Despite a world of uncertainty and a location down the street from ground zero, the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships pulled off one its most successful days.
Belmont Park set single-day records for on-track handle and total commingled handle Oct. 27 when it was host to its third Breeders' Cup. A crowd of 52,987, the largest to attend a Belmont Breeders' Cup, wagered a record $13,087,813 on the day's races. The on-track handle was 24% higher than the previous record of $10,581,093 set earlier this year on Belmont Stakes Day. The total commingled handle for the 10-race card (eight Breeders' Cup races and two undercard stakes) was a record $98,757,580.
The total handle from all sources is expected to be about $104 million, the second largest handle in the championship's history, according to Ken Kirchner, Breeders' Cup's director of simulcasting. Breeders' Cup's record for total handle was achieved last year at Churchill Downs when the event attracted $108.6 million.
"There was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen," Kirchner said. "But the way I look at it, if I'm down about $4 million off a record year and I can account for about $1.5 million of that on the first two races, then I would certainly feel very positive about those numbers."
Breeders' Cup Ltd. and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association certainly did everything in their power to make the day successful. They dedicated the day to the families of New York firefighters, police officers, emergency services personnel, and other victims in the surrounding communities who lost their lives as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Breeders' Cup and NTRA also launched the most aggressive marketing campaign in the 18-year history of the championship. The campaign put invitations to Belmont Park in the mailboxes of 50,000-plus people whose names were on the New York Racing Association's mailing list. Posters featuring Galileo galloping out of the heart of an Irish flag were distributed through the New York-based Irish Echo, the country's largest Irish American newspaper.
Breeders' Cup also got some unprecedented media coverage. The Oct. 25 edition of USA Today, Gannett's national newspaper, devoted a four-page spread to the championship. The paper had stepped up its coverage of the prep races, as well, according to Damon Thayer, Breeders' Cup's vice president of marketing.
Even with all this effort, uncertainty reigned when Breeders' Cup Day finally arrived.
"With no Point Given and the attack on America, no one knew if the people of New York would come to Breeders' Cup," Thayer said. "It exceeded our expectations. We take a great deal of pride in the fact that this event came off in New York in light of what's happened."
The Breeders' Cup also set records elsewhere. Monmouth Park and Meadowlands handled a combined $2,972,413, a record for both tracks and an increase of 1% over last year's Breeders' Cup Day. Meadowlands handled $2,072,386, and Monmouth Park handled $900,027.
While everything went swimmingly at Belmont Park, the championship struggled for attention elsewhere around the country. The Breeders' Cup had billed itself as the first international sporting event since the tragedies of Sept. 11, but it wasn't strong enough to draw television viewers away from premier college football matchups.
The overnight television ratings fell 19% to 2.1 and attracted 5% of the viewing audience. Last year, the overnight rating was 2.6 and 6% of the market. Overnight ratings reflect the interest in the country's 49 largest media markets, and each rating point is equal to about 1,022,000 households.
The Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) attracted the most attention, achieving a 2.8 rating for its segment of the telecast. Its rating was still lower than the 3.3 rating earned during last year's Classic.
Breeders' Cup's biggest competition early in the expanded, five-hour telecast was a showdown between previously undefeated Big 12 Conference division leaders Nebraska and Oklahoma, which aired on ABC and earned a 5.8 rating and captured 14% of viewers. Following the Nebraska/Oklahoma game were several regional college football games that collectively earned a 6.4 rating and a 14% market share. The championship also lost viewers to a game on ESPN between Ohio State and Penn State, in which Penn State's legendary head coach Joe Paterno was vying for and achieved the mantle of college football's winningest coach. Paterno earned his 324th win, claiming the record from Bear Bryant.
"Clearly, we were up against tougher competition with several football games having national title implications," Thayer said. "I think the fact we didn't have Point Given, the star of the Triple Crown, was a contributing factor. It is going to take some more time before we reap the benefits of having the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup on the same network and of our rebranding efforts."