Bob Elliston stood at the Keeneland podium Wednesday and acknowledged the obvious.
Between the stockpile of graded stakes at both Santa Anita and Belmont Park, between the international appeal of upcoming British Champions day at Ascot, it is as challenging as ever to lure the connections of top-quality horses to the 17-day Fall Meet. And it is because of such competition that the newly minted vice president of racing and sales at Keeneland was able to rattle off certain stats this week with a hearty grin.
“When you hear these fields that are being put together, I hasten to say that horses are coming from all over the world, all the over the United States to race at Keeneland’s Fall Stars weekend,” Elliston said. “And we’re getting probably more than our share, and that is something we are very prideful of.”
Keeneland officials can rightfully bang the drum of both quality and quantity on the eve of the 2016 Fall Meet as full fields and multiple graded stakes winners are set to grace patrons during the track’s 80th anniversary season of racing.
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A total of 334 horses passed the entry box for the first three cards, included a full gate of 14 for Friday’s $400,000 Darley Alcibiades — the first of six Grade I races to be contested during the meet. While reigning champion turf female Tepin stands as the headliner this weekend in the Grade I First Lady Stakes, there is also the presence of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian on Saturday in the Grade III Woodford Stakes, multiple Grade I winner I’m a Chatterbox for Sunday’s Grade I Juddmonte Spinster and the expected presence of Canadian Horse of the Year Catch a Glimpse in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on Oct. 15.
Where last year’s Fall Meet had the hook of leading into Keeneland hosting the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for the first time, it actually yielded across-the-board declines in handle and attendance compared to 2014 figures. While key indicators had been on a downward spin since that 2014 Fall Meet, momentum returned during the Spring Meet this April with all-sources handle up more than 23 percent and total attendance up 4.7 percent from its 2015 figures.
“The spring was amazing,” said Elliston, who joined Keeneland this summer after serving as executive vice president and COO of Breeders’ Cup Limited since 2012. “We were up nearly 25 percent in all sources handled, up in terms of attendance on track compared to spring of 2015. So, clearly, there was a halo from the extraordinary performance Keeneland put on in the (2015) Fall Meet and Breeders’ Cup weekend.
“I’m not sure we can do another 25 percent on top of Fall, but we’re taking efforts to try and do it. These are deep fields that just cry for wagering value and scream, ‘I have to play in that pool.’”
A total of 17 stakes worth $5.275 million will be contested during the Fall Meet, which runs through Oct. 29. Eight stakes are Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” races, which award an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 4-5 at Santa Anita Park.
“I think we have a great opportunity to grow handle, and our outreach is great for opening weekend,” Elliston said. “I think with all the promotions we’ve got, we’ve got an opportunity to hit the attendance number, too.”
Five things to watch this Keeneland Fall Meet
1. The awards ceremony for the inaugural Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards will take place on Oct. 7, opening day of the Fall Meet. The Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards presented by Godolphin recognize and reward the outstanding talent, diligence and commitment of the farm and racing stable staff who are at the heart of the sport.
2. From 2009-2013, the eventual winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint prepped in the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes. Eight fillies and mares are entered in the TCA on Saturday headlined by 6-5 favorite Stonetastic.
3. The Keeneland Shop has unveiled an all-new Merchandise Pavilion featuring a wide assortment of Keeneland-branded apparel and accessories for patrons to experience during the Fall Meet. The 4,000-square-foot Merchandise Pavilion, located near the track’s Grandstand East entrance, will be open race days from 10 a.m. until 30 minutes after the final post.
4. On opening Saturday, Keeneland will offer an All Stakes Pick Four and Pick Five Presented by TVG. Play the $350,000-guaranteed All Stakes Pick Four on races 6-9: Thoroughbred Club of America, First Lady, Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, and Shadwell Turf Mile. A $250,000-guaranteed All Stakes Pick Five on races 5-9 kicks off with the Woodford and includes the aforementioned stakes. The Friday Pick 4 Presented by TVG also returns this fall. On Friday, Oct. 7, 14 and 21, a $200,000-guaranteed Pick 4 will be held on the final four races of the day.
5. Keeneland celebrates “see blue” Day at the Races on Oct. 21 in advance of the University of Kentucky versus Mississippi State football game. Look for special Wildcats appearances on track throughout the day. UK students, alumni, faculty and staff receive free general admission and access to reserved grandstand seating with valid UK IDs.
Keeneland Fall Meet
Dates: Oct. 7-29 (No racing Monday or Tuesday)
Times: Gates open at 11 a.m. and first post is 1:05 p.m. each day.
This weekend: Fall Stars Weekend features nine graded stakes races worth $3.7 million over three days, including five Grade I races.