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BREEDERS' CUP 2011: A Chat With Breeders' Cup President/CEO Craig Fravel

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LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 31:  The Breeder's Cup trophy is on display at the 2011 Breeders Cup Post Position Draw at Churchill Downs on October 31st, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 31: The Breeder's Cup trophy is on display at the 2011 Breeders Cup Post Position Draw at Churchill Downs on October 31st, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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I had the pleasure of speaking with Breeders' Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel earlier this week, courtesy of the Breeders' Cup and TVG, the official wagering partner of the 2011 Breeders' Cup.

Twenty-one years ago, Craig Fravel was a lawyer working in San Diego assigned to work at Del Mar race track, when an executive position with the track opened up.  He was subsequently name executive vice president, a position he would hold until he was promoted to President and General Manager of the San Diego-area track. During his time at Del Mar, the track experienced substantial growth and a significant reconstruction of the main grandstand.  This past June, Fravel was named President and Chief Executive Officer of the Breeders' Cup Ltd., becoming the fifth person to hold those positions.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Fravel earlier in the week as he provided an overview of where the Breeders' Cup is right now, and where he'd like to see it go in the future.

After last year's Breeders' Cup, the most successful in history from an attendance and handle perspective, Fravel noted that expectations for this year's events are high, "obviously, competing with yourself from the following year [is a challenge]; Zenyatta is a hard act to follow. But we have Goldikova again this year, and people have taken an interest in her."  Fravel also noted the interest generated from what's turned out to be a continuing theme over the last few years - the girls beating the boys. "We are living in a world of great girls beating the boys: Goldikova, Zenyatta, Danedream. This Breeders' Cup has a lot of those interests and storylines."

In 2010 the wagering menu was adjusted to add $0.50 Pick 3s and Pick 4s, and this year the menu added a wager that has proved to be very popular around the country. "We added an [$0.50] Pick 5", notes Fravel, "which fans seem to enjoy early on the card." The new Pick 5 will begin with the first race on both Friday and Saturday.

Back again this year is the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge, horse racing's biggest live money handicapping tournament. The Betting Challenge offers up to 125 seats with a $2,500 buy-in and $7,500 live bankroll.  "We're sold out again; filled up completely," said Fravel.  "There's over $300k in prize money at stake, plus the Breeders' Cup provides some of the best betting opportunities of any in the world... so we hope the players will play the races [outside of the contest], too." 

The Breeders' Cup has always sought to be a "world championship" event; that is the goal that the organization is constantly striving towards.  Fravel summarized the Breeders' Cup view of international growth, stating "the world at large is getting smaller.  The more interest we can have [in the Breeders' Cup], the more that will promote betting activity."  And how does the Breeders' Cup generate that interest? "It starts with the horses," stated Fravel. "If you give people a rooting interest, the betting will follow." Case in point: Classic contender So You Think (NZ). "So You Think is trained in Ireland, with connections in New Zealand and Australia, and he's generated a lot of interest in those locations." Similarly, the brilliant French mare Goldikov has made a global impact.  Fravel was trackside at Churchill Downs on Tuesday morning and described the scene when Goldikova made her first appearance at this year's Breeders' Cup: "the people were lined up five-deep to watch her gallop."

In terms of international betting markets, Fravel notes "the markets are roughly the same as last year but we hope to continue to expand.  We would like to make inroads in the Far East in the future... hopefully China and Korea."  

Turning to the action on-track, the 2010 Breeders' Cup was unique in that both the Ladies' Classic and Classic were run under the lights at Churchill Downs.  "Being able to run in prime time is a benefit," said Fravel, "especially on a Friday with a venue with some brand equity like Churchill Downs." As for whether the Breeders' Cup will continue to run the Ladies' Classic and Classic under lights in the future? "That will be a venue specific issue," Fravel noted, "and will depend heavily on whether lights are already in place." 

The 2011 Breeders' Cup will be the 28th in the history of the event, and those 28 years have seen tremendous growth with the event.  Where does Fravel see the Breeders' Cup five to ten years from now? "We'd like to build some equity into the Breeders' Cup Challenge (Win and You're In) - in order to build branding and attention." The Breeders' Cup Challenge has increased in notoriety in recent years and has expanded into new markets, but there's still a challenge to get the winners of those Win And You're In races to ship to the Breeders' Cup.  That's something Fravel would like to improve by "building some structure into those programs that leads directly to the Breeders' Cup."

Asked to summarize why a non-horse racing fan should follow the Breeders' Cup, the answer is simple:

"You don't need to know a lot about horse racing to enjoy this event. These are the best horses with the best betting in the world."