The 2015 Breeders’ Cup – Great Job by Keeneland BUT a Blown Opportunity For And an AMBUSH to The Sport of Kings as a Whole

With the Breeders’ Cup in the books, a complete version of my thoughts:

The 2015 Breeders’ Cup had the makings of a festive atmosphere at Keeneland with American Pharoah making the final start of his career in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the headliner of a first-ever Breeders’ Cup there.  While for most people who care about the sport it was a historic event that was capped by American Pharoah completing Horse Racing’s first-ever Grand Slam (the Triple Crown races and then the Breeders’ Cup Classic) in front-running fashion, there were some problems unrelated to the actual races or even the crowds at Keeneland that need to be addressed.

As expected, Keeneland was packed for both days of the Breeders’ Cup, with a record crowd for a Friday of just under 45,000 and a Keeneland-record crowd of just over 50,000 on Saturday.  Keeneland actually did yeoman’s work in making the experience a great one for many there and that was reflected in the attendance for the two days.  That said, handle for a Breeders’ Cup that featured the first-ever Triple Crown winner of the BC era was actually DOWN just under 1%.  That to me should be an alarming number for Breeders Cup Ltd., as that number is down almost 20% from where Breeders’ Cup handle was five years ago.

The four years of Breeders’ Cups before this one saw handle affected by circumstances beyond Breeders’ Cup’s control.  2011 saw handle drop 9% from 2010 (both of those Breeders’ Cups were at Churchill Downs), largely due to the fact one week before the 2011 BC, a freak snowstorm hit the northeast that had some areas that rarely see snow in late October get up to two feet in some cases.  With many trees in such areas still having leaves on them, it was a recipe for power outages in many areas when those trees fell, leaving many without power for in some cases up to 10 days and having to spend money earmarked for wagering on the Breeders’ Cup on emergency supplies.  Then came Sandy on the Sunday and Monday before the 2012 BC, which was the same problem, only on a much bigger scale, with as many remember many areas devastated.  Handle on that Breeders’ Cup (at Santa Anita) fell another 10% or so as many in New York for instance had much bigger problems, including power being out for up to a week or more (parts of Manhattan not even getting power back until early the Saturday morning of that BC) and in New Jersey, having gas rationing for the first time since 1979.  Handle did seem to rebound back to 2011 levels in 2013 (again at Santa Anita), but that turned out to be a mirage as a lot of it was fueled by a massive pick-six carryover after the first BC day, with handle dropping back to 2012 levels in 2014 (at Santa Anita for a third year in a row).  Much of that can be directly attributed to the affects of Sandy, as many people had to spend all of their extra money for more than two years in repairing or replacing homes damaged and in many cases completely destroyed by Sandy and having many unexpected expenses along the way.

2015 was supposed to be different.  Not only were many who refused to play the Breeders’ Cup when it was at Santa Anita saying they would be playing this year, others said with the BC at Keeneland and not running well into the evening on the east coast, they would be playing more as well.  This also marked the first time since 2010 that people in the northeast were not dealing with the immediate or long-term effects of a “100 year storm” like those of 2011 and ’12, and with all those factors, handle should have been up substantially from 2010.  While you have had a recent series of major storms hitting parts of the south (including the remnants of what was Hurricane Patricia), the damage from those storms pale to what Sandy did to the northeast or even the “100 year storm” of 2011.

So what happened?  For starters was Keeneland’s refusal to install lights, which forced this Breeders’ Cup to be run in the daytime on the east coast.

The last five BC Fridays (2010-’14) have run to approximately 7:45 PM Eastern Time and often have been a factor in bringing in those younger to simulcast locations, especially on the east coast.  With the Friday BC races being two-plus hours earlier this year, many of these people were still at work when the BC was taking place.  Especially on Wall Street, most people can’t leave their desks early once you get past Labor Day, and especially during what was in this case earnings season for Wall Street.   A considerable amount of simulcast handle that otherwise would have been there for the Friday BC races was likely lost on this alone.

The last three Breeders’ Cup Saturdays have even without lights at Santa Anita allowed the Breeders’ Cup to extend into prime time on the east coast whereas this year, in the west the first Breeders’ Cup race went off just after 9:00 AM Pacific Time (Noon ET).  That is an important factor, especially with people who almost certainly in the west in many cases were either just waking up or more likely still asleep when the Saturday of the Breeders’ Cup began.  Even in the east, where especially with those under 30 many people are out all night, the start of this BC was too early in the day for many.  This also likely cost Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. a considerable amount of handle.

Not that well known was the loss of handle from Hong Kong due to the fact with this BC in the daytime in the US, it was taking place in the very early morning hours there.  This is much more important than many people realize because one thing that is known about the Asian population is that they love to bet.  Although separate-pool handle from outside the US was not known when this written, I’m sure the loss of handle from Hong Kong will be felt one way or another.

There is another factor that in hindsight Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. should have seen coming that could have played with publicity about this Breeders’ Cup: The World Series being on the same week as the BC.  This is one you really can’t fault BC Ltd. for, however, since when Keeneland was awarded this year’s BC, it had been widely assumed the World Series was going to be one week earlier than it turned out to be because Major League Baseball had been adamant about wanting to avoid having World Series games in November.

The assumptions were the regular season would have been the same it was in 1998: Beginning for most teams on Tuesday, March 31 (with an opening night game on ESPN a day earlier) and ending on Sunday, September 27 with the latest possible date for a World Series game being Wednesday, October 28.  There was one small problem, however, and that was the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia the weekend of September 26-27.  While on the surface that should have not had any effect with the regular season ending on September 27, security measures and other factors made it to where the Archbishop of Philadelphia actually wrote NFL Commissioner Roger Godell (mistakenly spelling his first name “Rodger”), asking the NFL not to schedule the Eagles for a home game that weekend, in part because the area that has the Eagles and Phillies home stadiums (Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park respectively) was being used for parking cars that had to be moved out of secure areas along with buses during the Papal visit.  That continued until Tuesday, September 29, meaning Citizens Bank Park would have been unavailable on Monday, September 28 had a one-game playoff been needed or a Phillies home game previously rained out had to be made up that day.  As MLB a year earlier had moved up the World Series by a day to cut down on conflicts with prime time NFL telecasts from three to one, the Papal visit likely forced the entire season (except for the All-Star Game) to be pushed back by one week to avoid any additional conflicts with the NFL.

Did this matter with the 2015 BC?  It might not have except for the fact the New York Mets made a surprise run that took them all the way to their first National League Pennant and World Series appearance since 2000.  The run the Mets have made to the World Series has caused heavy baseball talk during the World Series, especially in New York, and even more nationally than if the Cubs (whom the Mets beat in the National League Championship Series) had been playing in their first World Series in 70 years.  This caught many in Horse Racing (including myself) completely off-guard as this run of the Mets in New York has even done the once-unthinkable: Moving NFL talk, especially in New York with the Jets and Giants (both of whom as of when this was written having playoff spots) to the backburner.  That likely also had the ripple effect of taking away handle from the Breeders’ Cup, as many people, especially in New York have been distracted by this run of the Mets to reach the Fall Classic.

The Mets run was the worst possible thing for this sport, as it in many ways completely took away any real publicity of this BC on an extensive front, especially in New York save for a handful of instances on WFAN (660 AM & 101.9 FM) for example.  While on ESPN there were some mentions of American Pharoah in the BC Classic on College Gameday as well as on the SEC Network’s SEC Nation and a piece on AP winning the BC Classic, the coverage was nowhere near what it should have been as a whole, with many people who don’t follow Horse Racing as those who care about the sport not even realizing in some instance the BC was this week.  This is why once the complete 2015 MLB schedule was announced last September (and it was known the BC was going to be on the same days as World Series games), deals should have been in place to push the BC back one week with the meets at Keeneland and Churchill (and if necessary, Turfway Park) moved around to accommodate a BC on the first weekend in November at Keeneland.

If this Breeders’ Cup had been both at night and a week later, I suspect handle would have been UP around 20% or so, or returning to 2010 levels (even factoring in fewer BC races now as opposed to 2010).  Having it a week later would definitely have helped with American Pharoah’s BC Classic getting much more publicity as well as perhaps gotten more publicity for the other BC races, as the Mets being in the World Series effectively was an AMBUSH on publicity of this BC outside those who care about the sport.  Having it at night (and preferably running to 11:00 PM Eastern Time both nights) likely sees handle return to where it was in 2010 as well as give the sport credibility with many under 30 who have been conditioned to believe ALL major championship events MUST be at night to matter.  This is due to the fact the last such Finals game in ANY of the “big four” pro sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey) that happened in the daytime was Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals (meaning if you have just turned 30, you were five years old the last time a finals game in any of the “big four” pro sports was in the daytime).

One thing to me is obvious: If Keeneland is to get another Breeders’ Cup, lights WILL have to be installed at Keeneland so the BC can be at night, something that will have to happen anyway (along with a move to the weekend AFTER the clocks change in early November) if the Asia-Pacific region fully comes on board.  The fact handle did not go up, let alone sharply on this Breeders’ Cup when many were truly looking forward to it at Keeneland is a tell-tale sign this BC took place too early in the day for many and for the sport to be successful, its championship event MUST be contested under the lights.  In fact, if I were at BC Ltd. and it were up to me, I would already be in negotiations with a track capable of racing at night to serve as a backup host for the 2016 and ’17 Breeders’ Cups with it made clear to Santa Anita and Del Mar that if they want to retain those respective Breeders’ Cups, lights will have to be installed or those BCs will be moved so they can run to 11:00 PM Eastern Time each night.

Keeneland did a great job with hosting the 2015 Breeders’ Cup by all accounts and likely deserves a chance to host another BC down the road.  Things that came up from a handle and date standpoint, however, likely mean serious changes are going to have to change for future Breeders’ Cups, however, as this BC, with the first Triple Crown winner of the BC, while successful on track at Keeneland and with those who care about the sport clearly was a blown opportunity for the sport to bring in new fans AND one that likely saw an ambush on much of its publicity due to the unlikely run of the New York Mets into the World Series.

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