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First ever Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar starts today; Kentucky’s Bob Elliston helped make it happen

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

Del Mar, CA – The 2017 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, which consists of 13 Grade I races with purses and awards totaling more than $28 million, kick off today at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Bob Elliston was instrumental in bringing the Breeders’ Cup to Keeneland in 2015 and to Del Mar this year. Elliston, shown here in his office at Keeneland where he is now vice president of racing and sales, was COO of Breeders’ Cup Ltd. in 2014, when the three-year plan, which also included the 2016 program at Santa Anita, was announced (photo by Mark Hansel).

It’s the first time the Breeders’ Cup has ever taken place at Del Mar and a man with strong Northern Kentucky connections was instrumental in making it happen.

Robert N. “Bob” Elliston, now vice president of racing and sales at Keeneland, was executive vice president and COO of Breeders’ Cup Limited in 2014, when the decision was made to hold the races at the Del Mar, California race track.

Del Mar and Keeneland in Lexington were chosen as first-time locations for the 2015 and 2017 event, respectively, with Santa Anita in Arcadia, California, chosen as the 2016 location.

Elliston said he and Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel went to the board and challenged them to think differently about the new venues.

It wasn’t an easy sell.

There are a lot of similarities between Keeneland and Del Mar, some of which were attractive to the board.

“They were both first-time venues, with boutique meets, and racing at a high level,” Elliston said. “Keeneland is not, not-for-profit, but we behave, in some respects like that because we have this charitable component and Del Mar and Keeneland have always been supported by the industry initiatives and research, but they were both smaller venues than we had typically been at.”

It was that smaller footprint, compared to previous host tracks, that was a potential sticking point.

“The biggest thing that stood out for me was small-venue, took a lot to pull off, but both had exceptional management teams,” Elliston said. “For the Breeders’ Cup that’s really critical because it only has about 22 or 23 employees. So, to pull off an execution like that, they rely heavily on the venue.  As we went into that, the Breeders Cup was anchoring two great teams at Keeneland and Del Mar to pull of those first time events, but with a lot of construction, a lot of things had to be appended.”

DEL MAR, CA – OCTOBER 27: Hollywood Star, owned by Albaugh Family Stables and trained by Dale L. Romans, exercises in preparation for Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on October 27, 2017 in Del Mar, California. (Photo by Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup)

The Breeders’ Cup races draw a large crowd from all over the United States and the international presence of owners, trainers and jockeys, most of whom attract another fan base, only added to the belief that a large venue was needed to pull the event off.

“Churchill and Santa Anita were big, huge places and they had done very well carrying the event out,’ Elliston said. “You had to stretch to see it, but we thought we had done a good job of telling them why it made sense.”

The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland demonstrated that not only could the program be successful at a smaller venue, it proved to be one of the most memorable installments in the history of the series. The two days of thrilling races were capped with American Pharaoh taking the Classic. In doing so, he became the first horse in history to capture the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The last prior Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978, who accomplished the feat before the Breeders’ Cup series began.

“I felt a bit of redemption, and it felt very good on that Saturday evening after American Pharoah went across the wire,” Elliston said. “Everybody spoke to the incredible passion and sense of event. I can’t imagine having missed out on that and it all felt really good.”

It was a little more special for Elliston, a Kentucky native, because Keeneland is the place where he first fell in love with horse racing as a college student.

“When I look back at what transpired here, my last with Breeders’ Cup, that was so much a reason why it was one of the best one’s ever,” Elliston said. “The capabilities of the team here and how they meshed with the Breeders’ Cup to pull of that wonderful event. I see a lot of symmetry, again and a corollary to what is going to happen at Del Mar.”

Elliston was President and CEO of Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky, a position he held for 13 years before joining Breeders’ Cup in 2012. While at Turfway, he served as Chairman of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the NKU and Gateway Community College Foundation Boards. In 2011, he was inducted into the Northern Kentucky Leadership Hall of Fame.

DEL MAR, CA – OCTOBER 29: People walk past the #BCTrophy at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on October 29, 2017 in Del Mar, California. (Photo by Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup)

He currently serves on the Board of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and has earned the Kentucky HBPA’s Man of the Year distinction and the Kentucky Harness Horsemen’s Presidential Award for distinguished service. Previously, he was Executive Chairman of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Board of Directors and Treasurer of the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) Board.

Elliston accepted the position at Keeneland in July, 2016.

“I’ve been fortunate to have the top two jobs, maybe in the business,” Elliston said. “At Breeders’ Cup it was a real sense of pride for me because it’s racing at the highest level. As a fan of racing and a person who has loved it back since I was 16 years old and to do the last one here at my home track was tremendous.”

Elliston had mixed emotions about leaving Breeders’ Cup, but he said Keeneland has 81 years of tradition and such a brand of exceptional integrity, investment back into the sport, and a strong mission, all things, he said, that make it a place that he wanted to be part of.

“The opportunity presented itself because two vice presidents – the person that ran racing and the person that ran sales – retired,” Elliston said. “That afforded Bill Thomas, our CEO, to envision things differently and put all of that under one leadership position. Had they not done that, I probably wouldn’t have come here, because I already had the best racing job in the county.”

DEL MAR, CA – OCTOBER 29: American Pastime, owned by Judy Huarte, Mike Mowrey, Gary Woods, Burt Lane & Jane Steeper and trained by Robert B. Hess Jr., exercises in preparation for TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on October 29, 2017 in Del Mar, California. (Photo by Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup)

In addition to the beautiful venue and the high-caliber horse racing, Keeneland’s sales company is the largest thoroughbred auction house in the world and nobody is within $150 million dollars of it on a worldwide auction basis.

“Many of the things that Keeneland is able to do is driven by that marketplace that’s been created right there in the sales pavilion,” Elliston said. “When I was able to take the quality of racing that happens here, which is as good as there is in the country and piece that together with the largest auction house in the country, that was the lure for me to come to this great institution where I fell in love with the sport.”

The September yearling sales at Keeneland generated almost $310 million in sales, the largest year since pre-recession 2008. Elliston attributes the success to the business model and the great team that has executed it over the years.

“You are all about doing what is right when you are here, but you’re also a steward of what has been entrusted to you because of these 81 years that have gone prior and you stand on the shoulders of giants,” Elliston said. “You find it in great shape, you hope it is better when you leave because you have that obligation to pass it on to the next person that is responsible for it. The sale that is coming up in November is going to be dynamite, too and there is some optimism in the sport right now.”

The success of Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland provided a bit of a blueprint for Del Mar, but there are additional challenges at the Southern California venue.

“At Del Mar they don’t have a major artery that goes right out to the track and they have kind of a single way out of there,” Elliston said. “At Keeneland, it’s also not densely populated, so you don’t have a whole lot of traffic at those parts of the day and we had tremendously support from local law enforcement and traffic authorities. At Del Mar, they have a lot of municipalities and a lot of traffic – period, because it’s an urban setting and San Diego is the eighth largest city in the country.”

Despite the logistical challenges, Elliston said there is a good plan in place and the event should be a big hit for fans again.

Del Mar’s dirt surface is considered by some to be a bit quirky and not all horses take to it. Some attribute the surface to the poorer-than-expected performances by Arrogate, last year’s classic winner, in his prep races for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Dennis Moore, who has taken over as track superintendent at Del Mar, was a longtime superintendent at Hollywood Park, before filling the same role at Santa Anita.

“Dennis is proven as one of the best in the business and is making it consistent with the Santa Anita surface, particularly with the West Coast horses,” Elliston said. “I think you’ll find that the more Dennis is able to get his hands into it, the better it will be.”

By all accounts, the turf course is in top-notch condition.

“It’s very fast, but it’s very safe, fair running,” Elliston said. “That might explain, and it’s one of the reasons I am so excited to be there, why 46 European horses have pre-entered and that’s a record. One of the things that makes Breeders’ Cup so special is that it truly is an international event and no other day brings so many of the best runners from all over the world.”

Elliston is very optimistic now that this Breeders’ Cup plan that that was first laid out in 2014 was the right choice and that it is creating a new enthusiasm about the event

“There is competition from venues that want to host it and that’s healthy,” Elliston said. “I feel very proud that in the five years that I was there I helped Craig and the team deliver a forward trajectory that is very positive.”

Elliston has been working at Del Mar this week, talking to people about the November breeding stock sale, which is also the largest in the world, but today and tomorrow, he gets to be a fan.

“I’ll have my racing form in front of me and I’ll be focused in on the quality of the racing,” he said. “It looks dynamite.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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