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

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 17, 2014 

It's about time the Breeders' Cup came to Keeneland.

The official announcement won't come until June 24, but an optimistic rumor became all but fact Tuesday when first The Courier-Journal reported and then the Herald-Leader and others confirmed that the Breeders' Cup board of directors has chosen our little track to host Thoroughbred racing's biggest event in 2015.

The date has not been set, although the Breeders' Cup normally takes place over two days in late October or early November.

Reports are that after Santa Anita hosts the event this year, for the third straight year, the Cup comes to Lexington in 2015, goes back to Santa Anita in 2016, then to Del Mar, 20 miles north of San Diego, in 2017.

Picking Keeneland and Del Mar is a bit of a departure for the Breeders' Cup, which with a few exceptions has relied on big city/big track venues such as Santa Anita near Los Angeles, Belmont Park near New York and Churchill Downs in Louisville for the grand event.

Choosing smaller, more intimate tracks is a welcome change, and not just because Keeneland and Central Kentucky get to experience the fun for the first time.

Ask racing fans who have traveled coast to coast for a list of the nation's three most beautiful tracks, and invariably, Keeneland, Del Mar and Saratoga top the list.

Those are tracks full of scenery and tradition, where a day at the races doesn't just mean a hardcore handicapper trying to solve the Pick Six.

When slots proponents argued that on-site gaming would save the industry, I remember talking to trainer D. Wayne Lukas at the Preakness. He had a different view.

"The three most successful tracks are Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland. They don't have slots," Lukas said. "Why are they successful? Because fans enjoy the experience. I don't know how, but we have to get back to that at all tracks."

Racing is desperately trying to attract young people. All you have to do is walk around Keeneland on a racing weekend to know that the track has accomplished that.

Keeneland has long staged successful "College Scholarship Day" promotions. There is a dress-up, tailgating, party-style atmosphere that turns the grounds into something of a social event.

That's the image that America's Best Racing, a fan development initiative started by the Jockey Club in association with Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, has been pushing the past couple years. Using multi-media, with a heavy Internet presence, ABR has focused on pop culture as well as payouts.

That's part of what the Breeders' Cup wants and why the board has in recent years opted to keep it at Santa Anita, close to Hollywood's bright lights. It's also why there were reports that some members argued against bringing the sport's biggest event to a city of 300,000 and a track whose biggest crowd is just slightly more than 40,000.

"It's Lexington-related for me," Breeders' Cup board member Barry Weisbord told Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report. "I've come to believe Breeders' Cup functions best when the entourage is happy — the people spending the money."

Lexington might not be able to match L.A. in terms of glitz, but it isn't Hooterville. It has hosted the World Equestrian Games and NCAA basketball tournaments. It can show people a good time.

And it remains the heart of the sport, the place to be for breeding, racing and buying Thoroughbreds. No city knows horse racing better than Lexington. No track offers a better racing experience than Keeneland.

In fact, the man who came up with the Breeders' Cup idea, the late John Gaines, started Gainesway Farm (originally called Greentree) first off Tates Creek Road before moving to Paris Pike.

I'm sure that if Gaines were still around, his reaction to Tuesday's news that the Breeders' Cup is coming here would be the same as mine.

What took so long?

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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