Craig Fravel spoke with BloodHorse about the Breeders' Cup organization and its philosophy in running the World Championships

Craig Fravel spoke with BloodHorse about the Breeders' Cup organization and its philosophy in running the World Championships

Anne M. Eberhardt

Craig Fravel on Today's Breeders' Cup

From the Feature Well

Craig Fravel, 60, has served as president and CEO of Breeders' Cup Limited since 2011. At the time of his hiring, he was president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which will hold this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships Nov. 3-4 as a first-time host site. Prior to joining Del Mar, Fravel represented the organization as a lawyer with the San Diego firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton and Scripps. A graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, he spoke with BloodHorse features editor Lenny Shulman about the new, leaner Breeders' Cup organization and its philosophy in running the World Championships.

◆ "First-time venues present challenges, but sometimes that's more of a relationship issue than a logistics issue. It's not easy to layer one's staff alongside another one, so the working relationship is key. This one has been easier, given my familiarity with Del Mar. I know who does what and how they do it. On the other hand, in my former position there I was telling most people what to do, and now those people are my equal, or better, so I have to make sure I'm not stepping on toes."

◆ "When I first got to Breeders' Cup, I was shocked over how much money goes into the production of the event: signage, gifts for horsemen, VIP outreach, food and beverage delivery. It's a layer beyond what any racetrack does day-to-day. On Breeders' Cup days a racetrack is doing 85% of the same things it does any other day—letting people in the gates, putting them in seats, getting the horses in the starting gate. You know they're going to do most of those things well. But Breeders' Cup days carry other expectations." 

◆ "The Keeneland Breeders' Cup (in 2015) was a transformational moment for the Breeders' Cup. It showed that with time, effort, and commitment, something everybody said we couldn't do could be done. We're not going to need as much temporary infrastructure at Del Mar as we did at Keeneland; there will be two tent chalets instead of five. Traffic control is a big issue at both venues, and the same company that did it for Keeneland and the Torrey Pines golf tournament (in San Diego) will be in charge at Del Mar." 

◆ "When we were considering Del Mar, someone asked me whether a town that size could accommodate Breeders' Cup. I said, 'You are aware that San Diego is the sixth-largest city in the country, aren't you?' San Diego historically plays second fiddle to Los Angeles, but the people there view the city as highly superior to L.A."

◆ "Big cities such as New York and Los Angeles are tough to get your arms around and break through to the general public. I'm sure there are many people who live on the west side of L.A. who never venture to Pasadena in a given year. Both Del Mar and Keeneland are big events on the local social calendar, so you don't have to go in there and educate the media or the public about what's happening when Breeders' Cup comes. With cities such as New York and Los Angeles, it's a much more difficult process."  

◆ "We've had some success building our brand outside the industry. I don't care whether you're Keene­land or Del Mar or Santa Anita, spreading your reach beyond the indoctrinated has always been hard to do. Through NBC we've tried to extend the reach of our brand. When we started with NBC in 2011, there were 25 hours of TV devoted to racing. This year there will be 85 hours of TV. For all the changes in television, it still has an incredible reach. We'll have spots on 'Sunday Night Football' that will reach 26 million people, so at least people are exposed to it. Whether they're motivated to join in remains a challenge."

◆ "I don't want to criticize others, but I'll speak to the perception of Breeders' Cup when I used to go the event as an industry guy. There was an impression that it was like Rodney Dangerfield in 'Caddyshack' going into Bushwood Country Club and elbowing everybody out of the way and taking control. I don't think the Breeders' Cup people felt that way, but the perception existed. Sometimes when there is a particular perception, you have to go out of your way to contradict it."

◆ "We try to make sure everybody views Breeders' Cup as an industry asset, not as something outside the industry. We want people to feel like they have a proprietary interest in our success. Trainers, owners, breeders, and racetracks should want the Breeders' Cup to be good and successful. That means working with people and not outside normal channels. For example, we bring racetrack marketing executives from around the country together and discuss how we can work to promote not just our event but the Breeders' Cup Challenge series and other things we do. We make sure every communication is coordinated with the host track. When you've been doing something a long time, there's a tendency to overlook things. I've always tried to be collaborative in the industry because it's easy to get self-centered and forget the bigger picture."

◆ "Was it Ben Franklin who said, 'House guests and dead fish smell bad after three days?' We as an organization need to be conscious of how the local guys feel, and they deserve as much of the credit as we do because they're the ones putting on the show. We throw appreciation parties, and a week before the event we bring all the host track employees together and bring in a couple of kegs and BBQ and make sure everyone feels like they're a big part of it."

◆ "About 20 years ago there were severe cutbacks at the staffing level of Breeders' Cup. We've hired people here that are willing to jump in and take care of something when it needs fixing. Last year Brandy Harmon, our vice president of ticketing and operations, volunteered to relocate, and she was embedded at Santa Anita, interacting with staff and the local community for group sales and overall ticket sales. She's at Del Mar this year. Being face-to-face with people is so much better than conference calls." 

◆ "We're a small company. We have a staff of five working on sponsorships, licensing, and merchandizing. We have four people that administer the nominations program and do the outreach to the stallion and breeding communities. Jill Byrne has come onboard to make sure all the horsemen are looked after and get all the information they need about the Challenge program. Josh Christian goes to Europe to represent us in recruiting horses and making sure American racing is well-represented. We have an accounting staff of three." 

◆ "We do not take for granted that domestic horsemen are going to show up regardless of what we do. We are fortunate to have a legacy of an event that within the racing business is a great brand and something that is on the calendar of people, but we don't want to lose that edge."

◆ "International participation has been trending up, and we're very proud of that. The juvenile turf races have been big. Europeans tend to view California locations as a family vacation opportunity, so I don't think California hurts us with them. All Europeans are conscious of the condition of the turf courses, and they plan from the beginning of the year that if they have a horse that likes a firm course, the Breeders' Cup is where they're going to end up. They're actually a bit more tentative about the East Coast because they don't know what kind of ground they're going to get."

◆ "It wouldn't be the same if Breeders' Cup was just a bunch of U.S. horses and nobody else. It's vital to have international participation. Commerce in general knows almost no boundaries anymore, and if you're going to have a healthy breeding industry, you can't rely only on domestic buyers. Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton are very active in reaching out to foreign buyers and bringing them into the American bloodstock market." 

◆ "We had a Japanese runner in last year's Filly & Mare Turf (G1T), and we have a representative in Japan. The Yoshida family has always been a tremendous supporter of Breeders' Cup, along with other Japanese stallion farms. We'd like to get more horses from there, but they've been more obsessed with the Arc (Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, G1) for a number of years. I think if we keep at it, we'll draw more of their attention to the Breeders' Cup."

◆ "You can't choose a site until you cut deals, not only with the racetrack but with host hotels in the community. At Del Mar we have contracts with six hotels for horsemen, sponsors and VIPs, media, and staff. There are a lot of logistics involved. Then we look for venues to do ancillary events. We hope the community forms a host committee to assist in planning those events."

◆ "At the time we chose them, Keeneland and Del Mar were viewed by some as experiments. So far we're rating them as great successes. In Lexington there was a gap between the breeding community and Breeders' Cup management that needed to be bridged. We had spent so much time in California, and there was talk of Santa Anita becoming the permanent host site, and the fact we hadn't been present in Kentucky from a racing standpoint was a sore point. When we came to Keene­land, in part it was an acknowledgment of the breeding community. People felt we hadn't paid enough attention to them, and so for a lot of reasons that was the right thing to do."

◆ "I speak regularly to New York Racing Association executives. For a long time the major hurdle to returning to New York has been the re-privatization process, which I gather is complete. They have ambitious plans in terms of facilities and upgrades, so we're waiting for the master plan for capital improvements. I wish I had a crystal ball for a time frame, but I don't know. New York isn't off the radar."

◆ "It's nice when people express interest in hosting. The Stronach Group would like to see us come to Laurel Park at some point. They've made some great capital improvements and have further plans. It's good to have a spectrum of possible places. We have more solid choices now than we did when I came on."