Like Golf’s ‘Masters,’ Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland Could Be Iconic Tradition

by | 04.14.2014 | 11:12am

There are more than a few comparisons that can be made between Augusta National Golf Club, which just held its 78th Masters Golf Tournament, and horse racing's Keeneland Association, currently celebrating its 78th anniversary.

Both are historic icons for an industry, built in the midst of the Great Depression in sleepy Southern towns:  Augusta National in Augusta, Ga., just south of Aiken, S.C., and Keeneland in Lexington amidst the rolling hills of Central Kentucky. Augusta National and Keeneland cling to tradition, sometimes to a fault, yet are often the first to embrace cutting-edge technology.

The Masters, as CBS announcer Jim Nantz reminds us, is a “tradition unlike any other.” For years throughout its proud history, Keeneland proclaimed itself to be “racing as it was meant to be.”

The Masters, of course, honors its champions with a green jacket, and the “green jacket ceremony” in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National is one of the most time-honored traditions in sport. Keeneland gives its graded stakes-winning owners a julep cup, a meaningful keepsake in this land of fine bourbon. After winning eight julep cups, owners get a Keeneland tray to hold them all. Eight more, they win a pitcher, and eight additional graded stakes earns them a bowl. Only Claiborne Farm has run the table and has a complete set.

Keeneland has a traditional sport jacket, too, and you can buy it online. Its choice of colors is green…or green.

The one thing Keeneland doesn't have is a “championship” event like the Masters. It has Blue Grass Stakes day in the spring and Fall Stars Weekend in the autumn, but both are preludes to something bigger – the Kentucky Derby, down the road in Louisville, or the Breeders' Cup, a traveling show created more than 30 years ago to be the salvation of racing.

There is no racetrack in America more deserving of a Breeders' Cup than Keeneland. It is, after all, the Breeders' Cup. The brainchild of John R. Gaines, the late founder of Gainesway Farm in Lexington, the Breeders' Cup was established through foal and stallion nominations paid by Thoroughbred breeders, the majority of that money coming from Central Kentucky farms. These are the same people who bring their mares, foals, yearlings, and 2-year-olds to Keeneland Association auctions throughout the year and helped create the greatest marketplace for Thoroughbreds the world has ever known.

The business model for the Breeders' Cup has changed. Nominations were designed to fuel the $10 million in purses the championships paid in its early years. Then, as simulcasting grew in the late 1980s and '90s (and as stud fees plummeted and the foal crop size declined), wagering became the leading source of revenue. Prize money doubled from $10 million in 1995 to its present $27 million in purses and awards.

But wagering revenue has increased only marginally in the last decade, despite an expansion from eight Breeders' Cup races on one day to as many as 15 over two. That might be considered a positive, given the nearly one-third decline in North American Thoroughbred racing handle over the same period. By comparison, though, the Kentucky Derby, the sport's No. 1 draw, has grown a robust 30 percent in pari-mutuel handle from 2004 to 2013.

The Breeders' Cup has, in my opinion, struggled for an identity outside of the racing community, in part because it has never established a home. The event has been, for most of its existence, a moveable feast, designed to showcase all that is good about Thoroughbred racing with people from coast to coast. That strategy has worked fine for major events like the NFL Super Bowl, the Final Four in NCAA basketball, and golf's U.S. Open. It's difficult, however, for horse racing to get the attention of the American public–or the media–in late October and early November when college and professional football are king. Frankly, it's barely a blip on the consciousness of most people.

Part of the reason for that may be the inconsistent path it has charted. Is the Breeders' Cup a premier racing event, with legal pari-mutuel gambling, or is it a combination of horse racing and fashion, celebrity and sport? The latter is what Breeders' Cup officials may have envisioned by basing the event at Santa Anita Park from 2012 to '14. And there is a lot to like about Southern California that time of year, including the weather and the backdrop of one of the grandest racing facilities in the world. But is it really growing in stature as a major sporting event?

Let's go back to Augusta National for a minute.

The Masters didn't become the greatest golf tournament in the world by focusing on fashion, Hollywood stars or celebrity chefs and grand parties. It's about the drama that happens inside the ropes, from Gene Sarazen's double-eagle in 1935 (the “shot heard 'round the world”) to Bubba Watson's ridiculous recovery from the trees on that same par 5 15th hole Sunday to win his second green jacket in three years.

The Masters is the most-coveted ticket in sports (it's actually a badge) and the most-watched golf tournament in the world. There are no blimps, no celebrities, no fashion (unless you count Rickie Fowler's outfits), and the food highlight is a pimento cheese sandwich that sells for $1.50 at concession stands.

It is the tradition of this great event that makes people feel like Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion did on Sunday evening when he Tweeted: “Nothing gets me like the final hole of the Masters.”

For the first time, Keeneland is going to make a bid to become a host of the Breeders' Cup, as early as 2015. There are logistical hurdles, to be sure (Keeneland currently has just 8,500 permanent seats, indoors and outdoors), but those can be overcome. The weather in late October/early November can be dicey, but that hasn't kept the event away from Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Belmont Park, or Woodbine in Canada.

No community will embrace the Breeders' Cup like Lexington and Central Kentucky. No racetrack would be as meaningful a host as Keeneland, with the Thoroughbred nurseries and industry-support businesses providing an alluring backdrop to this world championship event that would attract enthusiasts from around the world. First and foremost, the Breeders' Cup is about the horse and the great tradition of horse racing. Nowhere in the world can that statement be made more powerfully than at Keeneland–and not just in 2015, but in 2016, '17 and beyond.

It's time, after 30 years, for the Breeders' Cup to come home to where it all began, to try to establish a tradition in horse racing unlike any other.

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