Eyebrows rose in August 2014 after Breeders' Cup announced the 2015 World Championships would be held at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington. Many wondered how a racetrack with an attendance record of nearly 40,700 was going to host an international event that had drawn more than 65,000 at other venues in the past.
The worst was expected regarding parking, crowds, and amenities. More important to some was a concern that the enhancements required to accommodate the large crowd would ruin the aesthetics that make Keeneland the special place it is.
None of it came true. With forethought, planning, and the ability to test-drive new seating venues and work flows at its regular meets, Keeneland pulled off a remarkably successful Breeders' Cup. To say it exceeded the expectations of horsemen and fans would not be an overstatement.
A three-story, 45,000-square-foot chalet—the first of its kind used at a major sporting event—along the final turn drew praise from attendees because it provided a unique view of the action. Everyone likes to see the finish at the wire, but the chalet offered a bird's eye view of the horses as they rounded the turn and into the stretch.
"I felt like I was right on the rail looking down over the field," said Doug Burge, president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "It was a great place to see the race unfold."
The parking plan that required most attendees to shuttle in from other locations around the city allowed people to get quickly in and out of the track. Did the two days pass without complaint or aggravation? No, but no major event attracting 65,000 people is going to go flawlessly. What was noticed is that all problems were quickly addressed.
Keeneland managed a record crowd of 44,947 on Oct. 30, followed by 50,155 who turned out to watch Triple Crown winner American Pharoah romp to a 61⁄2-length Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) victory with such ease it was ridiculous. His feat of sweeping the Triple Crown and now the Classic has been dubbed by Breeders' Cup marketers as the "Grand Slam."
The championship races also delivered a spectacularly broad spectrum of winners from across the U.S.--California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas--and around the world, including having the first Mongolian trainer to win a Breeders' Cup race. And there were several other firsts: the first Breeders' Cup wins for trainer Mark Casse, first win for fledgling trainer Maria Borell, and Irish-bred Found the first 3-year-old filly to win the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT).
Having the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland provided, too, an opportunity for people worldwide to become reacquainted with Lexington and reconnect with the nation's Thoroughbred capital. Top international jockey Frankie Dettori said it had been 20 years since he last rode at Keeneland. Anthony Oppenheimer, owner of the odds-on Turf favorite Golden Horn who attempted unsuccessfully to be the first to capture the Turf/Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) double, had not been to Lexington in about 10 years. One reason Oppenheimer said he wanted to run in the Breeders' Cup was so the top American breeders here could see up-close the four-time group I-winning son of Cape Cross.
"We want them to see the horse and how beautiful he is and how well he goes and hopefully take an interest in him," Oppenheimer said.
While the world's eyes were on Lexington, they got to see the community at its best. A caring community supportive of aftercare as host of the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Charities of America Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium and a magnet of excellence as the site of the CP National Horse Show for hunter/jumpers.
Plenty of hands were wringing when Keeneland was initially announced as host for this year's Breeders' Cup. Now people can't wait for the championships to return.