Breeders' Cup VIP Seating Called Issue at Churchill

Though Breeders' Cup officials believe Churchill Downs is a premier host site for the World Championships, the rebuilt clubhouse at the Kentucky racetrack has created a problem providing quality seating for guests of Breeders' Cup.

Churchill Downs in 2004 offered 30-year personal seat licenses valued at $18,000-$75,000 for more than 3,000 seats in the clubhouse box area. Individuals who purchased licenses have the right to buy tickets for the track's major events, including the Breeders' Cup.

On Nov. 4, Churchill hosted the World Championships for the first time since 2000, and the new arrangement proved problematic, officials said.

"There were logistical problems," said retired Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr., who remained active in this year's event as an adviser. "You would think there would be an ideal selection (of seats) because of the new buildings, but the problem is Churchill sold permanent seat licenses."

Breeders' Cup must accommodate about 10,000 people such as owners, trainers, nominators, racetrack officials, sponsors, and VIPs. The number has increased somewhat over the years; it equates to about 1,000-1,500 people for each of the eight Breeders' Cup races.

The situation can prove difficult for racetracks with committed seating for regular patrons in that Breeders' Cup more or less comes into a host facility and takes control. Damon Thayer, vice president of Breeders' Cup event management, said the focal point at Churchill was the fourth and sixth floors of the clubhouse called "Millionaire's Row."

"There are owners and trainers who run horses in Breeders' Cup races, and we want them to be in seats where they can watch races," Thayer said. "The problem is the only place at Churchill with the quantity and quality is (parts of Millionaire's Row). There are personal seat license holders who also expect access to balconies.

"It's really one of few major issues, but it's still a major issue. Frankly, I think it's a design problem with the way Millionaire's Row dining rooms are constructed. People who pay for these seats expect a view of the races. The issue was we requested that our horsemen have access to the balconies, and that upset a lot of PSL customers.

"It's an issue that we'll have to address in the next (Breeders' Cup) contract with Churchill Downs. I'm very sympathetic to PSL holders who were told they'd have access. (Churchill president) Steve Sexton and I already talked about it, and he knows it's a major issue."

Sexton said the racetrack and Breeders' Cup each have VIPs, and the seating of those people is handled through the contractual process.

"It's one of a variety of issues we negotiate and work through," Sexton said. "Are we interested in hosting our most important customers in the best seats? Of course we are."

Sexton said only 5% of the available seats at Churchill are licensed. In all, about 2,300-3,000 people are affected.

"There were a few tense moments this year, but beyond that the facility works very well," Van Clief said of Churchill. "One way or another, it gets done. This will be taken care of. I'm not sure there's a racetrack that has been built that does it in a seamless fashion."

Churchill is pursuing the 2008 World Championships, though both sides want a little bit more contractually. Breeders' Cup wants incentives from the city of Louisville and the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, while Churchill would like a larger percentage of handle, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Spokesmen for the city and bureau told the newspaper they would work to get the event back as soon as possible.

This year's event was expected to produce an economic impact of about $30 million for the city, according to pre-Cup projections. A state tax break is available if Churchill hosts the World Championships before or in 2009.

"We get incentives from the state, but we'd like to see the local community step up more than it has in the past," Thayer said.

When asked how much revenue the host track derives from handle--$18.2 million on track and about $140 million total this year--Thayer said: "I'm not at liberty to discuss the revenue splits, but I can tell you it's not 50-50."

In the past, officials have said Breeders' Cup isn't a big moneymaker for the host track, but it provides other economic advantages. In New Jersey, where Monmouth Park will host its first Cup next year, officials look at the event as a catalyst for sorely needed future growth in and promotion of the Thoroughbred industry.

The week of Breeders' Cup, officials couldn't say enough about Churchill as host site, and they indicated they would prefer frequent visits to Louisville. Seating problems aside, that remains the case.

"I didn't see anything that says we shouldn't have Churchill in the regular (host) rotation," Van Clief said after the event was held. "It's as close to a turn-key environment as we ever get."

Seating for VIPs isn't expected to be an issue next year at Monmouth. Thayer said the Jersey shore track has more permanent seats than previous first-time hosts Arlington Park and Lone Star Park, which had to employ many temporary seating areas.

"Breeders' Cup negotiated to have the best seats for the Breeders' Cup VIP group (at Monmouth)," Thayer said. "Also, there will be excellent temporary seats and box seats on the apron. We'll be taking some of those for our allotment. There will be more top-quality seats than at Arlington and Lone Star."