The Breeders' Cup, created as a roving championship of thoroughbred racing, shunned Louisville's Churchill Downs this week and announced it would return to Santa Anita Park in 2014 for a third consecutive year.
Santa Anita, of course, is owned by the Stronach Group, which also owns Pimlico and Laurel.
The same company is investing more than $100 million into its Gulfstream Park facility in Florida to turn it back into a Breeders' Cup-worthy venue.
With massive renovations being drawn up for Pimlico, I thought it might be a good time to ask Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas if he thought Old Hilltop could ever host the Breeders' Cup. He laughed and said, "In this world, anything is possible."
Pimlico's re-birth is, at best, five years away. Chuckas and Stronach officials have spoken only in broad terms about their desire to refresh the aging facility, saying in a letter to the state they planned "for significant investment in the rebuilding of Pimlico Race Course to serve as the proud home of the Preakness Stakes."
You have to figure that a venue befitting the second jewel of the Triple Crown could also handle the Breeders' Cup, which has moved away from its roots by parking at Santa Anita and Churchill in recent years.
From its inception in 1984 until 2009, the series of lucrative races -- all 15 carried purses of at least $500,000 last year, with the Classic offering $5 million -- served as the "movable feast" touted by founders, never stopping at the same track in back-to-back years. The late-October, early-November event has also been hosted by Hollywood Park in California, Belmont and Aqueduct in New York, Arlington Park in suburban Chicago, Monmouth in New Jersey and Woodbine in Toronto. So it’s not as if the possibility of less-than-optimal weather has disqualified a venue in the past. That's certainly a factor in the decision, but this time it may have come down to the usual: money.
The Breeders’ Cup, a non-profit based in Lexington, Ky., has squabbled with Churchill Downs over the economic setup of their deal, with leaders at the track saying they need more return on investment when hosting the event.
Churchill has certainly proved the most popular place to hold the series of graded stakes races, drawing more than 105,000 people over the course of the two-day event in both 2010 and 2011, while Santa Anita had slightly less than 90,000 in the stands last year. Beyond that, the state of Kentucky had introduced a tax break it said was worth $1 million if the Breeders' Cup stopped in the state at least once every three years.
Churchill officials told the Courier-Journal that they had no disagreement with Breeders' Cup organizers over the financial terms of the 2014 race, but there’s mounting evidence that Frank Stronach may be willing to take a smaller cut to host the premier event at his tracks.
(He's also worked to gain influence other ways, recently hiring the chairman of the Breeders’ Cup.)
(And according to other sources in Kentucky, the relationship between the Churchill and Breeders' Cup leadership is more strained than the sides have admitted publicly.)
If Stronach’s strong relationship with Breeders’ Cup decision makers continues for another half decade and the rebuilding of Pimlico finally comes to fruition, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Baltimore doesn’t make a serious push to host the event.
City leaders have chased sporting events, saying they will help rejuvenate the local economy. The 2012 Grand Prix of Baltimore had an economic impact of $42.3 million, according to a company hired by organizers of the race.
A Breeders’ Cup in Baltimore could have a similar impact. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation estimated a $60 million economic impact on the area in both 2008 and 2009. A University of Louisville economist estimated an impact of $53.3 million on that city in 2011.