Keeneland hosts Breeders' Cup championships for first time
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Keeneland is 75 miles east of the famous Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, and the little track always seems to operate in the shadows of the home of horse racing's crown jewel.
Not this week.
Keeneland is the center of the sport, hosting the Breeders' Cup with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah running in the Classic.
Take that, Churchill Downs.
Racing fan Kim Langston, who made the trip from Daphne, Alabama, had no doubt that Breeders' Cup officials made the right choice in selecting Keeneland.
''I always thought they (Keeneland officials) could pull it off because they've always been professional,'' Langston said after posing for pictures by the Breeders' Cup statue. ''Being a smaller track helps the appeal. At Churchill Downs, it's so big you can't see anything. Being in a smaller space makes it more personal.''
Keeneland officials have long desired this event, which is expected to have an estimated economic impact of $65 million. It's the Breeders' Cup first trip to Kentucky since 2011 at Churchill Downs, which has hosted eight times.
From a competition standpoint, the track's biggest move toward attracting top-flight horses and events was the switch from a synthetic Polytrack surface to dirt last year, following an industry trend. Keeneland already had plans in place for seating, sponsorships, parking and traffic, culminating in the June 2014 announcement that it would host this year's championships.
Breeders' Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel said size wasn't as much of an issue in choosing Keeneland or 2017 host Del Mar (seating capacity: 14,304 but has drawn up to 50,000) as is selecting venues with a strong, loyal racing following. The Breeders' Cup was founded by an association of horsemen in central Kentucky and many of its competitors were sold as yearlings at Keeneland.
''Big markets can be challenging in and of themselves simply because getting the word out can get lost in the shuffle a little bit,'' said Fravel, adding that Keeneland has done a great job of pulling things together. ''Part of the idea of coming here and going to Del Mar was to go to communities that raised horse racing but also are very manageable communities, where we're going to be a big fish.''
Most of the 45,000 tickets sold quickly this spring, right around the time American Pharoah began stringing together wins culminating in the colt becoming racing's first Triple Crown winner since 1978. The presence of the first such champion Saturday in the Classic and his pending retirement afterward has obviously increased interest, setting the stage for one of the most memorable championships.
The crowd Friday of 44,947 was a first-day record for the event.
Holly Tonini and Jennifer Montfort followed hunches to attend the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland and were rewarded with unexpected bonuses they'll always remember.
They bought face-value tickets online and arrived just in time Friday morning to see American Pharoah's final workout in 34-degree weather. Even better, the two friends staked out a front-row bench for the first day of action and felt confident about returning for Saturday's full card.
Neither believes they could've had that kind of last-minute luck at bigger venues such as Churchill Downs or Santa Anita, which they add makes Keeneland a serendipitous first-time venue to host the Cup.
''I was a little worried at first because they're so used to drawing 90,000 at Churchill Downs, I wondered how the logistics would work,'' said Tonini, who drove six hours from New Eagle, Pennsylvania. ''So far, so good. I love this place.''
Some tickets remain for Saturday's 12-race card at Keeneland, the smallest host track in the Breeders' Cup's 32-race history. Though smaller compared to Santa Anita -which drew 61,114 last year - Churchill Downs and Belmont, the 79-year-old track has its share of history and charm.
Set in the heart of thoroughbred country, Keeneland is best known for its breeding stock sales and hosting the spring Blue Grass Stakes with qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby. The grandstand overlooks rolling hillsides and barns, a picturesque view enhanced by a backdrop of autumnal reds and yellows.
''To have this scenery and farms, it's nirvana,'' said Jennifer Montfort, Tonini's friend who flew from Boston for her first Breeders' Cup.
Langston is attending her first as well, and now has the chance to bid farewell to one of horse racing's immortals.
In her mind there couldn't be a better place to do it than Keeneland.