The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel

by | 09.28.2011 | 6:23am
Craig Fravel

It's been three months since Craig Fravel was named president and chief executive officer of Breeders' Cup Ltd, having left his position as president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near San Diego, Calif., to take the job vacated when Greg Avioli stepped down to join the Stronach Group's racing and gaming division.

With major decisions already in the works to add a championship race (the Juvenile Sprint), awarding a host site for 2012 (it went to Santa Anita, creating a mini-controversy when New York owner Mike Repole suggested the New York Racing Association go into competition with Breeders' Cup) and adopting a new medication policy, there was not a lot of down time for Fravel, 54, to ease into his new position.

During his 21 years at Del Mar, Fravel, a lawyer educated at the University of Virginia law school, served in numerous industry positions, including Equibase, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, California Marketing Committee, The Jockey Club, and National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

The following is the first of a two-part interview. The second installment will be published on Thursday.

Why did you seek the CEO position at Breeders' Cup? I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking you had quite a comfortable and satisfying position at Del Mar.
Would you believe I came to Kentucky for the weather? The truth is that the Breeders' Cup is one of the premier sporting and entertainment properties in the world. There is no doubt that Del Mar is one of the great places in the world to enjoy horse racing and to live. I enjoyed my 21 years there and hope people think things improved during my time there. In addition to providing a great customer experience and trying new and different things at Del Mar, we always stressed the importance of live racing and we were fortunate that the San Diego community embraced the meet in a way that few other communities in the world can match.

For someone who believes in the core values of the live racing product, there is no better stage than the Breeders' Cup. Throughout my career in racing I have looked for opportunities to make broader contributions to the game. I think the Breeders' Cup can improve on its success to date and, in doing so, can set a great example for how our game can appeal to the public at the highest level.

What's surprised you the most since you took the job, and how does it differ from what you were doing at Del Mar?
I can't say there have been any major surprises and I have been exceptionally grateful for the welcome extended by people in Lexington. I'm looking forward to this year's Championships and, after that, can gauge better how different that aspect of the job is from working at Del Mar.

One part of the job I am really enjoying is scratching the surface of the breeding side of the industry while getting to know the breeders, stallion owners and others who really make the Breeders' Cup what it is.  While I have worked with the breeders in California for years, this is clearly a different scale and I am looking forward to getting to know that end of the business better and seeing what the Breeders' Cup as an organization can do to help as the breeding business recovers from the economic challenges of the past several years. Like many in the industry, I am very encouraged by the results of the September sale and I think it shows the underlying strength of Thoroughbred racing. I think the best is yet to come.

What do you see as your primary challenges moving forward?

Zenyatta's quest for perfection in 2010 may have been the most compelling story for the sport since Secretariat, so the most immediate challenge is trying to build upon the success of last year's event absent the public relations benefit of the buzz she created. We should have great racing and compelling story lines – Goldikova trying for a fourth straight victory in the TVG Mile, the return of Uncle Mo in the Classic, The Factor displaying the brilliance he exhibited early in the year. Fortunately, we've got a great partner in Churchill Downs and our event always does well in Kentucky due to strong local interest and industry support.

The larger challenges relate to how we use the Breeders' Cup to build our fan base and encourage investment in the game. Over the long haul I am an eternal optimist about the public appeal of racing and its future prospects. While it is tempting to be discouraged at times by our intramural issues, the Breeders' Cup can lead by example by working cooperatively with other segments of the industry for the greater good. We have only scratched the surface of the adaptability of our game to new technology; that's a substantial business opportunity. I would love to see the industry create a venture capital fund to nurture new technologies directed at racing and gaming and in so doing utilize the expertise of the many talented people with experience in those areas who own and love horses.

One of the discussion points among Breeders' Cup board members and industry stakeholders was whether the organization should focus primarily on maximizing the value of championship weekend and its series of Win and You're In races leading up to it, or position Breeders' Cup to become the organization that stimulates and leads industry growth throughout the year. Where do you stand on this issue?
There is no reason these two objectives should be viewed as mutually exclusive. The Breeders' Cup has been one of the bright spots in the industry in recent memory despite a difficult economic climate. Continuing that success is our primary focus.

Nonetheless, all of us with the means and motivation have a collective responsibility to be proactive, positive and productive in moving the entire industry forward. That may mean deploying financial assets toward technology, marketing initiatives or other projects or it may mean taking positions on important issues that confront the industry. While I was at Del Mar, we knew very well that our primary mission was the success of the summer race meet and we never took our eyes off of that ball. Having a great team there helped me participate in larger industry issues facing California and the rest of the country. The Breeders' Cup has a great team of people who are certainly capable of ensuring the success of the event and contributing to the industry as a whole.

What becomes of the plan developed by the Strategic Planning Committee, which hired consultant William Field to look at issues like the aforementioned question, and the subject of a long-term host site vs. a rotation of racetracks for the championships?
The issue of a single site versus a rotation is something that deserves ongoing evaluation. What is clear in the short term is that we are on a rotation with Santa Anita as our host site for 2012 and it is not a secret that we are having serious discussions with NYRA about 2013.  It is important that we focus on finalizing the plans through 2013 while we develop a process for selecting a future site or future sites in a systematic fashion which allows us to plan events more effectively, energize sponsorship sales and ticket sales and to ensure a customer experience that is worthy of the world championship character of the event and of the commitment of the owners, trainers, breeders and riders who participate. In making site determinations, we need to partner with racetracks to ensure the financial success of the event not only for the Breeders' Cup but for the other segments of the industry.

In part two, Fravel talks about his role as a steward of The Jockey Club, the expanded international nominations program, the new medication policy adopted by the Breeders' Cup, and the television contract with ESPN that expires in 2013.

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