Keeneland president on Breeders' Cup: 'There's never been a time like this for Lexington'

Bill Thomason
Bill Thomason

The Breeders' Cup takes over Lexington in just under two weeks. It's a huge event for the city but especially so for Keeneland, Lexington's classic Thoroughbred race track and host of this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships.

Tom Martin talked with Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason.

Martin: Can you put this event in perspective for us? Just how big is it?

Thomason: We're getting ready to experience the best racehorses in America and around the world along with the best jockeys in the world. There's never been a time like this for Lexington.

Q&A: Non-profit seeks to promote and sell the experience of Kentucky's Horse Country

Martin: The downtown festivities begin next weekend. The racing begins a few days after. What does the track look like now?

Thomason: We have drawn on resources from all across the region and it's things that you might not even expect. We are adding facilities for an additional 10,000 people at Keeneland in luxury villas and very beautiful surroundings. So it's an enormous event and it has truly taken a regional approach to make sure that we pulled off a spectacular event.

Martin: This must be a boom time for businesses that rent things.

Thomason: As I understand it there were some groups trying to find port-a-potties for other events in Lexington that they could not find so I think we have helped the southern Ohio economy since people have had to go out of the state to get certain items.

Martin: Keeneland is a very special place. Is there a strategy to maintain that boutique ambience while you're accommodating a sellout crowd?

Thomason: Absolutely. It was one of the things that we looked at early on when we agreed to have the Breeders' Cup. The historic nature of Keeneland is something that everybody feels very much attached to and it is very special. What we're excited about is that the temporary luxury facilities around the grounds have really fit into the environment.

We've given some unique views. Our saddling paddock chalet has received rave reviews from everyone who has been in it. It gets you very close to the horse, which is what Keeneland is all about. Our facilities are designed with our fans and our patrons in mind. The important thing to us is that we give the opportunity for our fans to experience the horse.

Martin: The chalets that you're referencing, they're temporary structures?

Thomason: They are. It's hard to call them temporary structures — when you get inside them they all have wood paneling, tall ceilings. We've built the first three-story temporary structure that's ever been built at a sporting event in North America. It gives incredible views of the race course.

Martin: Ticket distribution, transportation, food service; have there been any issues or challenges in those areas?

Thomason: Everything that we have done is building on the future. The people helping us plan transportation are the same group who help do the transportation plans for the Super Bowl. They are putting together all of our bus routes and bus parking. For our food service we found TPC Sawgrass that does very upper-end PGA events. They are superb caterers, excellent food service. We were involved with them about 18 months ago to make sure that we had the group that would fit the quality and expectations of what we are trying to do. So we've brought in that level of expertise for every facet of our planning all with the intention that it's not going to be just for this one event. We hope that a lot of these things you're going to see are carried forward into the future.

Martin: The Breeders' Cup is arriving in Lexington just at a moment when many of our horse farms are searching for ways to grow the fan base for horse racing. Those efforts stem at least in part from a 2011 Jockey Club report on the state of the industry. It was pretty sobering. Is there any connection between the findings of that report and its recommendations and the decision to bring an event such as this highly prestigious one to Lexington?

Thomason: Yes. The McKinsey report that the Jockey Club had done highlighted the importance of a number of things critical to the growth of our industry. And one is fan development, which we've been working on for quite some time. They started a program called America's Best Racing which had its roots at Keeneland, Saratoga, some of the more historic racetracks around the country who we think do a very good job of attracting young fans and providing a great fan experience. And so we work together with them to find unique and different ways that we can engage this fan base.

Martin: That McKinsey report did cite an aging fan base compared with football, baseball or basketball. What else is going on at Keeneland that is meant to attract a younger fan base?

Thomason: We have a wonderful tailgating experience for our fans: big screen television, mutual windows and great food offerings. But then we also provide an opportunity for them to come from a tailgating area next to the track. Again it's important to get them close to the horse to create that lifelong fan. We have college days. We have ambassadors on all of our college campuses surrounding Lexington that engage with the student population. They have various contests. They design our shirts for college day. They come in for special days for giveaways with some special partners that we think students connect with. ... Our social media keeps our young people engaged. Our age group of 18 to 35 is something we're very proud of. We've got a lot of young people involved in racing at Keeneland.

Martin: Another response by Thoroughbred farms in the area is the establishment of Horse Country, a not-for-profit recently set up to offer equine tourism experiences to the public. Accommodating tourists can be a real challenge for horse farms, yet quite a few have signed on and are getting ready for it. Do you think this can help improve interest among a younger fan base as well?

Thomason: Absolutely. I'm so happy with what Horse Country has been able to achieve and they've really done it through a grassroots effort with our horse farms. We have the most beautiful countryside in America. The one thing we've been missing is for fans to connect to the horse. We've had a difficult time because they're commercial operations. And they've got very valuable animals and they've got to protect those valuable animals and the owners of those animals. So they've been able to find a way to engage the public and open up the farms and let them experience the horse in their natural environment. I think it's going to be a tremendous boon to our fans to be able to get close to the horses; see how they're cared for. The best horses in the world are raised within 30 miles of the center of downtown Lexington and it's going to be important for all of our community to be able to have a better connection with those horses and I think they'll come to appreciate it more.

Martin: Back to the Breeders' Cup. Is Keeneland ready?

Thomason: We are ready. We've got an incredible team, and one of the things that was humbling to me: before a meet starts we get all of our guest service people together for an orientation. We had triple the number of people at that orientation than I have seen since I have been at Keeneland. When I looked across that room at the hundreds of people who had been involved with taking care of our great fans when they come to the races, the excitement on their faces about what we were doing, why we were doing it, what it meant to Lexington, what it meant to all of our businesses here, how it connects with all the people who are going to be coming in from 50 different countries for our racing and then who will be here right after the Breeders' Cup is finished for the most important breeding stock sale in the world. There is a great community and regional pride in what we're getting ready to put on here and I'm very proud of everybody who's involved and appreciative.