Lexington’s Keeneland Racecourse was chosen almost a year ago to host this year’s Breeders Cup World Championships. Since then, the track and the city have worked to prepare for what’s expected to be a record setting crowd in the bluegrass for thoroughbred racing’s end of season highlight event.
Central Kentucky is known around the world as home to the very best horse breeders. So, many within the industry will tell you it’s about time the Breeders Cup was held at Lexington’s historic Keeneland Racetrack. Breeders Cup President Craig Fravel says this weekend will determine this year’s horse racing champions. “People are probably most familiar with the NCAA Final Four in basketball and they’re certainly familiar with the college bowl games,” said Fravel. “The Breeders Cup is horsing racing's version of a national-international championship for horses at the end of the year.”
Fravel says there are 13 races over Friday and Saturday featuring horses ranging in age from two to six. The $27 million in prize money comes from wagering, ticket sales, and a percentage of stallion breeding fees. The Breeders Cup began in 1984 as a one day event and grew to two days in 2007.
There’s probably not a better way to celebrate what insiders refer to as the Cup’s Lexington “homecoming” than with the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Fravel says American Pharoah is impressive on and off the track. “He’s got an amazing, compliant disposition," said Fravel. "He’s very kind, gentle. My 11 year old daughter had his mouth right next to her ear and all he wanted was a carrot. He’s just a really special animal."
American Pharoah is expected to break out of the gate Saturday afternoon in the Breeders Classic, the final and most prestigious race of the Cup.
Sophie Doyle is getting her first Breeders’ mount on Saturday. She’ll be aboard ‘Fieretti’ in a seven furlong sprint race. A native of Great Britain, Doyle says she was introduced to horses at a very young age. “Even when I was big enough to stand up, probably at two years old then, I’ve got pictures of me holding horses while my mum’s clipping them, so she’s shaving on the hair off,” explained Doyle. “And there I am, standing on a couple of bales of hay holding onto the big horse for her.”
Now 27 years later, Doyle is looking forward to her first experience in the Breeders Cup. She says the Cup and the Kentucky Derby are both so prominent that it’s difficult to pick one over the other. “Both," she said. "Both, to be honest to win either of them. We all want to win the Derby. I think that’s every jockey’s dream come true and something that they would all love to do.”
There will be family time for the Doyles. Sophie’s brother, James is also competing in the Breeders Cup. And her mother is in town for the races as well.
Not far from the Keeneland paddock are the barns where horses wait to race.
On this day, assistant trainer Margaret Dunlevy is serving as the eyes and ears for the lead trainer. She checks the condition of the horses, including monitoring their legs, and gets instruction on race preparation.
Dunlevy says preparing to compete in the Breeders Cup is a yearlong process. She said each horse has to take it one race at a time in order to be ready to compete against the best of the best. She has both Derby and Breeders Cup experience. “Well actually, I’m fortunate that I’ve worked for both Carl Askenee and Wilkes, we’ve had that and that’s exciting. I guess everybody wants to be with that Derby, but Breeders Cup is just as exciting, really said,” Dunlevy.
It’s not an easy feat to make it into the field for the Breeders Cup. Trainer Michelle Lovell says she hasn’t had the opportunity yet, but she’s still working toward it. “Be able to earn the amount of money and be champions in their own right to get to the Breeders Cup, to the big stage, and then you have to be fortunate enough that your horse stays healthy through the year to get there, so it’s not easy to do,” said Lovell.
The Keeneland track kitchen is a popular gathering spot on this fall race day. Patricia Eldridge is an exercise rider. From Vancouver British Columbia, Eldridge says she used to be a jockey but transitioned to an exercise rider so she didn’t have to worry about staying under a certain weight. Eldridge moved to Kentucky five years ago, and she says it’s the most beautiful place on the planet to ride horses. She says it’s fitting to have the Breeders Cup at Keeneland. “Lexington is the heart of the whole Thoroughbred world really," said Eldridge. "The best horses in the world are bred and raised here, the best soil, everything. So, I think it’s excellent that they would bring the Breeders Cup here."
In an adjoining room to the kitchen sits several betting terminals. Lawrenceburg’s Ronnie Harmon says he’s visited almost daily, since he retired more than a decade ago. Like some other regular patrons, he’s concerned about the number of people the Cup will bring to Keeneland. “I think it’s gonna be awful crowded," Harmon said. "Cause, the other tracks they have it at have a whole lot more room than what they have here, you know."
An estimated 42,000 or so racing fans are expected to descend upon Keeneland this Saturday. That’s about 20,000 fewer than the number who took in the Breeders Cup last year in California. Still, it's expected to be a record breaker for a track the size of Keeneland's.
Track officials have been working over the last year on transportation, parking, and on general accommodations for such a large group of people. The auxiliary seating is in place and finishing touches are all complete. The anticipated first call to the post for a Breeders Cup race comes Friday at 3:30.