So. This is the day we all wake up to what we thought we'd never see at Keeneland: the first of three days culminating with the two-day, $26 million Breeders' Cup. We've had the famous here before (Liz Taylor, Hammer, and even Queen Elizabeth II at Keeneland). We've had the rich (we learned our Greek shipping tycoons from our British soccer pools magnates). We even learned how to spell Dubai. But we've never had anything to draw the jet set quite like the Breeders' Cup.
Oh, the wonders you see if you stick around long enough.
Back in the day, in this case the early 1980s, Lexington didn't know it but it was practicing for this very weekend. Dahlings, we practiced gawking at the famous and the rich and we got pretty good at it. Internationals descended on our then-sleepy little town because they all were after the same thing, and it wasn't a Hermes bag for their wives or girlfriends. They wanted Northern Dancer offspring, something you couldn't buy in Tokyo or London.
So many gawkers trekked to the Keeneland sales pavilion that Keeneland had to ask the public to stay away. People partied like this auction fever would never end. But at least one man feared that it would and the results would be disastrous.
This was John Gaines, developer of Gainesway Farm, who wanted racing to have its own Super Bowl. More seriously, he hoped to avert the market crash he foresaw if this auction bubble burst. He feared harm to the horse business because sales yearlings could not possibly earn back their purchase prices on the racetracks. How could they, when the only race offering a million-dollar purse was the Arlington Million, raced near Chicago.
The Breeders' Cup changed Thoroughbred racing, beginning with a $10 million, single day of racing that proved influential from the start in determining year-end championships. Over the years the event evolved into a two-day marathon worth $26 million. A lot has changed over 31 years of Breeders' Cup history. Great horses have come and gone and so have a few racetracks like Hollywood Park, site of the inaugural Cup in 1984. What never changed was the belief that Keeneland would ever host the event. Not in a million years.
To most racing fans, this seemed absurd. How could an event conceived in Lexington, headquartered in Lexington, and supported financially in large part by Central Kentucky horse breeders live out a peripatetic existence racing everywhere but Lexington? Over the years the Cup has raced at Hollywood, Aqueduct, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park, Woodbine, Belmont Park, Arlington, Lone Star Park, and Monmouth Park, with a number of these tracks holding repeat engagements.
Even stranger was that for a long time, Keeneland did not seem interested in hosting the Breeders' Cup. Ted Bassett, who was Keeneland chairman in the early years of Breeders' Cup, said repeatedly that Keeneland was too small to meet Breeders' Cup seating requirements. More, track officers feared that large crowds would overwhelm Keeneland, leading to poor fan experiences, thus tarnishing the track's golden reputation.
Truthfully, Keeneland could not have handled something like the 40,617 persons who set an attendance record in April 2012. Since those early Breeders' Cup years, however, Keene land underwent expansion and remodeling. Tent engineering advanced. The three-story tented chalet on Keeneland's far turn will be the first temporary structure of that many levels used at a North American sporting event.
Breeders' Cup probably would not have considered a venue application from Keeneland in those early years, even though Keene land and Breeders' Cup board members often were the same. Breeders' Cup was trying to establish itself by aggressively pursuing record-size crowds. New York and Los Angeles were choice markets.
Time saw more changes: Thirty percent of the Breeders' Cup betting handle is now advance deposit wagering, negating the need for a record crowd. Breeders' Cup has undergone a philosophical change, focusing more on the fan experience now than on the record numbers. Breeders' Cup has learned its market: insider fans and wealthy global players. The event no longer seeks Kentucky Derby-sized crowds. Where once Keeneland could not fit the Breeders' Cup mold, it now seems a perfect fit.
So, here we are. Welcoming Breeders' Cup and all the international players drawn to the event in this place we never thought we'd be. I haven't spotted any rich women in furs walking their Chinese hairless dogs the length of the grandstand apron. Yet. But I have seen plenty of brochures touting the benefits of "sensible, intelligent private aviation." You mean they don't have to take off their shoes?
I will witness this Breeders' Cup at Keeneland enveloped in the mystic chords of my memories: races like the inaugural Classic, with Wild Again, Gate Dancer and Slew o' Gold battling it out and Wild Again emerging the much-disputed winner; Personal Ensign defeating Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the 1988 Distaff at Churchill Downs; Alysheba winning the Classic that year; Sunday Silence defeating Easy Goer a year later in the Classic at Gulfstream Park; Da Hoss winning the 1998 Mile ... and so on through Zenyatta nearly winning the 2010 Classic, edged out by Blame.
I am confident that Keeneland not only will pull off the Breeders' Cup with élan; Breeders' Cup moments will emerge from this venue as they have from all the other places this event has raced. It's been a long time coming. But the wait, I'm sure, will be worth it.