10/22/2015 4:17PM

Breeders’ Cup in uncharted territory at Keeneland

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Barbara D. Livingston
Keeneland is adding temporary structures totaling more than 100,000 square feet to accommodate the Breeders’ Cup crowds.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – It’s a seasonal and sunny mid-October day at Keeneland Racecourse, and Bob Elliston, chief operating officer of the Breeders’ Cup, is leaning on the rail of a newly built viewing platform on a grassy area outside the track’s final turn. As if appearing out of thin air, seven horses glide by, nearly noiseless, hugging the inside rail. Keeneland’s grandstand, a good quarter-mile in the distance, is too far away to hear a thing, even though a decent Wednesday crowd is jammed on the apron and anxiously waiting for the horses in the first race to gear up for the final drive.

“That’s pretty weird, isn’t it?” Elliston said, breaking the silence. “But that was cool. This is going to be a really great place.”

Behind Elliston is a zeppelin-class hospitality tent, the kind you’d find at a sheikh’s birthday party. Dozens of tool-toting workers buzz around inside the 45,000-square-foot structure. When the Breeders’ Cup comes to Keeneland for the first time Oct. 30-31, the tent will have been transformed into a wood-paneled luxury space filled with 3,200 racegoers, multiple bars and food stations, and a stage for live music. Adjacent to the tent, toward the grandstand, is a three-story, 42,000-square-foot building that is the first triple-decker temporary structure to be built in North America, its spacious suites already booked to high-rolling corporate customers and sponsors. And next to that is another temporary structure of suites, this one 50,000 square feet and two stories high. It’s sold out, too.

Elliston looks out to Keeneland’s infield as the horses in the first race pass the finish line. For now, it’s a regular Wednesday. The Breeders’ Cup is still more than two weeks away, and it’s eerily quiet for an area that is expected to be the wildest location at any Breeders’ Cup ever.

“All of this is going to be wired up,” Elliston said. “You’re going to have the race call piped in, monitors everywhere, the two Jumbotrons in the infield, people mingling out here and cheering. And look down the stretch. There’s 7,000 people who are going to be between this spot and the grandstand. It is going to be loud.”

It also is going to be unprecedented. Never before has the Breeders’ Cup attempted to do what it is doing this year at Keeneland, and the most visible symbols of that ambition are the massive temporary structures on the far turn that will host nearly a quarter of the people who will have a live view of the races during the two-day event.

Far smaller than its peers and located in a minor-league media market, Keeneland is not your typical Breeders’ Cup host site. But due to its iconic status and location in the heart of the U.S. horse industry, it’s also become the most anticipated event in Breeders’ Cup history. With industry insiders and racing fans together clamoring for a spot at the track, and demand for tickets far exceeding supply, the Breeders’ Cup has embarked on an entirely new strategy for this year’s event, and it has so far taken that plan to the bank.

Collectively, attendees this year have paid approximately $19 million for tickets, nearly twice as much as the patrons who went to any other Breeders’ Cup in history, according to Breeders’ Cup officials, with every reserved seat sold and every general-admission ticket already snapped up. And revenue has hit that level even though attendance this year will be well below half of the event that raised the previous record amount of ticketing revenue, in 2010, when attendance was 114,353 at Churchill Downs over two days and the track had room for thousands more.

But with a new strategy comes unknowns and dangers. Already, the high ticket prices and limitations on attendance have generated complaints that this year’s event is not for the masses. In addition, concern about traffic to and from the track has led the Breeders’ Cup to limit parking passes to 2,500 cars. The vast majority of patrons – the ones who, not coincidentally, have tickets with the lowest face values – will be required to take a taxi to the track or park at one of three off-site locations in and around Lexington, with transportation provided by shuttle buses. That’s an entirely new inconvenience for Breeders’ Cup attendees.

Breeders’ Cup officials acknowledge that they are in uncharted territory for this year’s event, but they also say that they have consulted with and hired all the right people to pull it off. The temporary structures were designed, built, and finished by companies with impressive outdoor-event credentials. The parking plan was put together by a company that has devised the transportation schemes for Super Bowls, and officials say that the plan will be far less frustrating for attendees than battling Lexington’s infamous traffic in their own cars. Catering for the temporary structures is being provided by a company that does approximately 30 major golf events annually.

“They’ve all got this buttoned up really well,” Elliston said. The Breeders’ Cup will spend $5 million on the temporary structures, making it the most expensive event the organization has held. “These are corporate folks who are used to entertaining their very best clients in an upscale manner. That’s who has bought in here. They’ve seen it, walked around here, and they are over the moon with what we’re offering.”

So far, Breeders’ Cup officials have not been precise about how many people will be at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday, in part because the organization plans to count people in the tailgate areas as attendees, even if they will not ever see a live horse. The best estimate, however, is that approximately 32,000 people at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday will be able to watch the races live in some shape or form.

General-admission tickets will allow access to the entire first-floor grandstand, but all areas above the first floor and the clubhouse will be only for those with tickets for designated locations, such as the various dining rooms and the reserved-seating locations set up on the second and third floors.

The Breeders’ Cup sold 10,000 general-admission tickets each day. For those who have been to Keeneland on a Blue Grass Stakes Saturday, when seemingly every square inch of floor space from the ground floor to the third floor is occupied or about to be occupied by a moving target, that number does not sound too large. However, because all the people holding tickets to higher-level spaces can also go down to the first floor, that number could swell with the tide of people at Keeneland who enjoy getting a closer look at the horses in the paddock or from a rail-side race position.

In addition, the total number of 32,000 patrons with a live view of the race also includes the 7,300-plus people who will be in the temporary structures, and, for the most part, those patrons are limited to the spaces within the structures and the grounds surrounding them. As a result, there will be 25,000 people in the grandstand and clubhouse on each day – and that is a number that’s more like a typical Saturday at Keeneland.

The Breeders’ Cup, however, is anything but a typical Saturday. So, Elliston was asked, is it possible that the event has been undersold?

“Obviously, there was tremendous demand, to have that level of support so quickly,” he said, speaking from one of the 220 temporary boxes erected in front of the permanent grandstand and clubhouse boxes. “Did we leave some money on the table? Maybe financially, but we are really, really, really interested, along with Keeneland, our partner, in ensuring people have a wonderful experience. We don’t want to cram the place so full that it’s not a wonderful experience. So, I think it’s right-sized. I’m feeling really good that everyone is going to have a great experience.”