On June 17, Breeders' Cup Ltd. welcomed the fifth president and CEO in its history when Craig Fravel left his position as president and general manager of Del Mar to head the organization.
Fravel, who originally joined Del Mar as its executive vice president in 1990, replaced Greg Avioli at the helm of the Breeders' Cup and officially took over on July 18. As he readies for his first Breeders' Cup in his new role, Fravel discussed with the Herald-Leader such issues as his vision for the event, why he wanted the job in the first place, and just how many more — if any — races fans can expect to be added to the World Championships. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Question: When you came into the position, did you have any expectations as to what your biggest challenge might be, and have those expectations come to fruition yet?
Answer: I think obviously the most simple thing you come up against is we have all the hype and all the drama surrounding Zenyatta last year going for her 20th straight win in the Classic so that certainly creates a benchmark of which things will be measured. But every year in racing you're always competing with yourself from the year before. ... How would you like to have been running the Kentucky Derby the year after Secretariat ran? It's kind of a challenge but I think we're up to it.
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Q: What is your vision for what you want Breeders' Cup to become under your watch?
A: I think Breeders' Cup already is to a certain degree what I would like it to be, that is the World Championships. I really think it's important that we emphasize the world championship character of this event and the international character of this event. There are other events that have regional or national implications, but the Breeders' Cup is the opportunity for the world to meet in one place at the end of the year and be acknowledged as a championship event that people really should participate in. I think over the years that has been built up and I would like to see that reinforced as an industry as a whole.
Q: We have a two-day format and we're up to 15 races now. How would you respond to critics who suggest the Breeders' Cup has gotten too saturated?
A: First of all, I think it's very important for owners and trainers and the racing world at large to have opportunities to showcase their animals. To the extent the Breeders' Cup has been expanded to two days and significantly more races, as long as that has been a successful economic model, which it has been, then we need to view that as a success. It gives more people more opportunity to make money on the breeding and racing side and the more chances we have for people to do that, the better off we're going to be. ...
Q: Trying to get new fans into this sport is always a goal. How do you balance getting the new fans in while still appealing to the hard-core patrons and the bettors?
A: I've never viewed those as competing objectives or even conflicting objectives. At Del Mar we had special outreach programs to VIP players and I think that's something as an organization the Breeders' Cup can be more directly involved in. We've somewhat left that up to the host tracks to monitor, but I think we can reach out more ourselves to big players. But I always say large bettors and small bettors alike drive the bulk of your income, 60-70 percent of your income comes from the wagering. It's a little different with the Breeders' Cup because we have nominations and different kind of ticket-selling dynamics but nonetheless, wagering is a huge part of your business. At the same time, big bettors love events where there are few people who are equal to them in skill, so if there are novice players at a particular venue, that is a very pleasant environment for large bettors to operate in. So those aren't mutually exclusive.
Q: How do you think Breeders' Cup maintains its status as the World Championships in the face of issues like smaller field sizes and the hard economic climate?
A: I'm hopeful we're finding our way through this economic strife and the next year or so we'll have a sense of optimism. ... We managed to hold our own economically despite the fact wagering across the country has been down sometimes 20-30 percent. So I'm very hopeful if we come back to some economic rebound, people will be more comfortable with spending habits and the Breeders' Cup will be one of the first beneficiaries of that. ...
Q: The new medication rules are set to come into play for next year's Breeders' Cup. Are you concerned with how that will impact entries and have you gotten any feedback from horsemen about it?
A: Well, 2012 is a long ways off in a lot of people's minds so it hasn't been a focal point of conversation. ... I think we've seen some trainers on their own initiative decide to start sending horses out without it and see how it goes. So I'm hopeful it will come off seamlessly next year.
Q: There had been some talk in the past of taking the Breeders' Cup out of the country at some point. Is that something that will realistically happen?
A: As an international championship, it's something you always have to consider as an option, but as a practical matter the Breeders' Cup is heavily dependent on wagering activity for its financial well being. If you think of some of the potential candidates for a Breeders' Cup, countries that are dominated by bookmakers in terms of wagering really don't make the kind of economic contribution to the game for betting that we do here in the United States.. ...There are significant issues related to the financial aspects of that that make it problematic. And many other places around the world don't have the multiple surfaces that we have available in this country. It's not like there are a lot of venues that fit.
Q: There had also previously been talk of possibly going to one permanent location for a host site. Is that still being looked at?
A: For the foreseeable future, there is no question right now we are on a rotation. We are going to Santa Anita next year, the year after that it has been no secret we're having serious discussions with NYRA about going back to New York. And we're going to evaluate those performances and how those venues do and we'll be looking down the road to see if there are better options.
Q: Churchill has always produced top attendance and handle numbers when they've hosted a Breeders' Cup. What do you think Churchill brings to the table that allows it to get the numbers that it has?
A: I didn't make it last year to Churchill but clearly Churchill is the kind of venue that has been rebuilt so the facilities are without par in this country. They are as good if not better than virtually anywhere you can go from a facility standpoint. They know how to handle large crowds ... and the people of Kentucky know their horses. It is one of the great places in the world to go to the horse races.