11/06/2015 5:54PM

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

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.

Nick Pavletic More than 1 year ago
I was there. Keeneland took care of business and the BC should be commended for putting on a great show. It takes almost two years to prep for this annual event and I've been going since 1988. Absolutely no problems getting in or out was a pleasant surprise for such a small venue. The races were fair and extremely true to form. Saturday Liam's Map and Nyquist won from off the pace instead of on the lead as usual. Turf racing had no bias at all as horses won from on and off the pace. Customer service at Keeneland was the best I've ever experienced! The staff of BC Ltd. should all take a collective bow for a job well done. I'm really looking forward to coming back to Lexington in the future and really hope that this location, nestled in the middle of horse country, gets into the BC rotation. It deserves to be based on this years experiment.
Richard Cadena More than 1 year ago
"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." By most accounts, the main reason why Keeneland was rewarded with the Breeders Cup is because they tore up their highly praised synthetic track and put in a dirt main track. Most likely they did so to meet the needs of the owners/breeders of horses. Since most have difficulty supporting tracks that aren't on their preferred dirt track surface. Most of the review here sounds in-house East Coast/Kentucky. You can thank the breeders for helping move forward the concept but should not kowtow to their every need/demand. As Eric C. states in earlier post, without American Pharoah, the numbers would deflate. The highest TV numbers came when he ran. Ignored are problems that most likely will not occur if the event is housed in Southern California. Like the time zone and bad weather. It stopped raining two days before the event but the rain put a damper on the turf; maybe impacting the dull performances of many European horses. And no doubt fewer bet the earlier races on the West Coast due to the am hours of the races. American Pharoah's performance had ripple effects. But many of the other races seemed lacking. Maybe better marketing and selling of the concept/event, not targeting the owners and breeders, but to the everyday fan/bettor, would bring in new/more people. There is no main reason to have the event again back at Keeneland; unless you can find another homebred Triple Crown winner. Bring back the synthetic track.
Nick Pavletic More than 1 year ago
Richard Cadena More than 1 year ago
Your points aren't clear. Gio Ponti is a turf horse; he lost to Zenyatta. In that race Zenyatta also beat Twice Over, Rip Van Winkle, along with Colonel John, Summer Bird, Regal Ransom, etc. So either she is a super horse, since she beat proven turf winners yet never raced on the turf or this theory of synthetic equaling turf is half-baked. In 2010, Zenyatta beat the likes of Quality Road, Lookin at Lucky and everyone else, just missing to Blame, and she did it on their preferred dirt track surface. Curlin most likely didn't take to the track and was not better than Henry the Navigator that day. He lost to the filly Rags to Riches and most likely is another East Coast based overrated horse. He shouldn't have one one of those two HOY Eclipses. Whenever the East Coast horses would lose they would blame it on the synthetic surface. They can't do that now. And the results are the same. The main reason for synthetic track is that it is safer for the horse and jockey. Keeneland was one of the greatest tracks with the synthetic track. It has now become a second string dirt track. The horse racing powers-that-be should conduct a study of the number of injuries at Keeneland's dirt track and compare them with the injuries when it had the synthetic. The greatest horses in the past 20+ years, including Zenyatta, American Pharoah, and Shared Belief raced/trained on the synthetic track. Shared Belief was injured at Charlestown's dirt-based track and is now back in training at the Golden Gate synthetic track.
Bill Keating More than 1 year ago
Keeneland is a lovely venue for the Breeder's Cup unless you get too hung up on the races that are supposed to decide "Championships." The mile and a sixteenth main track is too short and too biased to run these races on. Andy Beyer, after praising the setting, said that it is so beloved that few people like to point out that its races are regularly a farce. There is not a major track in America with a racing surface that is so often so biased and unfair as Keeneland's. The advantage it gives to front-runners on the rail makes Keeneland bear more resemblance to a dog track than a venue for championship Thoroughbred racing. Horse Racing Nation, reviewing the Spring, 2015 meet found that fast track races were favorable to front runners and pace pressers in sprint races. Front runners (on the lead or less than 1 length behind after the first quarter mile) won 45% of all sprint races and pace pressers (between 1 and 2 3/4 lengths behind the leader after the first quarter mile) won 37% of all sprint races If front runners and pace pressers are winning 82% of the races, that doesn't leave much room for closers. And for the contorted one mile dirt races:the jockey who won a pre-Breeder's Cup trial at that distance said You need to break well, that's for sure, especially if you're on the outside," Lanerie said after guiding Street Strategy to an off-the-pace win Oct. 9 in the seventh race. I think you can be all right on the outside with a horse with speed. You'll have to break well; if you miss the break I'm not sure there will be many good options. Why even go into the turf course? The Euros don't come here to settle "World Championships" - they would laugh at important races - on a puny track. They come here for the money. How do you decide these races with full fields on a seven and a half mile track, narrow to begin with, and with near hairpin turns at both ends? Both of the heavily favored Euros had trouble and finished second. They would have been better off racing wide and clear all the way around, using their unimpeded speed to make up for the extra ground.
Nick Pavletic More than 1 year ago
Complaining about a Keeneland bias compared to Santa Anita's bias @ the BC the previous two years is lunacy! California always has a bias on the dirt. Every year out west is easy, throw out all horses who didn't prep out there and start with that. Speed only for winners on the dirt. I'll take Keeneland over SA every single year! 100 degreees in 2003 was no picnic for anyone dude! Horse and bettors melting all weekend at the "Great Race Place". Kentucky is horse racing in the USA and the BC should be there at least every other year. NO MORE WEST COAST BIAS FOR PICKING BC SITES PLEASE!
Eric Carlos More than 1 year ago
Some east coast biased again. The reason the handle was compared to Santa Anita was American Pharoah. Probably could of had these races at Charles town and the handle would be high. Not trashing keenland, but let's call a spade a spade.
Joel Firsching More than 1 year ago
How many times did they tvg analyst state the keeneland races were merry go round races ? No changes in position for dirt racing, makes it awfully boring. Bring back the synthetic
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Nick Pavletic More than 1 year ago
Bruce Epstein More than 1 year ago
The "new" GP is way too small, might as well give it to Tampa. They'd appreciate it better than GP. The BC at the old GP was great. Those were the days.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gulfstream is way too small and the Euro's don't like it because it's too warm