Bob Elliston has spent his first five months as chief operating officer of Breeders' Cup assessing the organization's practices with an eye toward the future.
Elliston, formerly president of Turfway Park in Kentucky, has a background in banking. But as a longtime horse racing fan and Thoroughbred owner, Elliston said the Breeders' Cup job is a perfect fit.
"I started as a fan of the business, so it has always been more than a job for me," Elliston said Oct. 30 at Santa Anita Park, host of this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships. "I have to keep telling myself it's a job and not just a love. I feel like I'm on holiday in some respects."
Elliston said the goal of Breeders' Cup staff is to enhance the experience for all participants and racing fans. That requires examination of procedures and policies in the hope of making improvements, which he has been doing along with Breeders' Cup president Craig Fravel, who took over last year.
"We want it to be on a par with the biggest sporting events in the world," Elliston said. "We've been evaluating the experience to see what we can do. How can we take it to another level? We're dealing with a lot of different constituencies."
With multiple venues that serve as host sites and about 180 horses competing each year, Breeders' Cup is not without its challenges. Elliston discussed a few of this year's challenges, including equine transportation and a new policy that bans anti-bleeding medication on race day for 2-year-olds.
Hurricane Sandy struck the mid-Atlantic and Northeast Oct. 28 and created problems for planes transporting horses to California for the Nov. 2-3 World Championships. One plane from New York arrived Oct. 30, while the last finally left Oct. 31.
"You never know what kind of curve ball you'll be thrown," Elliston said. "We still have 14 horses not here yet, and we have to ensure they are subjected to the same rules (as those who made the 72-hour deadline)."
As for the ban on furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix, in 2-year-old races, Elliston said two of the juvenile races attracted 18 and 19 pre-entries, while others got nine or 10. He said the shorter fields in a few races could be linked to other factors such as a couple of perceived standouts.
"I was encouraged by the level of support at entry time," Elliston said. "But the next test is how the bettors respond. We'll process and evaluate all of that. Also, will there be more confidence among and growth in international markets (because of the ban)? Having 29 horses from overseas gives you the sense this is an event on an international scale."
Breeders' Cup, when compared with previous years, is short on sponsors, something Elliston said isn't unexpected given the economic climate. He said the organization is rethinking some things for future years, including looking beyond standards like auto companies and airlines.
Another strategy is to make the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" program, which guarantees horses starting spots in respective races, a "year-round activation" mechanism for potential sponsors. That way, the sponsorship goes beyond a two-day event.
"When you have a brand with reach to the right audiences, you can start talking to those people," Elliston said. "We're looking internationally and also at 'niche sponsors' looking to try new things. This is a different type of sport. Breeders' Cup is a high-end event with the style and fashion that goes along with racing. That's where we need to position ourselves."
Breeders' Cup has long attempted, with little success, to devise a long-term schedule of host sites, and at one point came close to selecting one venue to host for five straight years. Elliston said Breeders' Cup continues its attempt to come up with a plan.
The 2013 World Championships will return to Santa Anita. After that, it's up in the air.
"We are looking for assurance and confidence of where things will take place," he said. "We've begun talking to potential partners for 2014 and 2015. We're getting more clarity as to what goes into the decision, such as whether the venue itself is capable of hosting this level of event.
"The experience of Breeders' Cup has to be more than just a race day. The host track has so much to do with how successful these events are. We're looking at the future–the board of directors is very involved in this."
As for tabbing a permanent host site, Elliston said: "I don't know if it's not still within the realm of possibility if you had the perfect venue."
Santa Anita hosted the World Championships in 2008-09, while Churchill Downs went back-to-back in 2010-11. With Santa Anita hosting the event for 2012-13, it appears Breeders' Cup is leaning toward more established host sites; if not for political turmoil in New York, Belmont Park would figure prominently in the mix.
"These are incredibly vibrant markets with incredible economic reach," Elliston said.