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The Keeneland fall meet begins this Friday, and in anticipation of one of central Kentucky’s premier autumnal experiences I sat down with Bob Elliston, Vice President of Racing and Sales, to discuss what lies in wait for racing patrons this October. Part 1 of this 2 part interview follows below.
KSR: “You’re doing some promotion at Kroger Field in partnership with UK. Can you talk a little about that and how it came about?”
Elliston: “Yeah, you know we’ve had a long standing relationship with the University of Kentucky. Obviously during the fall season with football going on, they call it the best doubleheader going – an afternoon at Keeneland and a night at the UK football game. And we see a lot of folks that are traveling to Lexington to Kroger Field to see their team play the Cats, coming out here in the afternoon. Generally speaking it’s just a natural combination of entertainment for folks to draw into the community. So we’ve sponsored The Paddock at Kroger Field prior, but we figured out that whole concept in terms of an entertainment destination built around UK football and Keeneland, and VisitLex, all three of us got together on this project to really elevate that entertainment venue inside Kroger Field (The Paddock), and also then to promote that “town and gown” concept where a major entertainment venue like ours, coupled with a great sporting event like Kentucky football plus that being a destination for folks to travel here, it was just a natural partnership. In addition to that, we always have our “See Blue” day in the fall and we paint the place blue and celebrate what’s going on with the Wildcats and here at Keeneland and the fan base. But beyond that, we have historically been a supporter of things that are resident at UK like the Markey Center, like the Gluck (Equine) Center, like what’s going on in the Ag department – they are really creating a center of excellence at UK in the whole Ag space, which obviously in the horse business means a great deal to us. All of that was in place, and will continue to be in place, but is brought out in a big way through this partnership on The Paddock.
KSR: “Is there anything in particular patrons should be looking forward to at the fall meet?”
Elliston: “Well, we have modified some of our wagering menus a little bit, but generally speaking the fall has some pretty cool items that are built-in already. We celebrate a couple really important things. The Make-a-Wish day is on Thursday, October 12th, and on that date, it’s the 10th anniversary. We work with the Make-A-Wish foundation here locally to let these kids realize dreams that they have, and they really deserve that in a tremendous way. So that is really an uplifting day for all of us here at Keeneland. Then we have Heroes Day that Papa John’s is sponsoring on Sunday, the 22nd, and that’s when the first responders, EMTs, fire fighters, and their families are invited and receive free general admission, access to grandstand reserve seating and discounts on food and things like that. College scholarship day, that’s another one, on Friday, October 20th. Ten $1,000 scholarships will be awarded. Since the life of that program, I think we’ve given out, I want to say, in excess of $500,000 in scholarships to area students.”
KSR: “So the meet starts with a bang — FallStars weekend and lots of Breeders’ Cup preps. Who are some of the bigger names that we can expect to headline opening weekend?”
Elliston: “Yeah, you mentioned it, we’ve got 9 stakes worth almost $4 million in purses on opening weekend, 8 of which are Win and You’re In events for the Breeders’ Cup, 5 of them are grade 1’s. The ones that really jump out that look like tremendous races are the Shadwell Turf Mile, which is a million dollar Breeders’ Cup Mile prep, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, the 2yo boys race, the Phoenix, which is the Sprint division, and the First Lady for fillies and mares. And on the Shadwell, American Patriot, who won the Makers 46 Mile in the spring, Divisidero won the Turf Classic on Derby Day, Heart to Heart is trained by Brian Lynch and won multiple graded stakes – I think those are the top ones. In addition to that, Mondialiste, who ran 3rd in the BC Turf a couple of years ago, and there’s a chance Aidan O’Brien might be sending Lancaster Bomber who just missed in the Woodbine Mile. The Shadwell will probably over-fill, there will probably be 16 in there and we’ll have to exclude some folks out of that one. I mentioned the Breeders’ Futurity. Probably the top horse was Wayne Lukas’s Sporting Chance that won the Hopeful, but he got injured. The second and third place horses in there (Hopeful), Free Drop Billy and Givemeaminit, they are planning to be here. You have the Iroquois winner, The Tabulator. And it’s kind of interesting to me, Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Jazz, he’s got a horse that Tom Amoss trains that broke his maiden at Saratoga by 11 lengths. He’s talking about coming here too. He could be anything with that kind of performance at Saratoga. The Phoenix, there are three outstanding ones in there, Favorite Tale, Limousine Liberal and Whitmore. Favorite Tale was 3rd in the BC Sprint here in 2015, Limousine Liberal loves this track, and Whitmore, by a lot of people’s count, might be as gifted a sprinter as there is out there for Ron Moquett. And then I mentioned the First Lady because there is some tremendous talent in there – 8 graded stakes winners that are pointing there. Dickinson, who won in the Spring (the G1 Jenny Wiley), Hawksmoor, Miss Temple City, Roca Roja who is a G1 winner for Chad Brown, and there’s a chance that Aidan O’Brien might ship 1 or 2 for that race from England because he is so loaded with great talented fillies on the grass – Rhododendron or Rain Goddess might come over for the Coolmore group – and they’re not afraid to run those horses back in a week for the QE II for 3yos the following weekend. So that’s exciting. We’re counting right now, I think there’s seven international horses shipping in for opening weekend.”
KSR: “Talking about the Breeder’s Cup, there seems to be a trend developing with the top horses training into the Breeders’ Cup off of extended layoffs of 8 weeks or more – the top 3 choices in the Classic with Arrogate, Collected, and Gun Runner, the top choices in the Distaff with Stellar Wind and Forever Unbridled, Drefong in the Sprint, Lady Eli, and a number of others will all enter the Breeders’ Cup off long layoffs. Is it a trend that concerns you at all with a meet that is so focused on Breeders’ Cup preps as a cornerstone, and have you thought about how you might battle that going forward?”
Elliston: “Well, it’s hard to worry about things you can’t control. We really can’t because we have a limited footprint that we can run in. You know, we have 32 race dates or 33 depending on how the calendar falls – 16 or 17 in the spring and the fall – and that’s what we got. And the circuit, that’s something we respect tremendously in Kentucky. We have a circuit of one thoroughbred track that runs at all times, and I think that’s worked very well. Our purse structure is at record levels, participation in our stakes program is tremendous in the spring and the fall. Churchill’s September and November meets are doing pretty well, and Kentucky Downs and Ellis are hanging in there very well in the summer. I think the changes and improvements that Turfway is making are going to pay dividends in the future. So there’s not really any place we can move the races to, and in and of themselves, even before the challenge series that the BC developed, they were great races, and they will continue to be so. You know, I’ve been in the business for over 20 years now, and I’ve seen these ebbs and flows and changes, and I’m with you. I said this to a reporter just the other day, we both observed exactly what you did, that there seems to be, at least this year this “let’s train them into it” mentality, but I recall when they were 3 weeks out, and I recall when they were 4, and I think all you can do is put the most competitive product in the market out there and hopefully they will continue to support it. Next year, I think we’ll benefit tremendously from the fact that the Breeder’s Cup is at Churchill Downs. Historically, our preps have gotten even better than they already are when that is the case.”
KSR: “The Breeders Cup at Keeneland was a tremendous event by any measure. You played a pivotal role through your position at the Breeders’ Cup at the time. Does Keeneland plan to lobby to host another Breeders’ Cup, and if so, how soon?
Elliston: “Yeah, I don’t think it’s an if, but a when. I had a great vantage point on the other side of the table having that be my last Breeders’ Cup I managed prior to coming to Keeneland. And it was, up to that point, the highlight of my career. Everything about it was as we forecasted it when we had the idea with Keeneland to put it on, but it took a lot. I mean, you were here and you saw how the place had to be transformed and that just doesn’t happen overnight. And there is a series of very good locations that have made themselves available to the Breeders’ Cup and I think it’s good that it travels a bit so that folks can experience it in different places. Because of the uniqueness that it was here at Keeneland, because of the work that it takes to go into it, I think we’re all probably of the mind that it needs to be special, not every other year. So, hopefully in the next few years we’ll look at a return here. I know the Breeders’ Cup was tremendously pleased with how it went, and I know all the work that was put in by the folks here at Keeneland produced tremendous dividends for the event and also great pride and satisfaction for them as well. I know we’d love to have another shot at it.”
The conclusion of the Elliston interview will run tomorrow.