Straight Site Talk - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the March 20, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

Satish Sanan was publicly admonished by leaders of the Breeders’ Cup last week for his comments on a radio talk show. Sanan, they claimed, went too far with his discussion of a possible single site for future Breeders’ Cup World Championships, and with his criticism of Churchill Downs Inc.

Sanan, a leading owner and breeder, is one of 13 directors of the Breeders’ Cup and thus a man with inside knowledge of current negotiations.

This year’s World Championships will be held at Churchill Downs, but no site has been announced for future years. Breeders’ Cup officials have hinted of a possible permanent home for the event, and Sanan intimated the best location was Santa Anita’s Oak Tree Racing Association meet, which conducted the two days of Breeders’ Cup racing in 2008 and 2009. It was the first time since the Breeders’ Cup began in 1984 that it had been staged in consecutive years at the same locale.

One of the original selling points of the Breeders’ Cup was that it would change locations each year, rewarding racetracks, breeders, horsemen, cities, states, and fans around the country by rotating to different sites.

If the Breeders’ Cup directors choose a permanent site, the event will lose the attractiveness of showcasing a different track each year. Could the Breeders’ Cup become stronger with a permanent home? Maybe, but that is not what’s driving this decision. It is one thing and one thing only: money.

As Sanan correctly pointed out, Oak Tree is a not-for-profit company. Translation: more money returns to Breeders’ Cup when the event is held there.

It doesn’t take inside knowledge to figure out revenue at the Breeders’ Cup is decreasing. Stud fees are down; the size of the foal crop is down; sponsorships are much tougher to secure. The directors of the Breeders’ Cup are sitting around a board table having the same discussions as other companies: How can we trim expenses and raise revenues?

Certainly, reducing staff, and thus salaries, is one way to reduce expenses. Both chief marketing officer Peter Land and senior vice president of racing Pam Blatz-Murff are no longer with the Breeders’ Cup. The departure of Blatz-Murff, an original Breeders’ Cup staffer, did not sit well with many European horsemen, with whom she had developed a close relationship that aided the organization’s recruitment of overseas participants.

Certainly another way to generate revenue is to find the best deal possible for hosting the event.

Sanan said on the radio broadcast that, “Churchill will not deal with you on revenue. Churchill is probably the worst organization from a horse racing standpoint.”\

Breeders’ Cup issued a press release the next day saying the organization is “extremely disappointed with recent statements from (Sanan) with regard to host sites, and those views in no way reflect the official position of Breeders’ Cup.”

Churchill is perceived as the most bottom-line company in racing. Sanan’s comments indicate perception is reality.

Churchill wants what is best for Churchill, meaning what is in the best interests of its shareholders.

Well, Breeders’ Cup does not have stock-issued shareholders. But Breeders’ Cup has shareholders. Its shareholders are every industry participant, and those participants deserve to know what its directors are thinking.

A decision to hold the Breeders’ Cup at a permanent site, any site, will not be met enthusiastically by everyone. East Coast horsemen are already miffed they had to travel to California two straight years. Those who dislike synthetic surfaces will not be happy if a site with a manufactured main track is chosen as a permanent host. Fans who like to attend the event may wish to visit different racetracks, not the same site every year.

Most racing organizations meet behind closed doors and little is known until decisions are announced. In this case, those who support the Breeders’ Cup by nominating stallions and foals have a right to know what the directors are considering.

Sanan did not disclose anything sensitive about negotiations. He merely commented that the organization is considering a permanent site and that Churchill Downs is difficult to deal with.

Good for him. 

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