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The Breeders’ Cup World Championships is one of the richest events in sports. With purses totaling $26 million, the two-day showcase presents 13 Thoroughbred races featuring some of the world’s elite equine athletes. And yet, many Kentuckians have never heard of the Breeders’ Cup. If you live anywhere near Lexington, that’s about to change.
For the first time in its 31-year history, the Breeders’ Cup will be staged at Keeneland’s iconic racetrack, and local officials have planned a week of diverse celebrations throughout the city to commemorate the occasion. Breeders’ Cup Festival Week, which begins Oct. 24, will culminate with the Championships Oct. 30-31, the year-end international Thoroughbred racing competition.
“Throughout its storied history, Keeneland has developed an extraordinary reputation for delivering a first-class racing and hospitality product,” said Breeders’ Cup Chairman Bill Farish of Lane’s End Farm. “We are excited to bring the Breeders’ Cup home to Lexington and are energized by the support from the local community and the breeders of central Kentucky, who have been such a vital part of our program since its inception.”
Keeneland plays a unique role in Thoroughbred racing and breeding. Each April and October, some of the nation’s top owners, trainers and jockeys converge at Keeneland to compete during its race meets. As the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house, Keeneland attracts a global clientele to its four annual sales.
Although this year’s Breeders’ Cup is already sold out, tickets are available for live racing one day prior to the Championships, Oct. 29. And during morning training hours Oct. 24-30, entrance to the track will be free and open to the public for visitors to view Breeders’ Cup horses preparing for the big event.
Keeneland’s renowned November breeding stock sale will take place one day after the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1 for horsemen and fans who wish to take part in another aspect of the Thoroughbred experience. The sale is free and open to the public, although seats in the sale pavilion are reserved for buyers and sellers.
“From a historical and business standpoint, there’s no better place to host the [Breeders’ Cup] than Lexington, Kentucky,” Keeneland Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Vince Gabbert said of the event, which has been staged at several locations throughout the nation over the years, including eight times at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. “Because of our great staff and the depth of leadership we have here, we felt like we could put on the show, but we wanted to also enhance our sport and our sale, and create more enthusiasm for our October race meet.”
A boutique-sized track, Keeneland previously was not considered a viable venue to host the Breeders’ Cup because of its inability to accommodate the large number of patrons who typically attend the event. But after building temporary facilities to seat an additional 12,000 people, officials feel the track is prepared to host the crowd of 90,000 that’s expected over the Breeders’ Cup’s two-day span.
Gabbert said Keeneland had fashioned its temporary seating similar to the facilities golf courses create for large-scale tournaments. Around 40,000 people will have a view of the racetrack on both days. General admission seating without track views will be located in the sale pavilion and entertainment center, and on the tailgating hill. Shuttle buses will transport patrons from park-and-ride locations in Lexington to the track each day in order to conserve space.
“We’ve been working diligently on expanding the property to create a greater capacity and more premium seating so we can really focus on the Breeders’ Cup experience,” Gabbert said. “We want everybody that’s here—whether they’re in an upscale chalet or in the Bourbon Lounge—to feel like they’re close to the races and have a track viewing.”
The Breeders’ Cup was created as a year-end championship for North American Thoroughbred racing but also attracts top horses from around the world, especially Europe. The idea for the competition—a clash of the best against the best—was proposed by the late John R. Gaines of Gainesway Farm, a prominent Thoroughbred owner and breeder.
The races are operated by Breeders’ Cup Limited, a company formed in 1982. From its inception in 1984 through 2006, it was a single-day event. In 2007, the Breeders’ Cup expanded to two days, with the first day devoted to female horses, and combined purses increased from $10 million to more than $25 million. All Breeders’ Cup sites have been in the United States, except Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, which hosted the 1996 event.
The Breeders’ Cup is telecast in more than 140 countries through various networks. This year, it will be televised live by NBC Sports Group.
Since its inaugural running, the Breeders’ Cup has provided some of the most thrilling horse races in history, creating Thoroughbred legends and turning casual racing fans into lifelong enthusiasts.
The $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the highlight of the event, has been won by some of the most accomplished American Thoroughbreds. The impressive list includes the great mare Zenyatta, 2010 Horse of the Year; Tiznow, the race’s only two-time winner; Cigar, who topped off a perfect 10-for-10 season with his 1995 win; and the remarkable Ghostzapper, son of Classic winner Awesome Again.
This year, American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, is expected to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which adds another layer of anticipation and excitement to the event.
“It’s exciting for us, for our sport,” Gabbert said. “There’s no other place that pays attention to [horse racing] the way central Kentucky and our entire state does. This is an opportunity for the outside world to see the kind of show we’re able to put on.”
Although the Breeders’ Cup Classic is contested over the same 11⁄4-mile distance as the Kentucky Derby, only four Derby winners have accomplished the double. There was a competition between Derby winners in the 1987 Classic, in which 1986 Derby victor Ferdinand bested his younger rival, ’87 Derby winner Alysheba, in a photo finish. Alysheba notched a Classic win the following year. In 1989, Sunday Silence made it three straight Derby winners to take the Classic, prevailing over his arch-nemesis, Easy Goer. Unbridled won both the Derby and Classic in 1990, but since then, no Derby winner has been able to achieve the feat.
The Classic merely scratches the surface of the multifaceted event. Among the other 12 Breeders’ Cup races is the $2 million Distaff, known as a showcase of the best female horses in the sport. The 1988 edition is considered one of the most exciting finishes in Breeders’ Cup history. Personal Ensign, who had recovered from a fractured cannon bone the previous year, overcame a sloppy track and bested Derby-winning mare Winning Colors in the final strides of the race to remain undefeated. Other Distaff winners include Zenyatta (in 2008, the year before her Classic triumph), Dance Smartly, Lady’s Secret, Azeri, Ashado and two-time champions Bayakoa and Royal Delta.
The only three-time Breeders’ Cup race winner is the sensational French mare Goldikova, who won a trio of consecutive runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Mile on turf. Before Goldikova, there was another French great in two-time Mile winner Miesque. American stars Lure and Da Hoss also scored two Mile wins, as did two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan.
Europeans have historically reigned supreme in the 11⁄2-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf, led by two-time winners Conduit and High Chaparral (his second win came in a dead heat with Johar). In 1999, the Turf received a companion event for females, the Filly & Mare Turf, whose best competitors so far are two-time victors Ouija Board from England and North American-based Dayatthespa. Groupie Doll and Mizdirection also have provided thrills in the Filly & Mare Sprint and Turf Sprint, respectively, as two-time winners of those races.
Breeders’ Cup Festival Week was conceived to engage local residents in the scene as well as entertain out-of-town horse racing enthusiasts who arrive in Lexington days before the event. Among the highlights will be horse farm tours via Horse Country Inc., a new not-for-profit organization dedicated to showcasing Kentucky’s Thoroughbred farms, racing and other equine attractions; free outdoor concerts at Lexington’s Courthouse Plaza and Cheapside Park; art exhibits and plays in various venues around the city; the “Feeders’ Cup” food truck competition; and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” 5k Fun Run & Walk.
“This week promises to be unlike any other in our city’s history,” Breeders’ Cup Festival Chairperson Kip Cornett said. “Our guests from near and far will be treated to a range of entertainment, activities and hospitality unlike any other Breeders’ Cup. The investments from our sponsors and the effort from our arts and hospitality sectors have been amazing. They will put on a great show.”
Added Gabbert: “The whole Central Kentucky community has embraced this event even beyond what we had expected, and that’s one of the things that makes the Breeders’ Cup special in our eyes. Not only do we want to put on a good event, but we hope the community’s enthusiasm for it will make a lasting impression on Breeders’ Cup as a whole.”