Today’s Herald-Leader featured a follow up story on the recent decision to name Santa Anita Park the Breeders’ Cup host site for 2013 and what has become a more complex process for the board in choosing a host track each season.
Although space restrictions limited how much could be included from Breeders’ Cup president Craig Fravel and chairman Tom Ludt, both men graciously answered numerous questions on the Breeders’ Cup decisions and potential plans moving forward. To that end, for those interested, here is the full text of our recent time together.
Q: First and foremost, why Santa Anita again?
Craig Fravel: “I think Santa Anita is a terrific site. The board believes very strongly the weather and the benefits inherent in this particular case of doing an event two years is a row in the same place is very productive, efficient and allows us to put on a really terrific event. If you get a rehearsal date and do it one year and do it the next, there are certain advantages to it. Also we have an opportunity in 2013 to take advantage of a prime time window on NBC Sports on Saturday evening and the way the dates work out, Santa Anita was perfect for that television window. So that was a really big driver, we really liked the idea of presenting our sport in prime time on NBC and that was a big opportunity.
Q: With the event now being at the same two tracks – Santa Anita and Churchill Downs – for what will be six straight years, how do you respond to critics that say Breeders’ Cup has gotten away from its original concept of it being a rotation across the country?
Fravel: “I would say that one thing critics need to understand is the selection process and the things we value in sites are a lot more complicated than people would maybe take into account. Just taking Churchill Downs as an example, in 2013 the Future Farmers of America have their convention on the first week in November which is our preferred weekend to run and there are no hotels available in the city. I think one of our challenges is to develop a site selection methodology that allows us to select sites much further out so we can avoid conflicts with those sorts of things that really limit our choices at times.
Q: What does make a track an attractive potential host site for Breeders’ Cup?
Tom Ludt: “Obviously track surface, facilities…there are probably ten things and I probably wouldn’t be able to rattle them all off. People forget hotel availability, the ability to handle the traffic, daylight savings time, TV. I mean it is the richest sporting event in the world, as we love to tell everybody, and people forget that we have a lot of issues we have to get around. So it’s not so simple to pick a track. The critics like to pick on things because they want it to be in their backyard and I don’t know that it was in our bylaws that we were always going to rotate. We’re trying to do what is best for horse racing. But as we upped the ante to $25 million that’s kind of put us in a position where we have to provide an environment where we can be profitable or at least break even. So that makes it very difficult. We work very hard with the tracks but it’s a two way street and there are a lot of obstacles.
Q: Was it disappointing that more tracks didn’t bid? Do you think some have the mindset that they’re not going be picked so they’re not going to try?
Fravel: “We certainly had options (for 2013). But again you have to set some priorities, where do we want to sit on that television window and what tracks can accommodate that window. If we don’t want to do that, what is the hotel availability, are there competing events going on that make that city less desirable than another city might be? In Los Angeles, we have some college football games we have to worry about and in New York there is the New York Marathon that presents issues on the first weekend of November.
Ludt: “I wasn’t disappointed that three tracks were interested on what I consider tough criteria. That was pretty good and it will get better because we will eliminate some of those obstacles. Hotel availability is a major obstacle you don’t even think about and that was a major issue for 2013. So what the Board has asked these guys to do is work farther in advance and it will eliminate some of things we can control. But there are some things we can’t control. The track has to have x amount of seats, then you have to look at how a track would provide temporary seating. Gulfstream is a great example, it was a wonderful facility for the Breeders’ Cup years ago but it can’t handle the capacity now. People say ‘Why don’t you come to Florida?’. It’s almost like you get handicapped but it’s not really handicapped. It’s just handicapped where we go.
Q: A previous idea that had been floated was the notion of having a permanent host site. Is that still being considered or is Breeders’ Cup committed to having some kind of rotation?
Ludt: “We’re open to it (a permanent site) if we could find the right facility. God hasn’t delivered it yet. We talk about it all the time. The board at one point was really close to locking into a long term commitment. If the right facility presented itself with the terms, we would be very opened minded to it. I know we’re very open minded to it. It’s just as we speak today it’s not sitting there.
Fravel: “I think that tracks that have been historic sites came to us and said we’re going to invest significant sums of money into our facilities over the next 2-3 years to make this the Taj Mahal of racing…there is nothing off the table. What we want to eventually come up with is either a single site or a rotation that makes the most sense for the event, makes the most sense for the sport and that the customer experience is second to none.
Ludt: The U.S. Open Tennis tournament rotated years ago and got a history lesson. Now it’s at Flushing Meadows. The Masters is in one spot, then the PGA rotates. There are arguments for both sides. We would love to have a longterm answer because it would make us focus on the things we need to focus on because an enormous amount of energy is focused on the site. But it’s challenging.
Q: With the stance Breeders’ Cup has taken with regards to raceday medication, banning it all its races for 2013, how much of that was an obstacle for tracks that do want to be a host sites? Do you think some jurisdictions fear potential backlash from horsemen?
Fravel: “I may be naïve or overly optimistic but I think anyone who is in the running for future sites, is willing to work with us on that. We haven’t had anyone come and say our horsemen are not going to approve this, there is no way we’re going to be part of that.
Ludt: “We believe that it will be easier in 2014 going forward. As we get further into it, it will make it better.
Q: How key is it to get one under your belt, like this year with the 2-year-old races, so you can have some concrete results to point to?
Ludt: “It will be interesting. It’s hard to predict the future. It will be great to have some history and it will be even better to have 2013 behind us but there is no way you can predict. I think over time it will evolve as it should but that’s a prediction.
Q: How can Breeders’ Cup help the mission of attracting more fans to the sport?
Fravel: “One of the problems with racing is the ability to follow the sport is limited because the participants themselves don’t last a long time. We don’t have Rafael Nadal playing in every major event or Roger Federer. What we have is horses who have more restricted lifespans from a production stand point and so our great sporting events, things like the Derby, the Breeders’ Cup, opening day at Del Mar or Saratoga, they are events and they are things people want to be a part of because they have a place in history and a time and an experience to them. One thing you will notice with the Breeders’ Cup is the number of events and the quality of the customer service, people go home saying ‘I really want to go back next year’. Our event is much different this year than it was five years and hopefully the next few years will get better and better. We are going to focus on the experience and as I said to a group of people, I don’t think we’re there yet but someday the Breeders’ Cup is going to be a bucketlist item like the Masters. You still have to have the best horses in the world and big fields. And I told a lot of people after last year’s event, I never spent a day in racing that went as quickly as those two days did. It started and the next thing I knew it was over and part of it was the quality of the racing. There was never a moment you weren’t engaged in the event.
Q: Do you think racing does a good enough job promoting the stars it does have?
Ludt: “We want that but it’s challenging. It is about the horse but it’s hard to promote it. I go back to that Masters thing, if you have Masters tickets you go every year and if Tiger Woods is your guy and he scratches, you’re still going. We have to make the Breeders’ Cup that. You want to be rooting for whoever your horse is but it’s also got to be an event that you’re going because it is a great event.
Q: There are some people who love the old single day format. Is the two-day format something Breeders’ Cup is committed to going forward?
Fravel: “You have to preface an answer to that nothing is forever. But I think we’ve come down to a format that gives people a reason to make a weekend out of this. I believe the two day thing is very positive, not a negative. You spread your overhead out over two days, from a financial standpoint, but there is something for everything there. And the two day event gives people reason to stick around. I don’t think you want to take an event like the Breeders’ Cup and tinker with it constantly. I’m not necessarily saying we should take our two days and never make any changes to it. But do we want to have three or make it four? You have to have some consistency for the public to generate ongoing interest in it.
Ludt: “Without making any false promises, the answer to that question will be seen over the next few years how we’re making it an event. A lot of resources and a lot of energy are going into taking care of the consumer and the customer. If you look at most of the major events we compete against, it’s more than a single event. We’ll never say forever but it would be hard to believe that it will ever be a single day.”
Q: There is a tax break in play for 2014 if it doesn’t come back to Kentucky that year. How much of a role will that potentially play in the decision to come back to Churchill?
Ludt: The board has asked the staff to do what we do every year so they’re going to make proposals, so that will help Churchill. But at the end of the day, the board will make a decision off the proposals that are made that make the most sense for Breeders’ Cup overall. If the tax break’s inconsequential to something else that’s unfortunate. But if it puts them in the lead, that will be the break that they get.”