mimi Hunter

      The main trouble with the TV coverage for the BC races and the Triple Crown races is that NBC is probably allergic to horses. When I was little, we only got 3 channels. If you wanted to see the equestrian units in the Rose Parade, you had to watch on ABC or CBS because NBC only showed half of the horses. They haven’t changed much – it seems to me that they would still rather talk about the people, drug use, showing a breakdown over and over and over. Several of the Kentucky Derby’s didn’t even show all the horses – including the eventual winners. I watch the shows to see the horses not to learn that the groom’s cousin’s friend’s child had a hangnail.

  • kyle

    Captain Obvious here: Partying and gambling works for The Super Bowl maybe it could work for the Breeders Cup.

    • lionelburke999

      Absolutely, all BC needs is an on air “Nipple Slip” and there’d be plenty of free media exposure pun intended – hey sex sells!

  • Tinky

    Good post, Ray, but I think that you may be missing the crucial point. While the NFL has undoubtedly benefitted greatly, albeit indirectly, from both legal and illegal gambling, there are tens of millions of people who are quite happy to watch football (baseball, basketball, hockey, etc.) without wagering a dime. In other words, those sports don’t rely on gambling in the same way that racing does, and that distinction is crucial to consider when discussing marketing.

    For some odd reason, those involved in the broadcasts of major racing have never really understood the importance of gambling, and, ironically, also failed to learn an important lesson from the NFL. Back in the ’80s, there were some ‘higher ups’ in the networks who were afraid that John Madden would be talking over the heads of too many fans, and that he would be a turn-off as a result. As it turned out, those naysayers were not only proven wrong, but Madden proved to be an unequalled success at both entertaining and raising the collective IQ of countless football viewers.

    Racing has never taken that leap. It has never featured someone who, in blinding contrast to the (embarrassing) likes of Hank Goldberg and Mike Battaglia, could analyze races as a serious gambler might, and draw neophytes in the way that Madden did. This could be done, and would, over time, make a meaningful difference by creating the type of new customers (i.e. gamblers) that the game most needs.

    • nu-fan

      Great comment and analysis! You see the distinction between the two groups (new fans and those who are primarily interested in the wagering). I’ve always thought that the horseracing industry needs to first get people truly interested in the sport of watching horseracing. After that is done, concentrate on getting them interested in the wagering aspect. It seems like this is not understood by many. They just leap over step one.

    • Lost In The Fog

      I agree with Tinky’s analysis that defines one of the key missing elements in successfully marketing the sport and growing the customer base. Another missing element is horse racing’s utter failure in building stars – focusing attention on the actual competing participants – horses, jockeys and trainers. In all other major sports (football, basketball, baseball) this is a central piece of the approach to building their fan base. They focus on star power and statistics. Horse racing particularly misses the opportunities to capitalize on promoting jockeys and trainers. The average viewer on BC day or Kentucky Derby day probably couldn’t recite the names of more than a couple of jockeys or trainers, if that. These days it’s difficult to promote star power where horses are concerned because the vast majority of top horses are retired to the breeding shed as three-year-olds (a big problem for the sport) but there is no similar excuse for not promoting top jockeys and trainers who have much longer careers. Fans want to identify with the athletes but we give them virtually no opportunity to do so.

      • nu-fan

        Agree with you fully. There are horses that I have followed and, then, the following year, they are gone! That is disillusioning, to me. I have to start all over again following new horses while knowing, in the back of my mind, that they, too, will be gone in no time. But, I also believe that racetracks need to step up and encourage attendance. Perhaps, some tracks do this but I haven’t seen it in my area. Why don’t they encourage repeat customers in attending more than just that one race? How? By using incentives that so many businesses use today such as loyalty programs. So many to choose from. Also, coupons on their website for a two-for-one. Ball University had a study many years ago that found that sports fans do not like attending a sporting event by themselves. Entrance fees don’t necessarily make the track that much money but getting people to spend, once there, is where the revenue comes in much larger amounts. It also brings in that one extra person who may find out that they love horseracing too and, after that first great experience, they’ll return. And, I have been wondering if the LA Times had any big ads for the BC? If not, why not?

    • John

      Great analysis Tinky. I grew up down under surrounded by horse racing and gambling so it is in my blood. I bet on sports with the same amount of analysis as I do the horses. I also own horses and get enormous amounts of insight from trainers and other owners from that angle that you will never see reflected in any Rag Sheet or DRF piece. I take 90 % of the garbage analysis I hear on TVG or any sports network and throw it out the window. I don’t know if anybody here watched the Melbourne Cup Carnival on Monday night via a TwinSpires or other feed but they absolutely aced it (as usual). These are monster fields and the pundits were exceptional. I actually once used a ‘Vegas’ tipster service that gave out 3-5 NCAA and 3-5 NFL bets every week for a month for a flat fee of $200. They said how many units to play and I followed them religiously. At the end of the month they went 18-14 so didn’t even cover the vig. Then I saw the same guy on a show saying something like ‘I’m a documented 23-9 over the last month’. Unreal. Racing first and foremost needs a credible, documented punter with an hour show on a network each Saturday morning. Not some shill for TVG trying to get you to bet every race but someone who can break down four races across a day from any track. Converting a casual viewer who thinks a horse looks nice or likes the silks into someone who locks that horse in as a single in a $144 P6 play is what racing needs.

    • Marshall Cassidy

      Tinky, you’re a gem of consistency. Good points all.

      I do want to say there might be at least one person who often served the John Madden-NFL role during Thoroughbred telecasts: Frank Wright. To a lesser extent during CBS-Television coverage of Belmont Stakes, Marlboro Cups and so on because of time constraints and talent overload, perhaps, but to a greater extent during his weekly “Racing From …” NYC-OTB telecasts in the New York City market during the 1970s and 1980s. No, Wright didn’t concentrate on gambling as a marketing tool beyond the races themselves that we aired week in and week out. Frank did use his time, though, to both entertain and educate whenever possible during each telecast, I’m sure you’ll remember.

      • Tinky

        You’re absolutely correct, Marshall, and thanks for pointing that out. Frank Wright was far superior to most who have subsequently played similar roles.

        Ah, the Golden days…

  • rachel

    Horse racing can’t even figure out how to market itself to other horse people or gamblers…

    They need to tap into the talents of some of the stud farms that have had some clever, funny and moving adv ertising.

    • David

      Really?

    • fb0252

      good point! when was the last time DRF, or Blood Horse or Paulick carried a post on advertising horse racing?

      • nu-fan

        I’ve never seen an advertisement for horseracing. Maybe, in some locations, they do. But, I’ve never seen even one in my area. And, the horseracing industry wonders why the sport is declining? The sport needs promotion but more in the mainstream media. DRF and the others you mentioned, already has captured the interest of racing fans. Need to reach out to the multitudes who have never been to a horserace or, if they have, it’s been decades ago.

        • fb0252

          “I have never seen an advertisement for horse racing”.

          I have seen four, to date.

  • David

    There is absolutely no question a relationship exists between NFL’s meteoric rise and legal and otherwise action. Problem for the NFL is little or no domestic growth opportunity; it’ll take more than LA to avoid a flattening curve, which, is why international markets are getting attention. Racing, however, has plenty of upside here it would seem. But, IMO, it can not achieve it with a brand that can’t break though the competitive noise of the late October, early November time frame. May want to think about a BC “preview” during the lull of late July/early August. Yeah, I know the hundreds of reasons it wouldn’t work but (unlike the NFL) the event needs to go to the next level and its one-and-done approach till next time isn’t working. The star power of SoCal won’t get it done either and the complexity (and degree of difficulty) of 15+ races vs. the simplicity of team A over team B and an over-and-under number is a hurdle.

    • Hoops and Horses

      One thing I thought of is perhaps expanding on the now-established “Summer at Saratoga” brand on the NBC family of networks with one for the other big summer meet. If Del Mar management were willing to make some serious adjustments to their stakes schedule, they could create five straight weeks of Saturday prime time broadcasts:

      As I’ve noted for a while, Saturday prime time TV ratings have been so bad that it is a perfect situation for Horse Racing, and now perhaps Del Mar needs to look at making some serious changes to its stakes schedule for 2014 that would make it very friendly to NBC during the first five weeks of the summer season, even if it leaves the second half of the season a bit bare.

      As I would do it, this would be a five-week series of shows, the first four being one hour from 10:00-11:00 PM ET and the last show being two hours from 9:00-11:00 PM ET (lights would not be an issue for this, even on the final Saturday of such a schedule). These would have usually two races on them with the last show being three. A tentative schedule could look like this for 2014:

      July 19: San Diego Handicap (Grade 2) and Eddie Read Handicap (Grade 1)

      July 26: San Clemente Handicap (Grade 2) and Bing Crosby Handicap (Grade 1)

      August 2: Best Pal (Grade 2) and Clement L. Hirsch (Grade 1)

      August 9: Del Mar Derby (Grade 2) and Del Mar Oaks (Grade 1)

      August 16 (9:00-11:00 PM ET): Pat o’Brien (Grade 2), Del Mar Mile (Grade 2) and Pacific Classic (Grade 1)

      In all of these cases, the stakes would be the final 2-3 races of the program. It would give the sport a potential five-week run on NBC in prime time and help give the sport more exposure during a time of the year NBC would likely appriciate such when live sports is the only thing that does well in the TV ratings. It would mean running the Pacific Classic a week earlier, but it likely would be worth it (and there would be enough daylight for that race to have a 7:30 PM local time post). I don’t have this on the final two weeks because the Saturday after the last one listed is the week of the third NFL preseason games for most teams and you have many pre-emptions that Saturday for local coverage of such and the following Saturday is opening weekend for college football.

  • 15percenttakeoutMonmouthpick4

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    Charging for past performances is a Major problems with this Industry.

    • nu-fan

      When I was at the local track to watch the BC races, another fan complained about the cost for the program guide: $9.75. I couldn’t believe that! For a publication that probably has a cost of 25 cents to produce, they would charge such a high fee? I haven’t bought one in a long time since this is free over the Internet and I can research past performances on Equibase–for nothing. Yes, this is a little more inconvenient since I have to go to each racetrack to get that information but, with a little cut-and-paste, I can do the same for just the cost of a few pieces of copy paper and a little ink. I’d rather keep my expenses in lieu of that $9.75 publication and apply it to the wagers that I make.

  • we’re watching

    I only wish that I was as articulate as the posters found below. The thought that racing can increase its visibility by having it at Santa Anita with a bunch of drinking celebrity types is insulting to all that we love about the sport. I had posted that putting it live at 8:00 on the east coast would not draw more viewers, I was right, it drew less than usual.
    The visibility of the BC can get brighter, but only by moving it around to different areas of the country. As was done originally. I still firmly believe that nailing it down in Santa Anita forever, which is the aim of the BC committee, make no mistake about it, is a BIG BIG MISTAKE.

    The celebrities would care less, so what is the point.

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