06/10/2010 11:00PM

Breeders' Cup looking toward prime time


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Breeders' Cup will hold its first races under the lights this year when the year-end event is held at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5-6. And with the Breeders' Cup returning to the Louisville racetrack in 2011, Breeders' Cup officials said on Friday that they will seriously consider moving races deeper into prime time next year.

"I think we have to see how it goes this year, but if this year is a success, I don't know why we wouldn't want to explore that," said Greg Avioli, the chief executive of Breeders' Cup, at a press conference on Friday at Churchill to announce that the event would return to the track in 2011 on Nov. 4-5, for a record eighth time. "There are a lot of positives to running at night."

Two weeks ago, Breeders' Cup released its post-time schedule for the Friday and Saturday cards, and both the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, the last Breeders' Cup race run on the Friday card, and the Breeders' Cup Classic, the last Saturday race, are scheduled to be run well past sundown. Churchill Downs installed permanent lighting late last year.

The Breeders' Cup has never been run at night, although some races have taken place under low-light conditions, most notably the 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill. But Avioli said there were significant advantages to running the races during prime time, including an increased television audience and the potential to attract more on-track and off-track business for the Friday card, which this year has a first post of 2 p.m. Eastern, or 11 a.m. on the West Coast, a time when most people are at work. The Ladies' Classic is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern. First post for the Saturday card is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. Eastern, with the Classic scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Sundown at that time of the year in Kentucky is 6:50 p.m.

Avioli appeared with Churchill Downs officials and Ky. Gov. Steve Beshear at the Friday press conference, in which Breeders' Cup officials cited Churchill's experience in choosing Churchill to become the second track to host the event for two consecutive years. Oak Tree at Santa Anita was the host in both 2008 and 2009.

But Breeders' Cup officials also acknowledged that unexpected developments in California and unresolved economic and political concerns in New York left the organization with few options for 2011. Last month, the owner of Santa Anita, MI Developments, voided a lease held by Oak Tree to run a fall meet at Santa Anita, while in New York, the bankruptcy of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation has left the New York Racing Association, the operator of Belmont Park, in a precarious financial position. NYRA recently received a $25 million loan from the state to address its cash problems.

"Clearly, things are unsettled right now out in California, and although it's good news for New York racing that the state has recently agreed to fund that $25 million loan, neither of those jurisdictions is anywhere near as stable as Kentucky right now," Avioli said. "You never want to take the Breeders' Cup into an unstable environment, if at all possible."

Breeders' Cup had planned to announce a long-term schedule for host sites this year, but the developments in California have put those plans on the back burner. Some board members have said that the leading plan at the start of the year was to name Santa Anita as the host site from 2011-2016.

"Right now, we're going to take this two years at a time," Avioli said.

Though Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders' Cup more often than any other racetrack, and even though Churchill holds the Breeders' Cup record for attendance and handle for a one-day card, negotiations between Breeders' Cup and the track on future host site agreements have been strained by Churchill's efforts to gain better terms on revenue as the host site, according to officials.

Earlier this year, the Kentucky legislature passed legislation that was signed by Beshear that would rescind approximately $1 million in tax incentives for the 2010 event if Breeders' Cup did not reach an agreement designating a Kentucky track as host site for either 2011 or 2012 by Nov. 4. The potential for the tax breaks to be rescinded "was factored in" to the decision to name Churchill the host in 2011, Avioli said.