When it was announced last June 24 that the Breeders' Cup World Championships would be hosted by Keeneland for the first time in 2015, one could almost feel the pulse of the Thoroughbred capital of the world jump.
Three weeks out from the event's self-proclaimed "Homecoming" Breeders' Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel sat down for an interview with the Herald-Leader to discuss what it took to get the boutique track ready for the two-day championships and what it's going to take for the exercise to be considered a success.
Question: How does the level of preparation that it has taken to get Keeneland ready for this Breeders' Cup compare to other smaller venues/former host sites like Monmouth and Lone Star?
Answer: "I'm probably the wrong person to ask that question of since I wasn't here for either Lone Star or Monmouth. But I'm guessing it's probably about the same. I attended Arlington and I went to Lone Star and there were lots of temporary facilities all around the racetrack. Ours are kind of up the stretch and focused on high-end seating and enhancements in the box areas. In those places, there were bleachers all around, almost surrounding the track in some situations. This one is probably a little more manageable than those were."
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Q: How long ago did Keeneland have its plan in place?
A: "Our board approved going to Keeneland in June 2014. And prior to that point in time, there had been a number of meetings between senior management and Keeneland from a financial and operational standpoint to figure out what the campus would look like in terms of temporary infrastructure and how long that would take, how much it would cost and how much we thought we could see it for. I think that was probably several months before June last year. We've been at this long and hard probably since March of 2014."
Q: What were some of the major concerns when the Breeders' Cup was considering Keeneland? Was it capacity? Hospitality structure?
A: "Keep in mind that the years we were in smaller venues in the past, I think there was something of a different era in the event management and public contribution to events. When I say that I mean there were financial incentives at Monmouth Park and Arlington and Texas that came from either local or state government to make things more attractive to go there. I know New Jersey put $10 million into the surfaces at Monmouth Park prior to going there and there was a certain level of guaranteed revenue from the overall event regardless of the weather. This one is different because it's really just us and Keeneland trying to figure out how much it costs to put it on, what is needed and what we can get from it revenue-wise. We're getting a little bit of help in terms of some marketing funds that the state of Kentucky has. But it's just us trying to figure out if it was practical and it looks like it is."
Q: From a revenue standpoint, how well is it doing and how well is it expected to do? Believe we heard that ticket sales have doubled in terms of revenue.
A: "They haven't been doubled yet. Previously, our top revenue number from ticket sales was around $10 million and it would have been at Churchill Downs. As of this morning (Oct. 12) we're somewhere over $19 million at least when we project in our sales to participating horsemen. We're hoping we might hit double but we're very happy with where we are. The amount of inventory that is left is, I think there are 170 some seats in the Bourbon Lounge for Friday, very little left for Saturday."
Q: And on-track seats, is all of that spoken for?
A: "Every time we go to a venue we have what is called horsemen's holds. With 13 races, we have to be able to accommodate the needs of the participating horsemen so we hold about 3,000 seats back to be able to have those for people. That's what we're working on right now, or we will be after we take pre-entries."
Q: What has the international reaction been like? Has anything changed as far as recruiting for this year goes?
A: "No. We continued with having Josh Christian, who is our director of racing in Europe, beginning with the Royal Ascot meeting. So that outreach has been pretty much the same. People are very familiar with Keeneland because so many come here for the sales. I do think they look at it a little differently, it's a more pure racing play combined with coming for the sales. California, when we go there, it's a little like 'I'm going to take a fall break and go somewhere where the sun shines' and go shopping on Rodeo Drive. It's a little different outlook but hopefully it doesn't impact us in the entry box."
Q: I know there are a lot of VIP events taking place to enhance the experience of those participants. What is being done for the average fan to enhance their experience both in the community and at the track?
A: "One thing I will say is we've always had events for our participants and the menu of events for them is very much as it has been in the past. Some of the same kind of parties, although one of the major differences at this event is some of the farms themselves have said we'd like to host the events. But what I think is really different about this event more than anything else is the level of community participation and community activity that will surround it. Starting that Sunday before the Breeders' Cup there will be something going on downtown, from every art museum and art display, music every night, farm tours and bourbon tours. In California, there really isn't that much going on at Santa Anita that relates to the fans themselves."
Q: What about at the track itself, to make sure to make sure fans aren't waiting in long lines, trying to facilitate all those things for the average fan?
A: "If you think about how Keeneland is for the Blue Grass, we'll have roughly the same number of people on the entire campus but there will be so many individual venues for people that they'll be spread out over a much larger footprint than they would be for Blue Grass. Probably the most meaningful thing we've done is limit the general admission crowd to 10,000. And there is plenty of room for them to make themselves at home on the first floor and back around the paddock."
Q: What is it going to take for this Breeders' Cup to be considered a successful event and should we expect to see it back here in the foreseeable future?
A: "I guess that depends on what you call foreseeable. Right now, sometime toward the end of this year and early first quarter next year we'll be deciding what we're going to do in 2018. Once we've had the chance to evaluate our own performance and how Keeneland has performed as a venue, then we'll be taking a look at what we decide to do in 2018, 2019 or 2020. I personally like to be able to focus on a schedule between now and 2020 if we can do that."
Q: Is the idea of a permanent host site still in play?
A: "I don't think it's off the table forever. But one of the things we very specifically wanted to do was try out new venues, Keeneland and Del Mar specifically. We love Santa Anita, Churchill has been more than clear about their intentions about the Breeders' Cup coming back. They've been great. But I'd say for the next couple years, chatter about a permanent host site is kind of back-burnered. What we need to do is see how the venues we've chosen perform and make long-term decisions based on the performance of the various venues we have available to us."
Q: How much last second tweaking can be done between now and Oct. 30? Did what happened with the Luke Bryan concert spook you at all?
A: "That didn't spook me even for half a second. Now I wasn't stuck in it. But there is a huge difference between having a four-lane road and a number of different exits and shuttle service. City, state and local government has been hugely cooperative with making sure that traffic plans are well thought out."
Q: What kind of voodoo did you work to get a Triple Crown winner (American Pharoah) and a champion filly (Beholder) in the first year that it comes to Keeneland?
A: "Until they're in the starting gate I'm not going to count my chickens. I happen to love both horses, they are really special animals and if they both start and run their race, it could be one for the ages."
Q: Pound for pound, if everyone shows up, could this be called the best Classic field ever assembled?
A: "I probably would. By virtue of the fact the Breeders' Cup didn't start until 1984, we've never had a Triple Crown winner. That steps it up in terms of the public's perception about it. The mare is awesome, then there are a bunch of other horses not to be forgotten. I think it will be if not the top one, right in the top three."
Q: The weather is the one thing that could play the biggest factor that no one can control. Are there any contingency plans in place as far as parking up on The Hill if it gets really terrible out there?
A: "My wife always tells me that you have to think positively. Obviously we have standby equipment to help out of if there are issues like that — and I haven't started looking at 10-day forecasts yet."