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.
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.
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.
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.
■ 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.
■ 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.