John Clay

How did Keeneland get the Breeders’ Cup again? By first proving the skeptics wrong.

The significance of the Breeders’ Cup returning to Keeneland

Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason talked Friday, August 17, 2018, about the announcement that the Breeders’ Cup will be returning to Lexington and the track in 2020. Keeneland first played host to the Breeders’ Cup in 2015.
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Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason talked Friday, August 17, 2018, about the announcement that the Breeders’ Cup will be returning to Lexington and the track in 2020. Keeneland first played host to the Breeders’ Cup in 2015.

It’s a compliment to be chosen for something.

It’s affirmation to be chosen again.

So it is for the Keeneland Race Course, which played host to the 2015 Breeders’ Cup amid a sizable amount of skepticism from the Thoroughbred racing community at large. Was the facility big enough to handle the size of the crowd? Was the city sophisticated enough to handle the magnitude of the event? Was a so-called boutique track like Keeneland up to the task?

By all appearances, that first Keeneland Breeders’ Cup answered those questions and then some. Reviewers raved. Patrons seemed pleased. Traffic was not nearly the problem many predicted it would be. As American Pharoah romped home to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and complete the sport’s first Grand Slam, a good time was had by all. Or so we thought.

But we never really knew if those good feelings were shared by others or just a product of skewed hometown pride. Until this week, that is. That’s when the real verdict was delivered. That’s when the Breeders’ Cup announced it will be coming back to Keeneland in 2020.

“From the Breeders’ Cup standpoint and our standpoint, this was really the first window where we could get it again,” Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said Friday at the official announcement inside the Keeneland Sales Pavilion. “We all jumped at it.”

Breeders' Cup Chairman Fred Hertrich, joined by dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and Mayor Jim Gray, officially announced that the 2020 Breeders' Cup would be returning to Keeneland for the second time after previously hosting it in 2015.

Being the man in charge in 2015, was Thomason confident that Keeneland would get to host the event again?

“I knew we were going to get it,” Thomason said. “If I had to say anything surprised me, I won’t say surprised me, but we used a lot of community resources and sponsors at a level this community is actually not used to. This is a world event here. Therefore, the pricing of things was more, which is what it had to be.”

Yet, as soon as the 2015 Cup was over, those sponsors informed Thomason they were ready to do it again. Plus, he said, sponsors who had taken a pass on the first go-around expressed regret at missing out and vowed not to make the same mistake twice.

“They said, ‘I had no idea what this was, had no idea what was getting ready to happen. I missed it. My fault, please get me on the list,’’ Thomason said. “That’s when I knew we could do it again.”

And do it better, if for no other reason than having had the experience of doing it once before, of turning the skeptics into believers.

“We had everything thrown at us (in 2015),” Thomason said. “We had an event going on at the Horse Park. We had the Breeders’ Cup happening over three days. We had a (Kentucky) football game that night.”

Bad weather three years ago shelved some of the city’s entertainment plans for the week leading up to the races on Friday and Saturday. The hope is for better meteorological luck two years from now.

Other than that, not much will change. The chalets that proved popular in 2015 will return. Keeneland’s famous September Thoroughbred sales will continue without disruption. Eastern Daylight Time will have already switched back to Eastern Standard Time, so the Classic will again go off as the last race of the day at or around 5:20 p.m.

Churchill Downs, which plays host to this year’s Breeders’ Cup, has the benefit of lights, so the races can be run later in the day. Keeneland studied that possibility but deemed the task of importing temporary lights as both impractical and unnecessary.

To be sure, the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic will have a tall order topping the 2015 Classic. American Pharoah was the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years when he arrived at his barn off Rice Road. A superstar was in our midst. And coming off a disappointing loss in the Travers, Pharoah needed a Classic win not just to retire on top, but to affirm his standing in the sport. Before a record crowd of 50,155, he did just that.

Three years later, Keeneland received its affirmation of a job well done by being selected for a repeat performance. The Breeders’ Cup is coming back.

Fans at Keeneland in Lexington reacted to American Pharoah's historic win in the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2015.

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