Pomp and circumstance abound. Men in suits and ties. Ladies in fancy hats on parade like it’s Easter. Champagne pouring, sushi being eaten. “In the sport of horse racing, we race two minutes an hour,” says Keith Brackpool, chairman of Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, California. “We walk, talk, drink, and socialize the other 58 minutes.”
As home to last year’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships, thoroughbred racing’s year-end competition, the Santa Anita racetrack, one of the largest in the country, was nearly sold-out with over 60,000 fans in attendance. And Brackpool, a British racing veteran, was galloping around with a lighter step. The former chairman of California’s racing board, he had been tasked by then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to rejuvenate the sport in the state.
“Horse racing skipped two generations of Americans,” says Brackpool. “Because in the ’60s, without computers, iPads, et cetera, the only way to bet was to come to the track. If you walk down the street in England and randomly ask people if they have ever been to a horse race, it would be akin to asking someone in the U.S. if they have ever been to a baseball game—you would get 98.5 percent answering yes. You get that answer about horse racing in Europe. In the U.S., you get 7 percent.”
So for the past 15 years, the sport has been marketing to a desired younger demographic. “The dream demo is 25 to 45,” says Brackpool. “Because anyone under 25 doesn’t have enough money to participate.”
Which explains why Keeneland race course, in Lexington, Kentucky, the site of this year’s World Championships, to be held on October 30 and 31, invested $5 million jointly with the Breeders’ Cup to build luxury suites trackside and in the paddock area for VIP viewing. The Cup’s annual gala, Taste of the World, will be held at one of the country’s premier stallion farms, WinStar. It’s hosted by Bobby Flay and features 15 chefs representing each country that has a horse running, like François Payard for France and Marcus Samuelsson for South Africa. Country music star Tim McGraw will perform. On Saturday night, Breeders’ Cup board member Barbara Banke, who owns Kendall-Jackson wines, will be hosting the Finish line after-party at her Stonestreet Farms.
“Keeneland already has a younger audience than most tracks,” says chief operating officer Vince Gabbert. “We’re in central Kentucky so we are very aware of horse racing, starting in the second grade.” To accommodate that younger, family-oriented audience, Keeneland has 1,100 acres set aside for tailgating parties—“the Hill” will feature Lexington’s finest food trucks.
This is the first time that the World Championships are being held in the heart of the Bluegrass region, and locals are going all out to make it a success. Especially since in the racing community, there has been some concern about that unpredictable Kentucky weather. At Santa Anita last fall, everyone was abuzz about the perfect temperatures and clear skies. “Rain in California is not like rain in the East,” says Mike Smith, the winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history. “You very seldom get a downpour.”
Still, Gabbert is not concerned: “Our true Southern charm will enhance our already welcoming hospitality. Keeneland is a special place to go racing in both good and bad weather.”
The Breeders’ Cup Classic, the race that anchors the championships, with a $5 million purse, will be broadcast live on NBC on October 31. For details on the two-day event, go to breederscup.com; tickets are on sale now. For more on the Lexington area, go to visitlex.com. The event’s prep races, the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win & You’re In, will take place this summer at California’s Santa Anita Park, New York’s Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, and other major tracks.
Image Credit: Breeders' Cup