SBJ/Oct. 28-Nov. 3, 2013/In Depth

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  • Racing with the stars

    As the Breeders’ Cup prepares for its second straight year in California, the horse racing event is trying harder to tap into the favored local energy source — star power — as one way to drive growth.

    That’s just part of the plan to make the Breeders’ Cup, a two-day, 14-race event featuring the best horses in the world, more popular with casual fans.

    The Breeders’ Cup returns to Santa Anita after a successful event there in 2012.
    Photo by: JAMIE RHODES / BREEDERS' CUP
    The event has been a hit with hard-core horse racing fans since its debut in 1984, but it hasn’t captured the imagination of the general public the way that horse racing’s Triple Crown has. Those three springtime races, and especially the Kentucky Derby, have drawn big television ratings for NBC.

    The Derby has 138 years of history behind it, something the Breeders’ Cup can’t duplicate. But the Derby also has the reputation of a giant glitzy gala built around horse racing, and executives think there’s room on horse racing’s calendar for another social event beyond the first Saturday in May.

    With the Breeders’ Cup scheduled to be run at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles through 2014, throwing a party means inviting stars.

    For the 2013 edition, which will take place Friday and Saturday, broadcast partner NBC has reached out to actors and actresses not just in NBC television shows but also in the movies of fellow NBC Universal subsidiary Universal Pictures, said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports Group.

    When NBC airs the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the grand finale of the two-day event, in prime time Saturday night, the first half-hour of the show will focus heavily on the Hollywood glitz and glamour. NBC was still completing its lineup last week, but on-air talent from its entertainment properties, including “Access Hollywood” and the E! network are expected to host the first half of the show before turning it over to sportscaster Tom Hammond, who has covered the Breeders’ Cup for almost 30 years.

    The broadcast is expected to feature celebrities arriving at Santa Anita as well as making their picks for the Classic, run at a mile and a quarter and carrying a $5 million purse. The Breeders’ Cup Classic race itself is set to run at 8:35 ET.

    “There are a lot of celebrities who are coming, both sports celebrities and entertainment celebrities who will be there,” Miller said. “It will give you a flavor of what it is like to be in Southern California.”

    NBC Sports Network will carry the other 13 races.

    Miller gave credit to Breeders’ Cup officials for highlighting the social aspects of the event. “They realize they have this great sporting event here, but they have turned it into an actual celebration of the sport and a great event,” Miller said. “It is, basically, the closest thing you can come to a Derby-type theme, but in November and in Southern California. Nothing rivals Churchill Downs in May — nothing comes close to that — but this is a great event on its own.”

    Across the U.S., horse racing has been suffering for decades from declining attendance. But there are bright spots in the sport, including the race meets in the summer at Saratoga in upstate New York and Del Mar in the San Diego area, which are known as much for the party scene as they are for the horse racing. Craig Fravel managed the daily operation of Del Mar for more than 20 years before being named president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup in June 2011.

    “We are repositioning the Breeders’ Cup as a luxury brand and a lifestyle brand,” Fravel said. “And in a way that, really, horse racing has been positioned in the past. And certainly not unlike when I was at Del Mar, the way we positioned Del Mar, as an entertainment and lifestyle brand, and not just a horse racing brand.”

    Both Miller and Fravel stressed that the Breeders’ Cup was investing in not just entertainment but also high-quality racing. Breeders’ Cup officials have spent resources to make sure the best horses in the world can compete in the races. For the first time this year, the Breeders’ Cup is paying $40,000 travel allowances for foreign horses and $10,000 for domestic horses stabled outside of California to get them to Santa Anita.

    But the event also has invested in creating a festival by, among other things, bringing the best food and music to Santa Anita.

    There will be gourmet food trucks and celebrity chefs preparing food for fans. Some of the VIP areas of Santa Anita will offer food catered by Wolfgang Puck.

    In the infield of the track, an array of musical artists, including Kristin Chenoweth, Toni Braxton and Babyface, will perform between the million-dollar horse races.

    For the second year in a row, the Breeders’ Cup has enlisted sports and entertainment celebrities who are either racehorse owners or avid horse racing fans as official ambassadors for the event. These ambassadors, who include former Yankees and Dodgers manager Joe Torre, celebrity chef Bobby Flay, actress Elizabeth Banks, skateboarder Rob Dyrdek, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, actress Bo Derek, actress and singer Laura Bell Bundy, country music star Toby Keith and sports talk show host Jim Rome, will be at the event, welcoming people and talking horse racing.

    Breeders’ Cup officials want their event to be viewed like other glamorous, global sporting events, such as the Monaco Grand Prix, Royal Ascot and the Masters.

    “We aspire to be like the other major sports and we have to have some out-of-the box thinking, so that is what we are doing,” Fravel said.

    Elizabeth Banks and Jim Rome are to return as Breeders’ Cup official ambassadors this year.
    Photo by: LASKO PHOTOGRAPHY
    To that end, the Breeders’ Cup in the last few months has brought on executives with experience in other major sports:

    In May, the Breeders’ Cup hired Drew Sheinman, who has worked at Coca-Cola, Madison Square Garden and the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles, as senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

    In July, the Breeders’ Cup partnered with CR Media Ventures, a company founded by Chris Russo, who formerly worked at the NFL and NBC, to advise the property on building its
    Chef Bobby Flay (right) is an ambassador for the event, which will bring in gourmet food for fans.
    Photo by: MATT SAYLES / INVISION FOR BREEDERS' CUP
    digital properties, including fantasy games, social media and second-screen applications.

    In August, the Breeders’ Cup hired Front Row Marketing Services, a Comcast-Spectacor company run by Chris Lencheski, who has more than 20 years of marketing and licensing experience working with such properties as NASCAR, the NFL, MLB, the Olympics, Formula One and the American Le Mans Series.

    Russo is creating new games and promotions to grab the attention of the casual sports fan. This year, the Breeders’ Cup will give away $1 million to any fan who correctly picks in order the top 10 finishers of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in what they are calling “The Million Dollar Finish.” Fans can sign up online. Russo likens the game to brackets that millions of casual sports fans fill out during the NCAA basketball tournament in March.

    Russo, who had no horse racing experience before being hired as an adviser in July, said the two things that surprised him are the digital opportunities in horse racing as well as the people around the sport.

    “I am really surprised at how many celebrities and very prominent people are getting into the horse racing business. I wasn’t aware of that,” Russo said.

    Although the Breeders’ Cup and NBC are making an effort to showcase the human celebrities around the sport, they have always been there. There is a long history of famous people, from both sports and entertainment, owning racehorses. The late Bing Crosby was the first fan in the gate at Del Mar in 1937 and he wrote and sang its theme song, “Where the Surf Meets the Turf.”

    Breeders’ Cup ambassador and sports talk show host Rome won his first Breeders’ Cup race last year, when his filly Mizdirection came from last to first to beat the boys and win the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, a $1 million race. Rome said he agreed to be an official ambassador of the Breeders’ Cup because officials of the event asked him to be, but horse racing is a tough sell for sports fans.

    Rome is famous for saying that horse racing “is not a sport, it’s a bet,” but that all changed when he started going to the track, buying horses and winning races. “If you can get people to go there and experience it and sample it, you can kind of hook them, the same way I got hooked,” he said.

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  • NBC wants permanent site for Breeders’ Cup

    NBC Sports, which has the rights to broadcast all of horse racing’s major events in the U.S., has encouraged Breeders’ Cup officials to find a permanent site for the annual event, preferably in Southern California.

    “We have encouraged the Breeders’ Cup to find a home and stay with it a while, so you can really establish it as a destination,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for the NBC Sports Group. “It’s important for viewers. It’s important for sponsors, and for the media, to kind of understand, this is where it is going to be.”

    Miller has stated that NBC would like the event to remain in Southern California so that the network can take advantage of the daylight and weather on the West Coast and continue to broadcast the final race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, live at 8 p.m. ET.

    NBC, which also has the broadcast rights to horse racing’s Triple Crown, has a contract to televise the Breeders’ Cup through 2015.

    The Breeders’ Cup is set to be run at Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area through 2014, but it has not named a host track for 2015. The event historically has rotated among major thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S., with a stop in Canada in 1996.

    Asked about having a permanent host site for the event, Breeders’ Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel said, “That is one of the things we have kicked around, but I am not going to predict what we are going to do on that.” The Breeders’ Cup board is expected to make a decision on a site for the 2015 event in the first quarter of 2014, he said.

    In recent months another Southern California track, Del Mar racetrack in the San Diego area, has made a push to host. It has never been the site of the Breeders’ Cup.

    “They are both great tracks,” Miller said of Santa Anita and Del Mar. “Santa Anita has shown themselves to be a great venue for this, but I am sure Del Mar would do just as good a job. But our experience with Santa Anita has been terrific.”

    Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, also has bid for the Breeders’ Cup in recent years. Asked about the viability of broadcasting a prime-time Breeders’ Cup show from that Louisville, Ky.-based track, Miller said, “It depends on what the lighting was and time of year. We would certainly take a look at that, but you know, 8 o’clock is a long day on the East Coast.”

    — Liz Mullen


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  • NYRA’s chief faces some important decisions

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  • With ‘Mansion’ a hit, Churchill turns to infield

    The Monday morning after this year’s Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery’s phones were ringing from people who had paid one of the highest ticket prices in sports to watch the legendary race in “The Mansion.”

    The ultra premium area, where low-end tickets started at $7,000 a person, was filled with sports celebrities, entertainers and CEOs. This was the first year for The Mansion, which seats about 300 and offers gourmet food, concierge service and one of the best views of the track.

    A rendering shows the planned video board towering over the infield.
    Photo by: CHURCHILL DOWNS
    “It was a grand slam,” Flanery said of year one of the project, part of a $9 million renovation.

    “We had messages on our phone of people wanting to renew and extend their deal. Selling The Mansion is not one of the things that keeps me up at night,” he said.

    What does keep him up is finding a way to improve the overall experience for everyone who attends the annual race, which is run the first Saturday in May and attracts as many as 165,000 people. So Churchill Downs, in the last few months, has launched several initiatives at a cost of $27 million aimed at ramping up the experience for everyone at the track.

    While The Mansion is at the high end of the Kentucky Derby experience, on the other end of the spectrum is the infield, where about 60,000 people watch the race. Tickets for the area sold for as little as $40 this year.

    Earlier this month, Churchill announced plans to put in a 15,224-square-foot, high-definition video board, which the track is installing in partnership with Panasonic. When it is completed, in time for next year’s Derby, it will be larger than the video boards at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium and at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    “The most common thing you hear from people is, ‘I went to the Derby and I never saw a horse,’” Flanery said. “We are going to solve that, because we are going to put in place one of the world’s largest televisions. The infield customers, they are going to have one of the best seats in the house, because of this new television.”

    Churchill also announced plans to upgrade the facilities and amenities for 37 percent of the more than 50,000 permanent seats, as well as install 2,400 new seats. When the project is completed, the track will have 55,638 seats and 51,000 square feet of new space. The renovation will include a new “Rooftop Garden” area that will feature table seating and a VIP lounge, Flanery said.

    “One of the most important parts of the Kentucky Derby is the start of the race,” Flanery said. “So we are creating a VIP garden area right at the starting gate. People will be able to see the horses load, break from the gate, and see them when they turn for home, which is probably the most pivotal point in the race for many people.”

    Additionally, the renovation will include a new, 10,000-square-foot food and beverage plaza. Churchill Downs, which opened in 1875, is also upgrading areas of the track that have been untouched for six decades, including installing nine new restrooms and state-of-the-art wagering areas.

    For Churchill, it is a continuing process. The track has invested more than $160 million in new construction and renovations since 2001.

    “What we are focused on is anyone who is at the track has a great time,” he said.

    “We want everyone who leaves to say, ‘That was fun.’”

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  • After success in prime time, NBC fine-tunes

    When NBC returned as the host network for the 2012 Breeders’ Cup after a six-year absence, the network was ready to make some changes and take some chances.

    Most significant was the first airing of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in prime time. The hourlong telecast followed 8½ hours of coverage over two days of the 14 other Breeders’ Cup races on NBC Sports Network. The prime-time results were positive, with the Classic portion of the NBC broadcast receiving a 2.0 rating and drawing 3.1 million viewers. On ESPN in 2011, the rating was 1.0 (1.6 million viewers).

    NBC and NBC Sports Network will be back again this weekend to air the Breeders’ Cup races on Friday and Saturday from Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. NBC Sports Network will broadcast five races from 4 to 8 p.m. ET on Friday and seven races on Saturday from 3:30 to 8 p.m. NBC will take over for the final hour Saturday from 8 to 9 p.m. for the airing of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. NBC Sports Network will also air the first race of the day Saturday at 3:05 p.m. during the Notre Dame football pregame show. The total number of races was reduced to 14 after the Juvenile Sprint was dropped for 2013.

    Tom Hammond (left) and Randy Moss (right) return from NBC’s Breeders’ Cup coverage last year, but jockey Gary Stevens will be back in the saddle.
    Photo by: BRIAN BOHANNON / NBC
    “The first prime-time event last year went really well, but we’re always looking for ways to fine-tune the broadcast,” said Rob Hyland, NBC’s producer for horse racing coverage, which also includes all three Triple Crown races in the spring. “I always watch the show afterward to see where we can get better.”

    NBC regained the rights to the Breeders’ Cup in 2012 after ESPN held them from 2006 to ’11. Prior to ESPN’s getting the telecast, NBC had aired every Breeders’ Cup since the event’s inception in 1984.
    Laffit Pincay III (left) is part of NBC’s coverage team. NBC Sports Network will carry 13 races, and NBC will again show the Breeders’ Cup Classic in prime time.
    Photo by: BILL DRINKWATER / NBC

    The 2013 edition marks the event’s 30th running. That will be a major focus for NBC, which will show highlights of memorable moments.

    In another change for NBC, it will be using its own race caller, Larry Collmus, on all Breeders’ Cup races. Last year, Coll-mus called the biggest race each day — the Ladies Classic on Friday and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. Trevor Denman, the regular race caller at Santa Anita Park and the caller for ESPN from 2006 to ’11, called the other races. Collmus is the regular race caller at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and Gulfstream Park in Florida.

    “Trevor did a great job, but Larry is our caller on the Triple Crown races, so we felt we wanted him to be our guy for all the Breeders’ Cup races this year,” Hyland said.

    Another person excited about NBC’s return to the Breeders’ Cup is broadcaster Tom Hammond. Hammond was a part of every Breeders’ Cup telecast for NBC from 1984 to 2005, with the exception of 2002, when he was recovering from surgery. In fact, Hammond’s first assignment for NBC was the 1984 Breeders’ Cup as a freelancer. He was hired full time soon after and has been with the network for 30 years, broadcasting horse racing, college and NFL football, and the Olympics.

    “I was obviously elated when we got the broadcast back,” Hammond said. “It was disappointing to lose the event in 2005, but I was hopeful we’d get it back someday. But once we got it back, then we had to figure out how we’re going to broadcast this. The event had changed so much in six years, with the expansion to two days and more racing. It was going to be a challenge.”

    The Breeders’ Cup expanded to two days in 2007.

    Hammond has been around horse racing his entire life and career. He was born in Lexington, Ky., and still makes his home there. He had done work in the racing field during his early broadcasting years in Kentucky before getting the NBC assignment in 1984.

    “The big concern NBC had in the first year was how we were going to fill the time between races,” Hammond said. “A racing broadcast this long had never been done before and they were worried about the time between races. As it turned out, we didn’t have enough time. You would just finish the race, interview the winners, and you were on to the next race. It didn’t leave much time for analysis and replays.

    “Today, we have a little more time between races, so that helps.”

    Hammond will be joined on the broadcasts by co-host Laffit Pincay III, racing expert Randy Moss, and retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, among others. NBC also used Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens in 2012 as an analyst, but Stevens recently returned to riding and has several top mounts for the two days, so he’ll be unavailable.

    “We’ll miss Gary, but it’s great to have another hall-of-famer in Jerry Bailey on the broadcast,” Hammond said. “We’ll have plenty of great features to air. I’ve found, in my experience, other than the Olympics, I think horse racing has the best stories. There are so many areas to explore, with the owners, trainers and jockeys.”

    The racing broadcast is quite different than the other sports Hyland has produced and Hammond has worked on. With so many races at different distances, the broadcast team has to alter course every 40 minutes or so with each race.

    “There’s so many variables with horses,” Hyland said. “You need to be ready to react at any time. They are obviously fragile animals and anything can happen. This can turn into a news event very quickly.”
    Digital connection

    NBC Sports Live Extra — the NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices and tablets — will stream Breeders’ Cup coverage from NBC and NBC Sports Network.

    For desktops, NBC Sports Live Extra can be accessed at NBCSports.com/liveextra. The NBC Sports Live Extra app for mobile devices and tablets is available at the App Store for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, and on select Android handset and tablet devices within Google Play. NBC Sports Live Extra will offer full replays of all streamed races.


    With the expansion of the Breeders’ Cup in recent years, the broadcasts have also gotten longer. That allows more time for stories and features that might have been rushed in prior years. When the Breeders’ Cup first started on NBC in 1984, the races were packed into tighter windows, usually 7 or 8 races over 4 or 4½ hours.

    “The expansion of days and time allows us to tell a nice story or do a cool preview story,” Hyland said. “It still goes by pretty quickly. The flow is very fast.”

    Hyland was excited last year to debut a gyro-stabilized camera during the broadcast. This camera sits in an SUV and rides on the inside of the dirt track at Santa Anita, giving fans a chance to see the race from ground level as if they are on the inside rail.

    Hyland started at NBC in 1997, and his first racing broadcast was 2001, when NBC aired its first Kentucky Derby. He’s been the main producer for NBC’s horse racing coverage since 2006.

    With most of the coverage on NBC Sports Network, Hyland adjusts the style of the telecast once the show shifts to NBC for the final hour.

    “The prime-time show is not really aimed at the hard-core fan,” Hyland said. “We have those fans there for the Classic. What we’re trying to do in that hour is get people in that might not normally watch a horse race to stop in. Then, we want to keep them there. So we do some stories and provide information to help the novice fan.”

    Having worked on the broadcast since the start makes the event extra special for Hammond. The Breeders’ Cup was the idea of John Gaines, a longtime racing executive and businessman. Gaines died in 2005.

    “I still remember, at the end of the first broadcast in 1984, John came up to me and gave me a big bear hug,” Hammond said. “I think we both realized racing had something special in this event.”

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  • To attract younger fans, Santa Anita restores old luxury

    Santa Anita Park has completed a $15 million facelift covering multiple venues at the 79-year-old horse racing track.

    The track plays host to this year’s Breeders’ Cup, and the sport’s richest event drove the project as well as the need to upgrade spaces to attract the younger generation to Santa Anita, said Tom Ludt, senior vice president of racing and gaming for the Stronach Group, the track’s owner. It has been more than 10 years since portions of the track were renovated at a building that covers more than 1 million square feet of space under the roof, Ludt said.

    Topping the project was the renovation of the Chandelier Room near the finish line.
    Photo by: SHAWMUT DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
    The improvements, squeezed into a 13-week construction process, cover 68,500 square feet. Topping the project were renovations to the Chandelier Room, spanning two central rooms close to the finish line. An outdoor balcony was built at the top of the two existing staircases, facing the track and providing views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

    The room’s four chandeliers, 15 feet high and eight feet wide, were restored to their 1930s splendor and the original bar was kept intact to maintain the rooms’ vintage feel, said Randy Shelly, vice president of hospitality and sports venues for Shawmut Design and Construction, the project’s general contractor.

    The largest space renovated was the inner mezzanine, a 350-foot-long room that serves as Santa Anita’s main betting hall. It was gutted and rebuilt with new concession stands, including a horseshoe-shaped bar, and more betting stations, said Walt Carucci, Shawmut’s project executive. The room also contains most of the 140 new high-definition televisions installed at the track as part of the renovations, Carucci said. Those TVs can be programmed and operated with iPads, he said.

    The old Arcadia Suite, a VIP space on the far east side of the track, was remodeled and renamed the Eddie Logan Suite in honor of a shoeshine vendor who worked at Santa Anita for 75 years until his death in 2009. The suite was expanded with more outdoor seating.

    In addition, the 750 owners boxes outdoors were renovated. Those seats take up about one-third of the stadium area at the facility, which has 70,000 seats.

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