By selecting Churchill Downs to host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for two years in a row—2010 and 2011—the Breeders’ Cup is sending a message it is unlikely the annual event will return to smaller venues as the organization continues to explore whether to have a permanent host site as part of its strategic planning.
"We went through a phase to try a number of what we call non-traditional venues for the Breeders’ Cup during the last decade, and looking forward we believe we can put on the best event to go to a facility that regularly puts on an event of the size and quality of the Breeders’ Cup," Breeders’ Cup president and CEO Greg Avioli said June 11 during a press conference to announce the selection of Churchill Downs as the host site.
Churchill, the Louisville, Ky., track that annually hosts the two largest crowds in American Thoroughbred racing with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), will hold the World Championships on Nov. 5-6 this year. The 2011 races are scheduled for Nov. 4-5. Churchill Downs has previously hosted the World Championships six times and they have been among the best-attended and attracted some of the largest wagering numbers in the history of the event.
"Churchill Downs puts on the biggest event in the country, if not the world, every year so they have the experience to do that and we have good success at Churchill Downs," Avioli said, adding that the Breeders’ Cup can no longer expect to receive the state financial incentives that made it financially lucrative to take the races to tracks such as Lone Star Park, Monmouth Park, and Arlington Park. "I think you are going to see us stay at major tracks for the foreseeable future."
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who attended the June 11 press conference at Churchill Downs, said tax incentives passed by the state legislature helped pave the way for Breeders’ Cup to select Churchill Downs for the second consecutive year.
Legislation passed by the Kentucky General Assembly provided for a tax break, estimated by state Sen. Damon Thayer to be worth up to $1 million a year, if the Breeders' Cup committed by Nov. 4 to have the World Championships in the state in 2011 or 2012, or both years. From then on, the tax break would remain available as long as the event returns at least every three years. Thayer, a Republican, pushed the legislation that changed the previous tax break offered the Breeders’ Cup and was signed into law by Democrat Beshear.
Thayer said he was not invited to the June 11 press conference and his name was not mentioned by any of the officials who spoke.
Avioli said that another factor in the selection of Churchill Downs for a second consecutive year as host site was the unsettled situation with racing in California and New York. It had been widely reported that Breeders’ Cup was considering the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet—which hosted the races in 2008 and 2009--as a possible permanent host site. However, new ownership of the parent of Santa Anita recently cancelled the contract for Oak Tree to conduct its race meet at the track until 2016; also, Santa Anita is considering replacement of its artificial surface with a conventional dirt track.
Although the financial situation at the New York Racing Association recently improved with the announcement that it would receive $25 million from the state, the racing association’s financial status remains uncertain.
"Neither of those jurisdictions is anywhere near as stable as Kentucky is right now, and we don’t want to take the Breeders’ Cup into an unstable environment, if at all possible," he said. "We made our decision to come to Churchill for a variety factors, and the surface at Santa Anita is one of the many uncertain factors in California right now."
Avioli said the Breeders’ Cup has not decided to have a permanent host site yet, but that having the event at Oak Tree and Churchill Downs for consecutive years is part of its evaluation process.
"We will have the opportunity to compare what our two-year experience was like here and we will review that and what we did in California and that will help us make further decisions down the road," Avioli said. "We won’t rule out the permanent host site, but right now we are going to take it two years at a time."
As far as other aspects of the Breeders’ Cup’s strategic long-term planning, Avioli said the organization will continue to review its decision to expand the World Championships to two days consisting of 14 races. He noted that this year will be the first in which the two-day format has been held over a conventional dirt track and the Breeders’ Cup will review the field size and handle on the races after this year to determine if anything needs to be changed.
Beshear said it was appropriate for the Breeders’ Cup to return to Kentucky in 2011, considering the importance of the horse industry within the state.
"Kentucky is a perfect fit," he said. "Our heritage and history are defined by the horse."
Churchill Downs Inc. president and CEO Bob Evans said Beshear is a strong supporter of the Kentucky horse industry, adding, while looking at the governor, "You get it."
"It’s really the best facility to hold the Breeders’ Cup," Breeders’ Cup chairman Bill Farish said. "Certainly, you know, if it’s a resounding success here for two years, that’ll factor into the board looking at it in the future."
Farish noted that rotating the Cup among as many as three tracks is still an option.