In the history of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, one track has consistently delivered the biggest and best in terms of both key indicators and defining moments.
After a seven-year hiatus from the most famed oval in Thoroughbred racing, the Breeders’ Cup will be returning to Churchill Downs for a record-tying ninth time in the event’s history on Nov. 2-3, 2018, officials with both organizations confirmed during a news conference Monday.
Churchill Downs has not hosted the Breeders’ Cup since holding the two-day event in 2011. Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., is set to host the 13-race card for a record ninth time this year, with Del Mar slated to hold its first Breeders’ Cup in 2017. Keeneland held its first Breeders’ Cup last October.
The current drought between hosting duties is the longest Churchill Downs has gone without being part of the Breeders’ Cup rotation since the event’s inception in 1984. It was an absence that had become particularly notable considering the track holds the records for the largest single-day (80,452 in 1998) and two-day attendance (114,353 in 2010) in Breeders’ Cup history, as well for largest total handle ($173,857,697 in 2010).
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Tensions between officials from Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and Churchill Downs were thought by many to have contributed to the track being passed over for hosting duties in recent years. Rumblings that the event would be Louisville-bound once more gained traction last summer, however, when the track hosted Breeders’ Cup officials the night of the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap last June, and when it was announced that the points for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile would be doubled for the 2015-16 Road to the Kentucky Derby.
That news came down just days after the announcement that Breeders’ Cup and CDI-owned TwinSpires.com had reached a multi-year agreement to make the online and mobile betting platform the official wagering partner of the Breeders’ Cup and the title sponsor of the $1.5 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
While both parties played down the notion of a rift, Churchill Downs racetrack president Kevin Flanery made it clear that getting the Breeders’ Cup back beneath the Twin Spires had become a priority.
“I can tell you that about a year ago, I sat down with my team and I said ‘We are going to get the Breeders’ Cup back at Churchill Downs,’” Flanery said Monday. “We did it for the people of this community and for the people of Churchill Downs, and we’re excited for this partnership to continue.
“Every time when Breeders’ Cup has said they’re going to go out and find the next track, we have consistently bid and let the Breeders’ Cup know that No. 1, we’re available and we want to be part of that experience. What we wanted was to make sure the Breeders’ Cup and everyone else understood that our door is always open. We’re trying to put on world class events and we have a great team that knows how to do that.”
Churchill Downs has taken its fair share of public relations hits in recent years, getting high-profile criticism from the owners of 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome among others for the perceived lack of customer service at the facility.
To that end, the track has implemented numerous improvements across the grounds — and with how it handles its key connections. Since 2010, Churchill Downs has spent $71.4 million on major capital improvements, including $18 million on Clubhouse enhancements, $13.9 million on its high-definition “Big Board” and $19.2 million on a Grandstand Terrance and Rooftop Garden.
Beginning in 2015, Churchill Downs also stepped up its perks for the connections of its Kentucky Derby contenders, offering 18 complimentary tickets in an Owner’s Winner Circle suite as well as courtesy drivers among its improved protocol.
“We get a lot of feedback, and if folks are unhappy about something, that’s what you hear,” Flanery said. “But you don’t just brush it off, you listen and sometimes what’s underneath being said is what’s important. I say that, we are trying to listen to the (General Admission) crowd to the Clubhouse crowd to the Mansion crowd to the trainers. You can’t make everyone happy, but we’re trying to take those steps every year.”
What ultimately sells Churchill Downs as an ideal Breeders’ Cup venue is it has unparalleled experience with being able to handle racing’s biggest days. While Breeders’ Cup president and CEO Craig Fravel lauded last year’s event at Keeneland, he said there was “unsatisfied demand” that came with having it at a smaller track.
“Churchill’s a much different experience than that,” Fravel said. “… and that’s why we're going to Santa Anita this year, where we have more room for the GA crowd.
“There is no substitute for experience and the Breeders’ Cup is a very different thing from day to day horse racing. I think Churchill, because they do the Oaks and Derby, they go from zero to 60 in 24 seconds every year and they know how to do this and they know how to adjust themselves and adapt to ever-changing environments. Not every racetrack has that depth of talent and ability to do that.”
Churchill Downs first hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 1988, back when the event was in its original single-day, seven-race format. That 1988 card has gone down as arguably the best in Breeders’ Cup history as it featured champion mare Personal Ensign earning a dramatic victory over Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to retire unbeaten in 13 career starts; and had eventual Horse of the Year Alysheba emerge from the darkness to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic and surpass John Henry at the time as the richest racehorse in North American history.
The Breeders’ Cup expanded to two days in 2007. Churchill Downs first hosted it in that format in 2010, and it ended up being the stage for one the most dramatic finishes ever in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when champion Blame handed eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta the first and only loss of her storied career.
Fravel did not disclose how many tracks put in bids for 2018, but he did say that, since tracks like Keeneland and Del Mar are now viable options going forward, he is doubtful the Breeders’ Cup would go back to the trend of having the same venue host in consecutive years in the near future. He added that the notion of the Breeders’ Cup returning to Belmont Park would be on hold until the reprivatization of the New York Racing Association is settled, but added that he has “every intention from my perspective” of the event eventually returning to Keeneland.
One of the immediate goals for Churchill Downs and Breeders’ Cup would be try and get the Kentucky General Assembly to reinstate a pari-mutuel wagering tax break for the 2018 event, something that was done for the 2015 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.
“It is important for Breeders’ Cup that we put that in place,” Flanery said. “We’ll go to the legislature in January of next year, and we’ll have some conversations between now and then. (The Breeders’ Cup) can go anywhere in the country, and … Kentucky is lucky they are in our backyard and we have the facilities to host it. We need to understand we are fortunate they are here and not take them for granted.”