Keeneland promises 'unique' Breeders' Cup for 2015

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 24, 2014 

The pulse of Kentucky's signature industry serves as the soundtrack for Keene land Race Course.

During the early 1980s, those who help drive that heartbeat conceived of a year-end event worthy of the racehorses that define the Bluegrass to much of the outside world.

In fall 2015, what was created then — the Breeders' Cup World Championships — will grace, for the first time, the boutique track that sits at the epicenter of the Thoroughbred industry, an event that will test the growth and vision of both.

Keeneland's status as host of the 2015 Breeders' Cup became official Tuesday when representatives from both organizations confirmed the Lexington track would be the site of the event on Oct. 30 and 31.

As Herald-Leader sources confirmed last week, Keene land's selection was part of a three-year Breeders' Cup plan that has Santa Anita Park hosting in 2016 and picturesque Del Mar being a host site for the first time for 2017.

This year, Santa Anita will hold the Breeders' Cup for a third straight year, on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

When the event comes to Keeneland in 2015, it will be the first time the Breeders' Cup has been awarded to a Kentucky track since Churchill Downs hosted it for the eighth time in 2011. It is also being viewed as a homecoming of sorts as the concept for the Breeders' Cup — first held in 1984 — was fostered in the Bluegrass by the late John Gaines, founder of Gainesway Farm.

Logistical issues that come with Keeneland being a much smaller facility than Breeders' Cup stalwarts such as Churchill and Santa Anita had prevented it from making a serious play for racing's year-end championships. With a plan that calls for more than 7,000 premium seats to be added, bringing total reserved seating to 21,000, Keeneland started earnest discussions with the Breeders' Cup about six months ago to create what it says will be a unique experience.

"Our team was ready; we've been ready for a long time," Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said. Bringing the Breeders' Cup to Keeneland "has been talked about for decades. But there have been a number of things that have kept that from happening. The size, the number of patrons we're able to accommodate have not been up to those initial thoughts. Now, that changes a bit.

"It's not just about announcing numbers, it's about creating this brand. We can do something very unique in this market with people who really understand the horse. This community embraces things they are passionate about. They know what racing is like at Keeneland and they are attached to the farms."

In addition to installing high-end single-level and double-decker tents around the Clubhouse side, seating in the Sales Pavilion and Entertainment Center will be made available along with general admission tickets.

How much those tickets will cost and whether there will be a cap on the number sold are about 30 to 60 days from being sorted out, according to officials. However, capacity probably will be restricted considering Keene land patrons are elbow to elbow on major race days when the crowds can climb into the 30,000 range.

"We haven't really set that number (for possible attendance) yet ... 40,000 to 50,000 is probably realistic here," said Breeders' Cup chairman Bill Farish. "We want to have the best possible experience for everyone. We don't want to cram too many people in just for the sake of a number."

No need for lights

Thomason said that with the 2015 Breeders' Cup taking place before daylight-saving time ends, there will be no need to install temporary lights at Keeneland. Also, the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale will not be moved to a later date, Thomason said. It will start the Monday after Breeders' Cup weekend.

"So many people on the grounds have to make the choice of being on the West Coast (for the Breeders' Cup) or staying here" for the sale," Thomason said. "Now they're getting ready to come to one place."

A potential added logistical strain on a city that will be stretched for hotels and restaurants is the fact the University of Kentucky football team is slated to host Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee that Saturday, according to Farish.

"There are some discussions going on to see how both can work together," he said.

The selection of Keene-land and Del Mar as future host sites represented a leap of faith on the part of Breeders' Cup officials and a counter to a recent trend of the two-day event favoring large-scale tracks.

Both ovals are removing their main tracks' synthetic surfaces and going back to dirt, with Keeneland's set to be ready in time for its 2014 Fall Meet.

Along with taking the risk of awarding host status to tracks that do not have their dirt surfaces in place yet, Breeders' Cup is taking a chance on the smaller tracks. It stopped using smaller tracks such as 2004 host Lone Star Park in Texas and 2002 host Arlington Park in Illinois in part because of a lack of financial return.

But Farish said the Breeders' Cup expected the boutique experience to prevail at Keeneland and Del Mar, specifically in terms of drawing Friday crowds that could be just as large as Saturday's, when the Breeders' Cup Classic headlines the card.

"Our economic forecasting is very positive for these venues," Farish said. "Keene land has much more premium seating than for instance Lone Star had. So economically it's quite different. What we're really intrigued about discovering is going into a medium-sized market, the impact Breeders' Cup will have on that market and the coverage we'll get."

The return of the Breeders' Cup to Kentucky after what will be three straight years in California is being hailed by some horsemen who see a geographic rotation among tracks as being key to maintaining the event's integrity.

"In my opinion, the weather is important, and we're in the entertainment business so I understand the appeal of Southern California," said trainer and Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, who conditioned 2006 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Invasor. "But it's nice to move it around like the Super Bowl moves around. It is our Super Bowl."

Added Kentucky-based trainer Buff Bradley, who conditioned two-time Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint heroine Groupie Doll, "I think it's great because that's what the Breeders' Cup was originally designed for was to move around. Having it at different places brings more attention to it, and that's what they need. It will serve a good purpose for the people in this area."

The work Keeneland has to do to accommodate the Breeders' Cup is not limited to seating and parking. The distance of the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile will be reconfigured to 7 furlongs, 184 feet over the Beard Course, while the Filly and Mare Turf will be contested at 13⁄16 miles and limited to 12 horses.

Keeneland also must get approval to begin its 2015 Fall Meet on Oct. 2, one week early, because those dates are slated for Churchill Downs. Officials on both sides think they could be laying the groundwork for Keeneland to become a regular on the Breeders' Cup schedule.

"We're not looking at it as a one-time thing," Thomason said. "If those things have all come together and if it all works, we look forward to being a partnership that lasts longer."

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

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