Keeneland expected to host 2015 Breeders' Cup

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 17, 2014 

Keeneland Race Course in Lexington is expected to host the Breeders' Cup World Championships for the first time in 2015.

Herald-Leader sources confirmed Tuesday that an official announcement naming the track as the host site is expected June 24.

Dates have not been determined, though the Breeders' Cup typically takes place over two days in late October or early November.

[John Clay: Keeneland, Lexington have what it takes to make Breeders' Cup shine]

Keeneland's bid to host a Breeders' Cup was first reported by the Herald-Leader in March. In a story first published by the Courier-Journal on Tuesday, anonymous sources said that in addition to Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar would be announced as host sites for 2016 and 2017, respectively, once the announcement is made.

Both Breeders' Cup Chairman Bill Farish and Breeders' Cup CEO Craig Fravel declined to comment when reached by the Herald-Leader on Tuesday other than to say a host site announcement is coming "soon."

"Our standard procedure on this is when we have final announcements to make, we will make them, and at this point we're not prepared to make an announcement," Fravel said Tuesday.

Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason confirmed to the Herald-Leader in late March that the Lexington track asked to be considered for the world championships as soon as 2015 and, in a move seen as further strengthening that bid, announced in early April it was removing its synthetic Polytrack surface and going back to a main dirt track in time for the 2014 Fall Meet.

"We're going to do it in a scale and a scope that would provide the patron experience that Breeders' Cup people expect for a world championship event to come to Lexington," Thomason said in March.

Amy Gregory, director of communications for Keeneland, referred all questions Tuesday to the Breeders' Cup.

Keeneland routinely attracts crowds of 30,000 or more on its biggest days, with the record being 40,617 for the 2012 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

Keeneland vice president Vince Gabbert said the Lexington track could accommodate an extra 25,000 or so with temporary facilities.

A Keeneland Breeders' Cup would mark the event's return to Kentucky for the first time since Churchill Downs hosted it for the eighth time in 2011. Santa Anita Park will be hosting the Breeders' Cup for a third straight year this November.

Despite the fact Churchill has hosted the largest single-day crowds in Breeders' Cup history (80,452 in 1998) and produced the largest total handle ($140,332,198 in 2006), officials with the Louisville track have had a tense relationship with the Breeders' Cup in recent years because of reported disputes over the financial deals each would receive.

"I haven't seen anything yet, but at least it's coming back to Kentucky," Bob Evans, chairman and CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., said Tuesday. "As I recall, (Breeders' Cup founder) John Gaines' whole theory was to move the Breeders' Cup around the country to try and build interest in Thoroughbred racing. So I've got no problem with it going around the horn, so to speak."

For Keeneland to host a 2015 Breeders' Cup, it would have to get permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to possibly extend its racing meet into dates traditionally held by Churchill Downs.

"We at the commission have been aware that discussions have been going on ... I think we'll wait and see what the official announcement is," said John Ward, executive director of the KHRC.

State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, wrote legislation that would have given the Breeders' Cup a significant financial incentive to come back to Kentucky — one where the host track could keep the pari-mutuel tax to use on purses or to split with the Breeders' Cup. However, that incentive, which would have required the Breeders' Cup to return to Kentucky by 2014, has expired.

Still, Thayer, who worked for the Breeders' Cup for eight years, said he would welcome the event's return to Kentucky and added he expects a Keeneland Breeders' Cup would be along the scale of small tracks like Monmouth and Lone Star Park, which have hosted in the past.

"It would be a very unique event, with some temporary facilities," he said. "But Keeneland is one of the best racetracks in the world, and Keeneland and Central Kentucky would host one of the most memorable events in Breeders' Cup history."

Both the Fasig-Tipton November Sale and Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale traditionally take place just days after the Breeders' Cup is held. While having the two-day card potentially in their backyards could help potential buyers already in town, Fasig-Tipton President Boyd Browning said he doesn't necessarily think a Breeders' Cup in such close proximity automatically means sales will be better.

"I'm not sure location of the Breeders' Cup has a dramatic impact on the November sales," Browning said. "As long as there are quality horses in the catalog, buyers are going to be able to participate in the auctions.

"It would obviously be an important milestone for the community and in particular for Lexington. But I'm not sure it really has any impact on the sales, to be honest."

Having the Breeders' Cup in the heart of the Thoroughbred capital of the world has been heralded by many horsemen. However, logistical obstacles would need to be conquered in order for the event to be deemed a success. In addition to limited capacity, there is concern over Lexington not having the amount of high-end hotels and restaurants found in larger markets like Louisville and Santa Anita, which is in Southern California.

There is also the matter of Keeneland and Del Mar, which is also slated to replace its synthetic track with dirt in time for its 2015 meet, being potentially named as Breeders' Cup host sites before their new surfaces are installed and evaluated.

"I'll just see how that track is before I make a decision on (how I feel about) that," said Keeneland-based trainer Charlie LoPresti, who conditions two-time Horse of the Year and two-time defending Breeders' Cup Mile winner Wise Dan.

"I know Keeneland, whatever they do, they'll do it right," said Eclipse Award-winning trainer and Louisville native Dale Romans.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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