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By Alicia Wincze Hughes
The pulse of Kentucky’s signature industry serves as the soundtrack for Keeneland Race Course.
During the early 1980s, those who help drive that heartbeat conceived of a year-end event worthy of the racehorses that define the Bluegrass to much of the outside world.
In fall 2015, what was created then — the Breeders’ Cup World Championships — will grace, for the first time, the boutique track that sits at the epicenter of the Thoroughbred industry, an event that will test the growth and vision of both.
Keeneland’s status as host of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup became official Tuesday when representatives from both organizations confirmed the Lexington track would be the site of the event on Oct. 30 and 31.
As Herald-Leader sources confirmed last week, Keene land’s selection was part of a three-year Breeders’ Cup plan that has Santa Anita Park hosting in 2016 and picturesque Del Mar being a host site for the first time for 2017.
This year, Santa Anita will hold the Breeders’ Cup for a third straight year, on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
When the event comes to Keeneland in 2015, it will be the first time the Breeders’ Cup has been awarded to a Kentucky track since Churchill Downs hosted it for the eighth time in 2011. It is also being viewed as a homecoming of sorts as the concept for the Breeders’ Cup — first held in 1984 — was fostered in the Bluegrass by the late John Gaines, founder of Gainesway Farm.
Logistical issues that come with Keeneland being a much smaller facility than Breeders’ Cup stalwarts such as Churchill and Santa Anita had prevented it from making a serious play for racing’s year-end championships. With a plan that calls for more than 7,000 premium seats to be added, bringing total reserved seating to 21,000, Keeneland started earnest discussions with the Breeders’ Cup about six months ago to create what it says will be a unique experience.
“Our team was ready; we’ve been ready for a long time,” Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said. Bringing the Breeders’ Cup to Keeneland “has been talked about for decades. But there have been a number of things that have kept that from happening. The size, the number of patrons we’re able to accommodate have not been up to those initial thoughts. Now, that changes a bit.
“It’s not just about announcing numbers, it’s about creating this brand. We can do something very unique in this market with people who really understand the horse. This community embraces things they are passionate about. They know what racing is like at Keeneland and they are attached to the farms.”
In addition to installing high-end single-level and double-decker tents around the Clubhouse side, seating in the Sales Pavilion and Entertainment Center will be made available along with general admission tickets.
How much those tickets will cost and whether there will be a cap on the number sold are about 30 to 60 days from being sorted out, according to officials. However, capacity probably will be restricted considering Keene land patrons are elbow to elbow on major race days when the crowds can climb into the 30,000 range.
“We haven’t really set that number (for possible attendance) yet ... 40,000 to 50,000 is probably realistic here,” said Breeders’ Cup chairman Bill Farish.