by Tom LaMarra and Leslie Deckard
The Los Angeles media market and its attractiveness to sponsors played a key role in the decision by Breeders’ Cup to tab Santa Anita Park as a host site for two consecutive years, Breeders’ Cup president Greg Avioli said.
The Oak Tree Racing Association at Santa Anita will host this year’s World Championships Oct. 24-25. On Feb. 7, Breeders’ Cup announced Oak Tree at Santa Anita as the 2009 host; it will become the first site to host the event in consecutive years.
The announcement has generated talk, given current problems with the Cushion Track racing surface at Santa Anita. In addition, it appears as though various issues kept several previous host sites out of the running, including Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, and Hollywood Park.
Avioli said Feb. 8 the Cushion Track problems, which track owner Magna Entertainment Corp. hopes to have rectified this month, weren’t a concern. He also said “a number of tracks” were interested in hosting the 2009 event, but Santa Anita has advantages.
“Los Angeles is the second-largest media market (in the United States), and we’re trying to expand into a broader sports and entertainment event,” Avioli said. “An added benefit is that L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world. In addition, we have a wonderful television window when we’re on the West Coast, and we work very well with Oak Tree.”
For this year -- the 25th anniversary edition -- Breeders’ Cup plans to work with the entertainment industry in Hollywood on various events. Breeders’ Cup also is seeking a title sponsor for the entire series, and major markets like Los Angeles and New York City are seen as lures for such a sponsor.
Breeders’ Cup has been negotiating a new contract with John Deere, sponsor of the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) and related Turf Division races. When asked the status of companies that sponsored races last year, Avioli said they remain intact as of now.
“We have renewals we are working on, but we’re not discussing those publicly right now,” he said. “We updated the board of directors on sponsorships, but the only thing clear right now is that we will not have a title sponsor this year. There were a number of interested companies, but for one reason or the other, they didn’t fit brand.”
As for the track-surface problem that has forced multiple cancellations of live racing during Santa Anita’s winter/spring meet, Avioli said: “We see no issue with that regarding 2009. They have to get it right; it’s too important to California racing. We’re confident that by August (of this year) at the latest, they’ll have it fully repaired.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who usually is well-represented in Breeders’ Cup races and has a string in Southern California, said he’d prefer the event not be held at the same racetrack two consecutive years.
“I think the most fair thing is to have it change locations yearly,” Pletcher said Feb. 8. “Two years in a row on the West Coast, I think it is an obvious advantage to the people that are on the West Coast. I believe I do understand some of the reasons why they had to go there--the uncertainty of what is going on in New York, and apparently my understanding is that Churchill is not satisfied with the deal that is made. That sort of eliminates a lot of tracks.
“But, my two biggest concerns are it is not where we normally base our horses, and I am not really a big fan of having it consecutive years on a synthetic surface.”
Pletcher said he’s not sure if the back-to-back schedule at Santa Anita will change plans for some of his horses other than where they have their final Cup preps.
“With so much uncertainty going on about Santa Anita’s surface right now, it sort of makes it hard to predict what you are going to do,” he said. “I’m sure it will affect the schedule of some of the horses leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, and maybe where they have their final prep races.”
Churchill Downs and Breeders’ Cup have been in host-site negotiations but unable to reach an agreement. Churchill Downs Inc. president Bob Evans couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, but Kentucky Sen. Damon Thayer, a former Breeders’ Cup executive and consultant, said Churchill submitted a proposal.
“I spoke to Bob Evans, and he assured me Churchill made an innovative proposal to Breeders’ Cup,” Thayer said Feb. 8. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the details, but it’s without question the most creative proposal ever made by a Breeders’ Cup host track.”
Thayer, during his time with Breeders’ Cup, was involved in host-site contracts. As a Kentucky legislator, he said he would have liked to see the Cup return to Kentucky in 2009.
“From a legislative point of view, it’s a very disappointing decision,” Thayer said. “The General Assembly passed a tax incentive to try to attract the Breeders’ Cup to Kentucky every three years. If this decision holds, the tax credit will expire in 2009. Clearly, it was the intention of the General Assembly to entice Breeders’ Cup to run in Kentucky on a regular basis.”
Thayer said that, with the new two-day Breeders’ Cup format that began last year, the economic impact for the state would be at least $30 million to $40 million. It is believed the tax exemption in 2006 generated more than $400,000 for Churchill, which hosted the Cup that year.
Thayer said there probably would be “little sentiment” by the legislature to revisit the tax incentive, which already was renewed once. “It’s not a very strong message to the Kentucky General Assembly,” he said of the decision to pick California for 2009.
The Breeders’ Cup was held in the Golden State three of its first four years--Hollywood Park hosted it in 1984 and 1987, while Santa Anita was host in 1986. Santa Anita hosted the Cup two other times, in 1993 and 2003.
“We are excited about the prospect for consecutive years in America's second-largest media market,” Breeders’ Cup chairman Bill Farish said in a statement. “Santa Anita is a fantastic venue, and the Oak Tree Racing Association has been a great partner during our 25-year history.”
Breeders’ Cup officials said the decision to return to Santa Anita doesn’t indicate a permanent change to a consecutive-year format, and that future host sites would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Over the past three years, the World Championships has experienced unprecedented growth, with total races expanding from eight to 14, and total purses increasing from $14 million to $25.5 million.
“We are pleased that Breeders’ Cup has placed this confidence in Oak Tree and our Santa Anita management team to host the Breeders’ Cup in consecutive years,” Oak Tree executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth said in a statement.