10/23/2008 12:00AM

$200M for 2010 still Cup goal


Concerns about the faltering U.S. economy and the recent slide in wagering figures at most of the country's most high-profile racetracks have not had an impact, at least publicly, on the confidence of officials at the Breeders' Cup going into the organization's jam-packed event at Santa Anita Park in Southern California this weekend.

Officials at the organization said this week that they still have their sights set on a $200 million wagering target for the 2010 event, though they acknowledged that recent downturns in wagering business at tracks like Keeneland, Saratoga, Belmont, and Del Mar were a cause of concern.

"The goal is still a goal," said Ken Kirchner, the simulcasting and wagering consultant to Breeders' Cup. "Realistically, we understand there are issues with the economy. But we're also optimistic because we have a lot of full fields of high-class horses, and we will continue to offer what horseplayers most want, and that's value."

The Breeders' Cup board approved the $200 million target early in 2006, even though the event's total handle figures had begun to stagnate. The goal seemed remotely reachable after the 2006 event, when wagering jumped 15 percent to $134.4 million.

Just after the 2006 event, the Breeders' Cup created three new races and expanded to two days, confident that bettors would have the bankroll to weather the expansion. Handle on the 2007 two-day event, however, dropped 3.9 percent compared to 2006, to $129.2 million. Up until then, handle had dropped on a year-by-year basis only four times in 23 years.

Comparisons between 2006 and 2007 were complicated by the heavy rain that fell at Monmouth Park in New Jersey for three days before the Saturday card. Breeders' Cup officials have insisted that the poor weather was solely responsible for the drop.

This year, Breeders' Cup has expanded once again, adding three more races. Under the new schedule, five races restricted to fillies and mares - including the Ladies' Classic, formerly known as the Distaff and previously a highlight of the Saturday card - were to be run on Friday, with the other nine scheduled for Saturday.

Kirchner said wagering figures for the Friday card will undoubtedly be higher compared to last year - when total betting on the three races was $20.5 million - because of the more favorable weather outlook this year and the expansion to five races. He also said that he believes that many horseplayers may have been cutting their bankrolls recently to save up for the Breeders' Cup because of the problems many tracks have had putting together full fields.

"Who wants to bet on a five-horse field of maiden $15,000 claimers?" Kirchner said. "Not too many people. We're able to give horseplayers what they want: big fields with lots of value. It's only going to take one race to get you healthy, and if you win two races, you're going to come out with a nice little profit. I think horseplayers have been waiting for this."

Aside from the six-race expansion, most of the Breeders' Cup's strategy toward increasing handle on its races has focused on the international market. But problems created by time zones and protectionist legislation in two huge international markets - Hong Kong and Japan - have made foreign gains marginal so far, although the numbers continue to steadily grow.

This year, access to the Breeders' Cup's commingled pools will be offered to bettors in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, South Africa, and France, the country that last year led foreign markets with $5.4 million in total betting. (Most bettors in the United Kingdom and Ireland wager through bookmakers instead of the commingled pools.)

Hong Kong - the highest per-capita betting market in the world - will offer betting on the entire Breeders' Cup card for the first time this year, but in a separate pool, Kirchner said. In addition, two new markets, Turkey and New Zealand, will each offer separate-pool wagering.

Somewhat surprisingly, handle in Turkey on its domestic product was the equivalent of $1.5 billion last year. Total handle in the U.S. is approximately $15 billion.

"Their local horse racing market has really exploded over the past three or four years," Kirchner said. "So we could see some gains out of there."