The 28th Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s annual championship event, officially kicks off Friday, but the real party will get started on Thursday night, when celebrity chef Bobby Flay hosts a gourmet food event for a select group of thoroughbred racehorse owners at a private jet hangar near Churchill Downs.
“It’s a very hot ticket,” said Barry Weisbord, who, along with Flay, serves as co-chair of the new Breeders’ Cup enhanced experience committee, which was formed in January. “What our committee is charged with is creating a better customer experience, not just for the fans, but the owners, trainers and handicappers.”
The Breeders' Cup will involve 15 races with purses totaling $25.5 million.
“In the next five years, one of our principal objectives is to make sure this is one of the major sporting events in the world,” Fravel said. “There is a big focus in the Breeders’ Cup to make sure the experience of the event is equal to the quality of the racing.”
The owners of the more than 150 horses entered in Breeders’ Cup races will be invited to the Flay-hosted gourmet food event, featuring food from more than a dozen of the countries from which the horses or their owners hail. Flay essentially will be serving his peers in that he’s also a racehorse owner. Additionally, this year’s Breeders’ Cup will include a special hospitality suite for champagne toasts for the winning Breeders’ Cup racehorse owners and the large entourages they bring with them.
The Breeders’ Cup hired an additional announcer to interview race winners and celebrities to capture what Weisbord calls the “feeling of frivolity” in Churchill’s historic Twin Spires building on television screens around Churchill Downs, instead of just the usual television shots of a horse’s betting odds and race replays.
The Breeders’ Cup began its expansion into more days, more races and other festivities about five years ago, and it has paid off. Since 2005, the event has seen steady increases in attendance, wagering dollars bet on the races, and ticket sales (see chart).
Since 2006, television viewership has increased every year, with a spike coming last year, mainly as a result of
Zenyatta created tons of media buzz around last year's event.
“The biggest challenge in the current year is living up to the hype without Zenyatta,” Fravel said, adding that this year’s event won’t feature a “singular attraction” like an undefeated racehorse that some have said was the best female racehorse ever.
“Last year was probably the most coverage we had on our news and information show because of the story involving Zenyatta,” said Mike McQuade, ESPN coordinating producer of Breeders’ Cup coverage for the network.
The Breeders’ Cup signed a seven-year deal with ESPN to televise its races, beginning in 2007. Part of the reason it switched from NBC to ESPN was a desire for the event to be covered on the same network that broadcasts more popular U.S. sports and “SportsCenter,” said Greg Avioli, former president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup who left this year to run The Stronach Group, which owns several racetracks including Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park.
“What we really loved were the live promotions during ‘College GameDay,’” Avioli said. “It brought our event more into the mainstream and integrated it with the major sports ESPN was covering.”
Also on the media side, the Breeders’ Cup plans to launch a number of social media initiatives leading up to the event to get the attention of sports fans who are not core horse racing fans, said Peter Rotondo, Breeders’ Cup vice president of media and entertainment.
“You really don’t need to know much about horse racing to participate,” Rotondo said about all the new media initiatives. “Basically, you want to engage a new audience through the way we live now, social media.”
Breeders’ Cup officials not only want to be a major U.S. sports event, but a major global horse racing event and compete with other international races, such as Royal Ascot, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Melbourne Cup and the Dubai World Cup.
Pleasing thoroughbred race owners with parties and champagne toasts in hospitality suites is not just for fun, it’s serious business as other international horse racing events pay to ship horses to the event, as well as cover travel costs for the horse’s human connections.
The Breeders’ Cup started a “Win and You’re In” program in 2007, giving horses that win certain major U.S. races anautomatic berth in a Breeders’ Cup race. Since then the Breeders’ Cup has increased the number of races in the program, also known as Breeders’ Cup Challenge, to more international races. This year, for the first time, the Breeders’ Cup is giving owners of horses who win those races money toward the expense of shipping their thoroughbreds to the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, Ky. A U.S.-based Challenge winner receives a $10,000 shipping allowance; owners of non-U.S. Challenge winners receive a $20,000 shipping allowance.
The efforts aimed at owners are only part of how the Breeders’ Cup is boosting the entertainment options for all of those who attend the event. Raising the stature of the event requires keeping up with the nonhorse racing entertainment rolled out for fans at other marquee international events.
For example last year, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who created the Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world, engaged not one rock legend, but two — Elton John and Santana — to play after the day of races.
“Sheikh Mohammed puts on a halftime show in Dubai that knocks your socks off,” Weisbord said.
In your opinion, which of the following would most increase casual fan interest in horse racing?
|A Triple Crown winner||51%|
|Consistent presence in mainstream media||25%|
|More advertising by the industry||5%|
|Promotions involving fan giveaways tied to winning horses||3%|
|More focus on the horses’ backgrounds||1%|
|More focus on the jockeys’ backgrounds||1%|
|Not sure / No opinion||12%|
Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
Next year, the Breeders’ Cup plans to hire a major music act to play before the Classic when it is held at Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area, Weisbord revealed. “We are talking about a big act,” he said, adding, “there have been informal talks with a number of talent representatives.”
Looking forward, the Breeders’ Cup wants to keep expanding and is looking at models like the Super Bowl, where fans who don’t have a ticket to the game can participate in fan festivals in the week before the game, Weisbord said.
“Unfortunately, our ticket isn’t as hard to get as their ticket,” Weisbord said. “But we want to continue to add value to our experience and make it one of the best sporting events that people know about.”