08/23/2012 11:21AM

Breeders' Cup: Will Belmont ever host again?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. − In mid-August 2011, at the height of the racing season at Saratoga, Breeders’ Cup announced that it had selected Santa Anita Park in Southern California to host its two-day championship event in 2012. Executives of the New York Racing Association winced at the official confirmation that their downstate track, Belmont Park, had been passed over yet again.

Belmont Park had not hosted a Breeders’ Cup since 2005, and with Santa Anita’s selection – its third in the last five years – the earliest Belmont could host the event would be 2013. And that, actually, was the plan, Breeders’ Cup officials assured their NYRA counterparts at the time.

Fast forward one year. On Aug. 9, with Saratoga in full swing, Breeders’ Cup announced that the 2013 event would once again go to Santa Anita Park.

This time, though, NYRA officials could not be surprised or disappointed. Although discussions with Breeders’ Cup went on through early 2012, NYRA pulled its bid and never submitted a formal application for the 2013 event. It was an acknowledgment that the association’s ongoing problems and the fragility of its relationship with the state’s political establishment had torpedoed the association’s chances.

Seven years after the last Belmont Breeders’ Cup, it remains an open question when, if ever, the Breeders’ Cup will return to the Long Island track. Officials at Breeders’ Cup and NYRA contend that they are eager to see Belmont back in the mix, but NYRA’s unresolved managerial and political problems – along with a litany of concerns about the suitability of Belmont as a Breeders’ Cup site – are imperiling that effort.

Once part of a regular rotation with Churchill Downs in Louisville and the L.A.-area tracks, Belmont has steadily been marginalized as a Breeders’ Cup site over the last decade. NYRA is in many ways more financially stable now than at any point in the last 10 years – thanks to the influx of revenues from a casino that opened in 2011 at its Aqueduct racetrack in Queens – but the association’s relentless financial and political entanglements since declaring bankruptcy in 2006 has scared off Breeders’ Cup. At the same time, Breeders’ Cup’s has increasingly sought out tracks that have stable relationships with legislators and a history of posting strong attendance and handle for the championship event, criteria that Belmont has not met, even in the best of times.

Despite those complications, Belmont remains a potential site, according to Breeders’ Cup officials, who cited the track’s major-market location and the Breeders’ Cup’s desire to hold the event on the East Coast for the first time since the 2007 event at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

“We all know it needs to be back in New York,” said Tom Ludt, the chairman of Breeders’ Cup. “But sometimes I think people don’t realize how difficult this is. There are a lot of details that go into this, and in a lot of cases, little things can turn into big things.”

According to Breeders’ Cup officials, NYRA most immediately needs to hire a chief executive for Belmont to be considered again as a site. The position has been unfilled since the association’s board fired Charles Hayward in early May over allegations Hayward was aware that NYRA was miscalculating the takeout for most of its superexotic wagers for a 15-month period in 2010 and 2011.

At the time, NYRA was already under scrutiny from regulators, politicians, and racing critics for a spike of breakdowns at Aqueduct. After the firing, the association reached an agreement with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to disband its board for three years and replace it with a new, smaller board that would be controlled by Cuomo and state legislative leaders.

“We were pretty deep in talks [in 2012], but then you had Charlie getting fired, and all that stuff, and we had to pull out,” Ludt said. “We got put in a position where we couldn’t even talk about 2013. We didn’t even know who we could talk to. It’s not like I can pick up the phone and call the governor. I don’t think it’s on his radar screen.”

Cuomo, who will control eight appointments to the 17-member board, is expected to make his appointments sometime after the close of the Saratoga meet in early September. The board is then expected to authorize a search for a new chief executive, a process that could take up to six months to complete, according to officials.

Officials for Cuomo did not return phone calls requesting comment on the governor’s plans for the board and whether he considers a Belmont Breeders’ Cup to be a priority.

If and when NYRA’s leadership issues are resolved, the association will still have to convince Breeders’ Cup that Belmont can overcome its Breeders’ Cup financial history. That effort will have to accommodate the concerns of a Breeders’ Cup that is more cost-conscious than in the past because of recent decisions to boost the event’s total purses to $25 million, an amount that has put a squeeze on the organization’s budget. 

Despite being located within the most densely populated area in the country, Belmont Park holds the dubious record of hosting the lowest-attended Breeders’ Cup, in 1995, when 37,246 showed up on an overcast day for a card capped by an attempt by Cigar, one of the most popular horses in the last two decades, to stretch his winning streak to 12 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Attendance at subsequent Belmont Breeders’ Cups in 2001 and 2005 were 52,987 and 54,289, underwhelming totals, considering the size of the market and Belmont’s 100,000-plus capacity.

A Belmont Breeders’ Cup also potentially collides with the New York City Marathon, which is held the first Sunday in November, usually the weekend targeted by Breeders’ Cup for its Friday-Saturday event. The Marathon annually attracts approximately 150,000 visitors to the city, putting enormous demands on hotel rooms, especially in Manhattan.

Still, even though the 2012 event would have overlapped with the Marathon, both NYRA officials and Breeders’ Cup officials said they were prepared to go ahead with a Belmont Breeders’ Cup absent the other problems surrounding NYRA.

A Belmont bid also has to overcome the preferences of a sizeable contingent on the Breeders’ Cup board that holds Santa Anita in high regard because of its warm weather and a favorable time zone, two reasons why Santa Anita has been selected as the host site four times in the last six years. Even when interest in Santa Anita wanes, many members of the Breeders’ Cup board default to Churchill Downs, despite the possibility of poor November weather, because Kentucky’s horse culture guarantees strong ontrack crowds, vibrant community involvement, and full-press local media coverage.

And, according to an official involved in the site-selection process, there is another reason that Santa Anita and Churchill have been so successful in attracting the Breeders’ Cup to their facilities over the past decade: They have simply demonstrated that they wanted it more, the officials said, by competing against each other to create attractive financial incentives.

“With the Breeders’ Cup, everybody makes money,” the official said. “The Breeders’ Cup makes money, and when Santa Anita hosts it, they make money, and when it’s at Churchill, they make money. But in the past, when New York was in the running, it seemed like they felt like it should be enough for Breeders’ Cup just to be in New York. They weren’t competing like the other tracks were.”

Steven Duncker, whose current four-year term as chairman of NYRA’s board expires in September, said that the association expects to apply for the 2014 event at Belmont. But he acknowledged that NYRA’s bid would need to overcome the hurdles and preferences for other tracks that have surfaced during discussions with site-selection officials.

“We’re always going to battle a little bit,” Duncker said. “We’ll continue to look for solutions for any of the hurdles that those situations create. And I think Breeders’ Cup has done a very good job with us during that process in the past. They’ve been very fair.”

Ludt said that Breeders’ Cup would welcome a 2014 bid by NYRA, just as long as a chief executive was there to do the bidding, with the backing of a new board.

“As soon as all that happens, we’ll be the first ones who will want to sit down and talk to them,” Ludt said.