Where Is Breeders’ Cup Heading?

by | 06.11.2014 | 2:37am

Future site selections will be discussed at a Breeders' Cup board of directors meeting on Wednesday that could result in a three-year host site commitment for 2015-17. Santa Anita Park, the Arcadia, Calif., track that will be home of the Breeders' Cup two-day championship event on Oct. 31-Nov. 1 for the third consecutive year and the fifth time in seven years, has submitted a bid. So have two potential new sites, Del Mar near San Diego, Calif., and Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.

In some ways it comes down to how the Breeders' Cup is defined: as a championship horse racing competition or an entertainment opportunity for members of the jet-set.

I've stated my belief that Keeneland would be an ideal and long-overdue host. The Breeders' Cup was created by Kentucky breeder John Gaines and funded largely through nominations of foals and stallions, the majority of that money coming from Central Kentucky farms.

It is a horse industry event and Lexington and the surrounding area is the Thoroughbred capital of the world. It does not have the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, or the Hollywood celebrities, five-star hotels, world-class restaurants or Rodeo Drive shops. It does not have the weather of Del Mar, the Pacific Ocean or the beautiful people of San Diego.

Lexington has, however, hosted one of the world's largest equine competitions, the 2010 World Equestrian Games. It's packed 40,000 people into Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes in the spring. It's hosted NCAA basketball tournament regional finals at Rupp Arena and had over 70,000 attend University of Kentucky football games at Commonwealth Stadium.

And Lexington has something that neither Los Angeles or Del Mar can boast: a community that understands and supports the Thoroughbred industry, largely because it provides so many jobs and is such a vital part of the state's economy, it's very fiber.

To me, though I love both Santa Anita and Del Mar, the Breeders' Cup and Keeneland are a perfect fit. It is an event that celebrates championship racing at the highest level, something Keeneland has been offering since 1936.

I've been to 27 of the first 30 Breeders' Cups and it is the fastest-moving day of racing I attend each year. The competition itself defines my experience, not the on-track meals, the fashion of those attending, the parties, or the quality of the hotels and restaurants in the host city

I've been to a few of those parties, had some great meals, and stayed at some nice hotels. Frankly, though, they're all kind of a blur.

What I do remember are the races. Personal Ensign catching Winning Colors in the final jump of the 1988 Distaff on a rainy, cold day at Churchill Downs. Sunday Silence edging Easy Goer in the 1989 Classic at Gulfstream Park. Cigar making the house shake at Belmont Park with his breathtaking victory in the 1995 Classic. Blame handing the gallant Zenyatta her lone career defeat on a chilly evening in the 2010 Classic at Churchill Downs.

One Breeders' Cup board member, Thoroughbred Daily News publisher Barry Weisbord, thinks having the Breeders' Cup in Kentucky in the fall is a bad idea.

“I'm going to support whatever decision the board makes,” said Weisbord, “but I'm not a proponent of coming to Keeneland in November and have made my feelings well known to my fellow board members and management of Keeneland.”

Weisbord concedes Keeneland – whose proposal includes extensive temporary seating, use of numerous tents, and even the Keeneland Entertainment Center –could work out as a facility. “It's Lexington-related for me,” said Weisbord. “I've come to believe Breeders' Cup functions best when the entourage is happy – the people spending the money.”

At the suggestion of Weisbord's friend, celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who is now a Breeders' Cup Member (elected by stallion and foal nominators), Breeders' Cup formed a special Enhanced Experience Committee to, well, enhance the experience of the high-end Breeders' Cup attendees. Now co-chairing the committee with fellow board member Roy Jackson, Weisbord has pushed for several new events, beginning with a Taste of the World party that brought a group of world-famous chefs to Louisville in 2011. A breakfast marquee has been added along with a toast to Breeders' Cup race winners in what is known as the Champion's Terrace, plus a large VIP enclosure near the walking ring.

“I'd like the Breeders' Cup to be as close to Royal Ascot as we can be,” Weisbord said. “I've had a lot of opportunities to travel throughout the world and see horse racing at places that scream elegance, sell elegance and are most successful. That's what separates racing from other sports. The more elegance we can deliver the better off we are.”

Weisbord said neither Louisville or Lexington can offer that elegance.

I mentioned to Weisbord that Augusta, Ga., home of the Masters Golf tournament, manages to attract big spenders each year without having the “elegance” of larger cities.

“That's a ridiculous analogy,” he said.

After three years, are the 'enhanced experience' initiatives working? They are, according to Weisbord.

“Everywhere I go in the world,” he said, “I have people say 'Taste was the best thing I went to.'”

Weisbord credits board chairman Bill Farish for supporting the Enhanced Experience Committee. “He gave us an opportunity to produce and I'm proud of what we've accomplished,” Weisbord said.

But, while Kentucky might not have anything like Rodeo Drive or the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Churchill Downs in Louisville has produced superior results as measured by attendance and handle.

Over the last two years at Santa Anita, pari-mutuel wagering totaled $305 million for the four championship day full cards. In 2010-11 at Churchill Downs, the four programs produced $335.4 million in handle. Announced attendance the last two years at Santa Anita totaled 184,370 compared with 220,173 at Churchill Downs in 2010-11.

Wagering is an important component of the Breeders' Cup's annual budget, which (according to IRS Form 990) saw revenue decline by $4.5 million from 2011 to 2012 ($45,321,443 to $40,853,271) while expenses increased by $1.3 million (from $41,578,288 to $42,888,966).

There has been a lack of growth in wagering on Breeders' Cup events. In 2006, the last year the Breeders' Cup consisted of eight races on one day, handle for those races totaled $134,357,846 ($16.8 million per race). On last year's 14 races over two days, a total of $136,539,014 was bet ($9.8 million per race).


Board of Directors Control

Complicating a potential vote on site selection during Wednesday's meeting is behind-the-scenes maneuvering for control of the board of directors. In some respects, the Members election results announced earlier this week were shocking. Stalwarts like Ogden Mills Phipps, Helen Alexander, G. Watts Humphrey Jr., and Robert Manfuso – close allies of Breeders' Cup board of directors chairman Bill Farish – did not receive enough votes to return as Breeders' Cup Members, while newcomers like Bradley Weisbord (son of Barry Weisbord), and former Breeders' Cup executive Carter Carnegie were elected.

The 23 recently elected Members will join 25 others in voting for six positions on the board of directors next month.

Alexander and Manfuso served on the 14-member board of directors but are no longer eligible as a result of the Members election. Richard Santulli declined to run for another term as a Member and his seat is open, too. The board of directors terms of Farish, vice chairman Antony Beck and Elliott Walden expire, although they are expected to stand for re-election. That means six of the 13 elected seats are up for grabs (Breeders' Cup CEO Craig Fravel is the 14th member).

Farish has one more year on his term as chairman, but if he is not re-elected to the board in a vote of Members, a new chairman will have to be elected. Weisbord ran for the position and lost to Farish in 2013 and said he would “have to consider” running again if the position is open.

“I ran for chairmanship last time because I thought I could do a good job and thought it was the right thing to do,” Weisbord said. “I've spent a lot of energy in the last 35 years of my life doing things that I felt made the horse business and horse industry and horse racing more desirable. It's something I care a lot about. I think the Breeders' Cup is a great place for me to help make a difference.”

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