When the first Breeders’ Cup World Championships were held at Southern California’s Hollywood Park in 1984, the event represented the culmination of legendary horseman John Gaines’ vision for a global competition celebrating the best-of-the-best in Thoroughbred racing. It would be another 31 years, however, before the Breeders’ Cup would be in held at Lexington’s Keeneland Racecourse.
When the event finally landed in Lexington, Kip Cornett, founder of Cornett advertising agency, led the effort to raise funds for and plan the accompanying Breeders’ Cup Festival. Although attendance suffered for some events due to rainy weather, the festival was a success and generated at least $60 million in local economic impact. “As The Breeders’ Cup will tell you, we set the bar for all the other venues around the country that they’ve used,” Cornett said. Most importantly, “it did what we said we wanted it to do, which was to make sure the Breeders’ Cup came back. We wanted to earn our spot in the rotation.”
With the Breeders’ Cup returning to Keeneland November 6–7, and tickets set to go on sale beginning March 9, we spoke with Cornett about this year’s Breeders’ Cup Festival.
It took a long time for the Breeders’ Cup to choose Lexington as a host city.
There are thousands of people who travel [for the Breeders’ Cup], whether it’s in California or Kentucky in Louisville or Lexington, and they have a level of expectation that I think, 10 or 15 years ago, we couldn’t meet. But now, we can. Whether it’s venues or hospitality infrastructure, we can meet the expectations of people who travel all over the world for sporting events.
I’ll tip my cap to the 2010 World Equestrian Games, because I think that proved to people that we could do it. Of course, you had Pearse Lyons, who not only willed it to work but also put his resources behind it. Then, in 2015, we [hosted the Breeders’ Cup] and we did it very well. Now, in 2020, we’re a lot different than we were even in 2015.
We didn’t have 21c online, we didn’t have City Center online, the Distillery District wasn’t online, [many new restaurants] didn’t exist, so there’s a lot more infrastructure now. I’m excited because a lot of energy and money we had to spend in 2015 we won’t have to do in 2020, because that infrastructure is already here. So, how can we build around it?
What are some changes for this year’s festival?
It’s a week later this year—in early November as opposed to the last week of October. We don’t want to tempt Mother Nature, … so one of the things we’re going to do is move the music to more indoor venues. Where the stage was [during the 2015 festival on the Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza], we’re going to have a large purple bubble that will house the World of Racing. It will be free and open to the public, and will be a chance for people to learn about racing around the world.
On Sunday, when we actually kick off Breeders’ Cup week, UK will play a [basketball] game that afternoon against a significant rival. When the game’s over, we’ll plug in the purple bubble, turn on the music at Cheapside, and we’ll open the [week-long bourbon showcase in Limestone Hall], with some of Kentucky’s top distilleries doing tastings, meet and greets, and cocktail competitions. We’re also looking at doing some fireworks that evening.
At Cheapside Plaza, we’re bringing in two large jumbotrons so people can watch the workouts at Keeneland, previous Breeders’ Cup races, and the live races themselves. We’ll also have Thursday Night Live-type music with bands every night.
What are some highlights from the week’s events?
Monday we’ll have the draw, which will be held on the floor of Rupp Arena and will be open to the public. The folks who own the horses that will compete in the Breeders’ Cup will get a championship experience. They’ll go through UK’s locker room, and they’ll walk through the same tunnel that the basketball team comes out and be able to go out onto the floor. We’ll have entertainment and videos going of all the great races, then the draw and a celebration afterward.
We’re also working with [the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden] to do an event there around the heritage of African- American jockeys, as well as looking at some fun ways that we can light up the garden for the festival that could lead to a long-term lighting solution. We’re also going to have a dinner at Dudley’s, where we’ll raise money for the aftercare of horses.
Tuesday we’ll still do everything we’re doing all week [it’s also election day] … and on Wednesday afternoon we’re going to have a fundraiser at Jeff Ruby’s for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, where we’ll have the perspective of the sport from women trainers, women jockeys, women owners and women handicappers. That night, and for two nights, we’re working with The Lyric, the Kentucky Theater, the Burl, Cosmic Charlie’s, and Manchester Music Hall to basically give them music grants and allow them to punch above their weight and bring in acts that they normally [wouldn’t be able to book in a venue that size].
There’s also a new event Wednesday night in the Distillery District called Spirits of the World, where we’ll put a big tent and showcase the native drinks of all these different countries [that send horses to the Breeders’ Cup]. We’ll close the campus to parking, and we’re working with LexTran to shuttle people in and out.
Friday we’re going to have the food version with an International Food Fest in Greyline Station where guests can sample the food of Brazil, Korea, Japan, and all of these different countries. And on Saturday [Breeders’ Cup day], we’ll hold the closing ceremony with fireworks.
We’re doing this to get people here early and give them a diversity of entertainment, including ticketed and free events. You have a lot of sporting events where some people fly in the day of and fly out. But, if you want to experience one of the hottest tourism spots in America, you need to get here early!
Author: Tom Wilmes, Smiley Pete Publishing