11/06/2015 5:54PM

Simon: Keeneland proves Breeders' Cup can thrive where it all began

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Barbara D. Livingston
The Breeders' Cup at Keeneland has been hailed as a success.

When John Gaines came up with the idea for the Breeders’ Cup, he started by organizing meetings in Lexington, Ky. This was for a number of reasons, not the least being that Lexington is the heart of the Thoroughbred industry, and local breeders and stallion owners were being asked to fund the effort in its entirety, with a collective commitment in excess of $10 million required just to get the inaugural running held.

The Breeders’ Cup has since become an industry institution, rivaling the classics in stature, though it is easy to forget those who made it reality – until you contemplate its name. Remarkably, the event that has been so strongly supported by Central Kentucky horsemen for more than three decades now had never been held where it all began until this year. Like Moses in the desert, the Breeders’ Cup spent 31 years wandering the country before the breeders and stallion owners who had largely footed the bill all that time were able to see the races run in their own backyard, at their hometown track of Keeneland.

When Keeneland was announced as the host of the 32nd renewal, many were skeptical. The track has a comfortable capacity of around 25,000 on a good day and seating for only about 9,000 people and is located in a town of just 300,000 with few direct flights from major cities and limited hotel space. Cynics had more cause for concern when Keeneland announced that attendance would be limited to 32,000 in the grandstand and clubhouse on Cup days so those who did attend would have a good experience.

A funny thing happened on the way to what many thought would be an obligatory, one-and-done running of the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland: It was a huge success. Lexington and Keeneland rose to the occasion and then some, with the city embracing the Breeders’ Cup by offering festival-like public events from dawn to dark around town all week prior. This was something track hosts in large metropolitan areas have been unable to do since local communities either do not care passionately about racing the way Lexington does and/or the event was overshadowed by other happenings or lost in large metroplexes.

Keeneland rose to the occasion by building “chalets” and temporary structures that increased the number of seats significantly and also helped the Breeders’ Cup raise tremendous revenue from seat and ticket sales that matched or exceeded other host tracks despite concerns about capacity.

And all those worries about traffic problems getting in and out of the track? Unwarranted. Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup were extremely efficient in getting people to and from the facility by using limited on-site parking and providing a well-orchestrated shuttle system from off-site locations. The consensus of most who attended was a big thumbs-up.

So, Keeneland proved a great host, as did Lexington, but the big annual question about the Breeders’ Cup concerns handle, the key measure used to define success. In that regard, Keeneland again did well, particularly when compared with events held at Santa Anita and other locales. While Santa Anita has the advantage of being familiar to bettors – having hosted the Breeders’ Cup a co-record eight times – Keeneland’s handle compared favorably to that of the California track.

In the 13 Breeders’ Cup races this year, Keeneland handled a total of $125.9 million, down about 1.5 percent from 2014, while handle on the two cards this year totalled $150.6 million, down just 0.8 percent compared with last year. Ontrack handle at Keeneland over the two Cup days was up 2.2 percent from the same two days last year at Santa Anita.

Keeneland set an attendance record for a Friday card, announced at 44,947, which was higher than Churchill’s previous record of 41,614 in 2010. (The Saturday crowd would be reported at 50,155.) It should be noted, though, that Keeneland included in its total all patrons on “campus,” including tailgaters on the hill, people in the sales-pavilion dining rooms and bars, and those gathered in the remote Keeneland Entertainment Center. Since the Friday crowd was limited to about 32,000 in the grandstand and clubhouse, none of the 12,000-plus outside the track proper could see races except via TV screen.

NBC, too, was reportedly happy to have had the Breeders’ Cup in Lexington after being leery at first of televising the event in such a small market. The TV ratings, thanks in large part to the presence of American Pharoah, were the highest in 20 years. The 2.5 rating was up 53 percent over last year in the segment that included the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

In terms of support from owners and breeders, Keeneland had 200 horses pre-entered, one fewer than the record set last year, and the number of starters was 161, the third-most in history. So, clearly, Keeneland was a popular stop for owners of Breeders’ Cup hopefuls.

And at the other side of the dual-pronged equation for Keeneland, its sales division, the Breeders’ Cup seemed to benefit the track’s November breeding stock sale, which began Tuesday – the first few days of which yielded significant increases in total sales and average price over 2014. The Breeders’ Cup, and perhaps an “American Pharoah effect,” may have actually spurred more interest in the breeding side of the business.

All these results suggest that Keeneland should be in line to again host the Breeders’ Cup. Next year, the event returns to Santa Anita, and Del Mar will host for the first time in 2017. From all indications, it appears that Churchill will be back in the mix after declining to bid on the event in recent years, and the smart money is booking rooms in Louisville for 2018.

The earliest that Keeneland could likely host again is 2019. The Breeders’ Cup should create a circuit where the championship event moves between several permanent hosts, rather than being stuck in one or two places for several years, as has happened in the recent past.

With the New York Racing Association still on the sidelines and averse to hosting, the rotation could be Kentucky, Southern California, and Florida, with Churchill and Keeneland alternating in the commonwealth, Santa Anita and Del Mar sharing as West Coast hosts (with the caveat that Del Mar proves itself as a host), and Gulfstream, if it increases its seating capacity, in the mix.