Recasting the Eclipse - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the January 19, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell The Eclipse Awards ceremony has attracted its fair share of criticism over the years due to long speeches and an overall lack of buzz surrounding the event. Before the industry’s annual awards shindig could reinvent itself, however, someone needed to step up and break the mold.

Who better to wield the hammer than The Stronach Group? Shaking up Thoroughbred racing’s status quo has been company founder Frank Stronach’s aim since he dove headfirst into racetrack ownership in 1999. A search on the Internet of the terms “Stronach” and “maverick” returns more than 1.87 million Web pages.

Racetracks, Stronach has long lobbied, should become entertainment destinations. Nowhere has his vision been executed more strongly than at Gulfstream Park in South Florida, where Stronach leveled a 65-year-old grandstand that seated 22,000 people and replaced it with a Spanish mission-style building with 4,250 seats, of which 750 surround a new walking ring enhanced with a large central fountain. The reconstruction plan also included an adjacent “village” of retail shops, restaurants, and bars.

Naturally, Gulfstream Park is the venue taking on a major renovation of the Eclipse Awards. It will be the first racetrack ever to host the event that christens champions.

“We had contemplated going to a racetrack before, but no other racetrack had the facilities like Gulfstream,” said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of marketing and industry relations for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. It was the track’s Sport of Kings theater with its stage, terraced seating, lighting, and sound system that sold the pitch made to the NTRA by Gulfstream Park executives a year ago.

“There is no question that moving the event to a racetrack has allowed us to do more things than we could have done in the past,” Chamblin said. “It opens up other opportunities for more promotion to fans and the surrounding community.”

For Gulfstream Park the major goals were to make the event more exciting and more accessible to racing fans.

“We consider the Eclipse Awards to be the Academy Awards of horse racing, so we wanted the fans to be able to come out and see our superstars—the trainers and jockeys,” said Tim Ritvo, president of Gulfstream Park. “We wanted to extend the one special evening for the insiders to all the fans.”

Though the ballroom is sold out, racing fans can still be part of this year’s scene by watching the awards ceremony on television screens with cocktail in hand outside in the walking ring, in one of the track dining rooms, or even in a bar or restaurant in The Village at Gulfstream Park. The event is being broadcast live by HRTV.

Gulfstream has further enhanced the big night by organizing several charity fundraisers in the days leading up to Jan. 19. These include a golf tournament and celebrity poker tournament benefiting the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, a slots tournament benefiting The Race for Education scholarship program and the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and a “Cocktail Party Under the Stars” auction Jan. 18 benefiting the Gulfstream Thoroughbred Aftercare Program.

“This is the tip of the iceberg of what we can do going forward,” Chamblin said. “My hope is we can grow those events and have them establish their own days. I think we can raise a lot of money for some important causes.”

So what about next year? Typically the Eclipse Awards banquet bounces between the East and West coasts. Is Santa Anita Park, also owned by The Stronach Group and the host of next year’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships, on the radar to host the ’14 Eclipse Awards? Maybe.

Santa Anita’s FrontRunner dining room, while offering a great view, doesn’t have a central stage and all the technical necessities. But that doesn’t mean another way to hold the event on the grounds isn’t possible.

“We agreed to sit down next week, or immediately afterward, and talk about how it worked for Gulfstream Park and for the Eclipse Award partners,” Chamblin said. “We’ll talk about going back to Gulfstream in 2014 or the feasibility of partnering with The Stronach Group on something in Los Angeles.”

Somewhere other than Santa Anita?

“If you can make it work, there are a lot advantages to keeping it at the track,” he said.

A continuation of this year’s momentum is one of the biggest advantages. Hopefully, the Eclipse Awards can be recast and become in itself an event as exciting as the champions it crowns.

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