LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Keeneland will host its first Breeders’ Cup in October 2015, giving the picturesque track the marquee event officials have long desired and returning the season-ending championship to the Bluegrass State for the first time since 2011.
A facility known for its breeding stock sales expects to benefit from the Breeders’ Cup’s presence in the heart of thoroughbred country. Keeneland was one of two new Breeders’ Cup sites announced Tuesday along with Del Mar, which will host the event in 2017. Santa Anita, site of this fall’s card, will host in 2016.
“All I can say is, welcome home,” Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said during a Tuesday news conference.
The announcement was the first time since 1993 that the Breeders’ Cup revealed multiple sites at the same time, which chairman Bill Farish described as a part of strategy to establish the sport’s future by showcasing its best features.
He said Keeneland’s standing as a breeding ground for champion horses provided a “perfect match” for that model, adding, “the 2015 event will be a special occasion as Keeneland will be transformed into a spectacular setting.”
Keeneland annually hosts the Blue Grass Stakes with Kentucky Derby qualifying points but has wanted to attract Triple Crown contenders along with the Breeders’ Cup. Those quests led the track this spring to follow an industry shift and switch from a Polytrack synthetic surface to dirt on its 1 1/16-mile main track, a project expected to be completed by September.
Farish said Keeneland’s surface change was solely its decision and didn’t influence the board to grant the races. Thomason cited industry consistency and safety as the main issues in its pursuit and added that he wasn’t shocked to get the event so soon.
“Timing is important,” he said, “and I think for the Breeders’ Cup it’s important to get it back to Kentucky and (back) to the breeding area. Things came together in a very unique way, but our team was ready. We’ve been ready for this a long time.”
Attendance is expected to increase at the 78-year-old track, which drew a record 40,617 for the Blue Grass Stakes in April 2012. Neither Thomason nor Farish would project crowd numbers, but the two-day showcase of the world’s top horses could generate a 25 percent jump.
Keeneland will add 7,000 premium seats, including new box seats with a reserved seating capacity of 21,000. Despite the Oct. 30-31 race dates, lights won’t be added because it comes before clocks revert to standard time.
Keeneland also will reconfigure its layout to accommodate races as the Mile on dirt, which begins at the far end of the Beard course on the backstretch and add 184 feet to its seven furlongs.
The Filly and Mare Turf will be reduced to 1 3/16 mile and be limited to 12 starters.
Keeneland’s annual November sales follow the Breeders’ Cup.
Del Mar president Joe Harper said in a conference call that he’s pleased to bring the Breeders’ Cup to the San Diego area.
“This is a dream come true for us,” he said. “We’ve gotten this opportunity and we’re really looking forward to it, especially to be in the company with two such great tracks as Keeneland and Santa Anita.”