Keeneland a Breeders' Cup Homecoming
Photo: Keeneland Photo

The opportunity to race at the track closest to the Kentucky Thoroughbred breeding industry that has helped make the Breeders’ Cup possible proved a major factor in awarding the 2015 Breeders’ Cup World Championships to Keeneland.

Keeneland is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup for the first time Oct. 30-31, 2015. In announcing the 13 grade I races that carry $26 million in purses and make up the championships set for 2015 at the Lexington track, Breeders’ Cup chairman Bill Farish noted his organization’s close ties to the region.

“As one of the world’s pre-eminent sporting events, the Breeders’ Cup has never shied from new and progressive initiatives,” Farish said. “At the center of the Bluegrass, a trip to Keeneland is a homecoming for the event and a celebration of the culture of racing and breeding at its highest level.”

Nominating and stallion fees help fund Breeders’ Cup purses and awards. The organization was founded by the late John Gaines, founder of Lexington’s Gainesway Farm.

“Those purses, as we all know, would not be a reality without the support of Central Kentucky breeders who have been vital to our success since our inception,” Farish said. “To celebrate our homecoming with our supporters will be a great pleasure.”

Farish said that after the economic downturn in 2008, talk of Keeneland as a possible host site began but didn’t get much traction. He said the 2015 bid kicked into high gear about six months ago.

Breeders’ Cup officials expect crowd numbers of about 40,000 to 50,000 at the 2015 edition. While track and Breeders’ Cup officials said it will be about two months before ticket prices and sale plans are announced, they do expect to offer 21,000 reserved seats and plan to sell general admission tickets.

Some of those general admission seats will have views of the track and some will not. The track plans to add 7,000 premium seats to increase capacity. Seating will be added along the stretch and even in the parking lot of the far turn.

Keeneland plans to offer seating in its sale pavilion and its planned entertainment center. Tailgating events also will be offered. Keeneland has not decided if it will cap ticket sales or what that number would be, but Keeneland president Bill Thomason said an emphasis will be placed on customer experience.

“We know we’re going to be able to provide a lot of unique experiences around the grounds,” Thomason said. “One thing about Keeneland is we engage our fans and people who come here for racing in so many different ways.”

Thomason said new areas will be opened around the Keeneland grounds but the track also will work to make sure people are not crammed into the facility.

“Every single one of those people that come to the track will have a special experience,” Thomason said.

While the attendance numbers figure to be less than the 53,717 who attended the 2004 Breeders’ Cup at Lone Star Park and could be in line with the 46,118 who attended in 2002 edition at Arlington Park, Farish noted that Keeneland has some factors working in its favor that other smaller venues have not.

Because of the region’s interest in horse racing, Farish expects strong support for the Breeders’ Cup Championship Friday program. He also noted that Keeneland has permanent luxury seating in place and will add more for Breeders’ Cup. He also expects strong handle with plenty of off-track wagering.

The 2015 championships on both Friday and Saturday will be contested in daylight hours, although because daylight savings time will still be in place, the final races likely will be contested at hours later than the typical Keeneland schedule.

On the track, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) will be contested at one turn, on the Beard Course at seven furlongs and 384 feet. The Filly and Mare Turf (gr. IT) will be contested at 1 3/16 miles and limited to 12 horses.

Keeneland’s goals for fans and horsemen who support the event are at the highest level.

“It’s not just about record attendance, it’s about creating this event,” Thomason said. “We can do some things because we have people in this market who understand the horse. I think we can make it an incredible experience for a lot of people.

“We want it to be memorable for fans, owners, trainers. After it’s all done, I want them saying, ‘That was special.’ ”

Thomason said the strong ties between the region’s Thoroughbred breeding and racing will make the event special.

“Nowhere is the horse more revered than where we’re standing right now,” Thomason said. “So many of these horses are foaled and raised within a 20-mile radius of where we’re standing right now. … 77 horses sold at Keeneland went on to become Breeders’ Cup winners.”

Keeneland expects those ties to carry over at its November breeding stock sale, which will begin just days after the Oct. 31 races. Thomason, who has noticed a bump in the sale when the Breeders’ Cup previously has been contested at Churchill Downs, said the sale opening is not finalized but could be Monday, Nov. 2.

“I think that’s one of the exciting things about trying this is that you have the sales right on the heels of the Breeders’ Cup and you’re going to have a lot of international breeders and buyers that are going to be here anyway,” Farish said. “You’ll have some that will come for the Breeders’ Cup and wouldn’t normally stay for the sale who stay for the sale. I think it works out well.”

Because the sale will follow the Breeders’ Cup World Championships so closely, Farish said the track is considering adding new access that would be used to bring in sale horses. As for getting fans in an out of Keeneland, the track is considering added use of off-site parking and shuttles.

Its sale experience makes Keeneland well-positioned to cater to the international horsemen and fans who attend the Breeders’ Cup.

“It’s enormous because the international crowd already comes to Keeneland, so many of them,” Thomason said. “They’re used to being here. They know our restaurants, our hotels, the community, the event spaces around town, the Bourbon Trail, all of these things.”

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