By Bill Finley
This past year was a good one for the Breeders' Cup. Returning to Keeneland for the first time since the pandemic year of 2020, the event generated a global wagering total of $189.1 million, which set a record, 3.4% higher than the previous mark. The Breeders' Cup also produced big numbers when it came to the total economic impact for Keeneland, Lexington and the surrounding community. It was announced Friday that a survey conducted by University of Louisville Economics Professor Thomas E. Lambert, Ph.D., showed that the Breeders' Cup was responsible for a total estimated economic impact of $81,846,897. It was the second-highest economic impact recorded in Breeders' Cup history, following the record set in 2017 at Del Mar. On the track, it was a spectacular two days of racing, highlighted by a memorable win by Flightline (Tapit) in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
How is it that the Breeders' Cup's momentum never seems to wane and what's ahead for racing's championship event? We posed those questions and more to Breeders' Cup President and CEO Drew Fleming.
TDN: The handle figures are particularly impressive as the Friday card yielded a record $66.1 million in handle and the Saturday card produced $122.9 million in handle, also a record. What has caused the growth in handle and what needs to be done to see that it continues to grow?
DF: We are very grateful to the horseplayers that have been supporting us and our Thoroughbred industry for a long time. At the Breeders' Cup, we take pride in the fact that we have the best horses in the world competing, which equates to really great betting races. Additionally, the Breeders' Cup, for many years, has been conducting its own global pool and we had 27 countries last year bet into the common pool. We had an additional six countries betting separately. One of the things that the company continues to invest in, not only in time but capital, is in the awareness of the Breeders' Cup as a whole. We felt we ran an effective awareness campaign last year, which caused an increased consumption of content as well as generating additional wagering dollars.
TDN: As they are proud of saying, Lexington is the horse capital of the world. There are racing fans all over the country, but it's just different in Lexington. How does that factor into the success of the 2022 Breeders' Cup?
DF: The moment you get off the plane in Lexington, Kentucky, horse racing is in the air. You go to a restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop, people are talking breeding, training, owning race horses. It's a way of life. The city was so welcoming. Unfortunately, in 2020 we weren't able to have fans due to the pandemic. We told the city we would be back as soon as we could. We were able to come two years later and deliver on that promise and they could not have been more thankful. The hospitality was everywhere. People were thrilled to have fans back and were also very thrilled to have the World Championships back in Lexington and to be able to showcase our industry.
TDN: The 2020 numbers aren't applicable because of the pandemic. Before that, the last Breeders' Cup at Keeneland was in 2015. The economic impact numbers from 2015 to 2022 increased by 27.8%. What was different about 2022 versus 2015 that the number increased the way that it did?
DF: A couple of things played a role. The brand and the demand for the Breeders' Cup continues to grow. Last year, we had people from all 50 states purchase tickets as well as 18 countries. Because the brand continues to grow we continue to see investment not only in the Breeders' Cup but in the surrounding areas when we are there.
TDN: It's not just Lexington. The entire state of Kentucky is horse-crazy and Louisville is also a great racing town. We haven't seen the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs since 2018 and it is not scheduled for there either this year or next. Is there any reason for that and what is the status of the event returning to Churchill Downs?
DF: Churchill is a great partner and we enjoy working with them and had a very successful Breeders' Cup there in 2018. Normally, we don't talk about future host sites until we have made a host site announcement. With the impact and the success of the past few times we have been in Kentucky, I anticipate that shortly in the future we will be back in Kentucky.
TDN: You had a superstar in the Breeders' Cup this year in Flightline. What impact did he have and can you address both the business aspects of the event and the excitement level that he brought to the event. Fifty years from now, people will still be talking about his win in the Classic.
DF: NBC compared Flightline's performance to Secretariat. Any time you have a horse like that there will be increased interest, not only for the Breeders' Cup but for the sport as a whole. It was amazing to see him deliver in the horse capital of the world. Being a hometown boy, seeing him come around the turn and the energy he generated was just amazing. It's something I will remember for the rest of my life. One thing about the Breeders' Cup that we are so proud of is that we know we're going to have the best horses in the world competing. In 2015, we had American Pharoah, who was the first 'grand slam' winner. That was also amazing. You feel humbled to be a part of that. As far as a monetary impact, that's hard to quantify. But we knew with him there would be increased interest and that was evident when he came into the paddock. It was like the Beatles were coming on stage.
TDN: Flightline aside, what were some of your favorite moments from this Breeders' Cup?
DF: There was not a dry eye in the house when Cody's Wish won. That was such a tremendous and compelling story. It's great when racing can tell feel-good stories like that. It was also great just having the fans come back after we couldn't have fans in 2020.
TDN: The Breeders' Cup Festival has become a big part of the whole experience. It's not just two days anymore. You have several events leading up to race day. Can you tell us a little bit of the history of this and how much has the Festival helped when it comes to things like economic impact?
DF: In addition to having the two best days of racing, the Breeders' Cup is a celebration of equestrian life. Like most major sporting events across the globe, it's important to have a festival component so that fans can come and see what a beautiful area the event is taking place in, be welcomed, have great hospitality and celebrate the equestrian lifestyle. We want them to walk away and say, 'Wow, not only was that two great days of racing, but it was a wonderful vacation, a wonderful experience and I want to come back.' In any of the cities that we are in, we work with the locals to develop that festival and to highlight key aspects of the region to our visiting guests.
TDN: NYRA is trying to get a loan from the state so that it can refurbish Belmont Park. You are on the record saying that if this gets done the Breeders' Cup would love to come back there. Your thoughts on a return to New York?
DF: We're incredibly supportive of NYRA and we will support any redevelopment at Belmont. We have a great relationship with the executive team at NYRA. I am having dinner Wednesday night in New York with (NYRA CEO) David O'Rourke. We wrote him a letter several months ago with the title, 'If you build it we will come.' The Breeders' Cup sticks to its word.
TDN: The Breeders' Cup has not been to Belmont since 2005, understandable because the current track is not a good fit when it comes to hosting an event like this. How much has the Breeders' Cup missed New York?
DF: We very much miss New York. There's so much energy up there and they are large investors in the game. We look forward to coming back. If they build it we will be there.
TDN: What can you tell us so far about what's in store for this year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita when it comes to new initiatives and things you can do to maintain the momentum?
DF: One of the challenging but also fun things when it comes to working for a company like the Breeders' Cup is that we are always innovating. We are continuing to move the ball forward on technological advancements in viewing and look forward to working with NBC, FanDuel and some other partners to continue to make sure that those who are watching have many different angles and experiences when it comes to watching the sport. Along with having great views of the San Gabriel mountains, we want to make sure that they have a world-class time when it comes to hospitality. We will continue to work to advance the culinary offerings and will have some exciting things to announce in the near future. We will also have some new ticket packages that we are putting the final touches on to make sure, again, that everyone has the best experience possible.
TDN: You brought up FanDuel. It's obvious that racing needs to find a way to attract the sports bettor and we need to have the FanDuels of the world offering betting on the Breeders' Cup and all racing on their sports betting platforms. Where do things stand when it comes to getting the sports bettors to follow and bet on the Breeders' Cup?
DF: Hats off to FanDuel for advancing the technology so there can be an aggregated wallet experience for the sports bettor. It's a tremendous marketing opportunity for our sport to be on the same bookshelf as the NFL, the NBA and MLB. Horse racing will be able to be cross-marketed from a wagering standpoint to those who are already wagering on other sports. This is one of the largest marketing opportunities we have had in a long time.
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