Kip Cornett said he and his wife were at an airport in June when he read on his cellphone a column by Barry Weisbord, president and co-publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News.
Weisbord wrote that he opposed a decision by his fellow Breeders’ Cup board members to bring Thoroughbred racing’s annual world championship here. He thought Keeneland and Lexington were simply too small to handle it.
After he finished reading, Cornett, president of Lexington’s Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, called Weisbord. “Just watch us,” he said.
Weisbord published a follow-up column last Wednesday.
“I have three words to say: I was wrong,” wrote Weisbord, who resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board last summer. “Oh, wait… three more: It was spectacular. In fact, I couldn’t be more impressed with how Keene land, the Breeders’ Cup and Lexington handled the event.”
After lavishing praise on everything about last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Weisbord ended his column with this: “So… when are we going back?”
The consensus seems to be that Lexington hit a home run last weekend. That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned for next time. But most people assume there will be a next time.
With the exception of a messy logistical screw-up Friday at the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge, Keeneland’s performance was nearly flawless, from the races themselves to traffic management and customer service.
Nobody sweats the small stuff better than Keeneland. For example, by the end of each Kentucky Derby, patrons at Churchill Downs in Louisville are wading through a sea of trash. But throughout each day of Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland’s army of green-uniformed employees quietly walked around cleaning up. “Are you finished with your plate, Sir?”
Even though there were a record 50,155 people on the grounds Saturday and 44,947 Friday, it felt less crowded than a Bluegrass Stakes Day. One reason was that Keeneland spent $5 million adding a lot of temporary seating and hospitality space.
Even though track attendance was down 3,217 from last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, ticket revenue more than doubled because of the demand for high-end accommodations at Keeneland. On-track handle was $20,611,114, up slightly from last year.
For the outside world watching Breeders’ Cup on television, NBC Sports’ gorgeous telecast amounted to a two-hour commercial for Lexington.
“I’m incredibly pleased,” VisitLex President Mary Quinn Ramer said. “I heard from a lot of people that they were blown away by our hospitality. I feel like we have made lifelong friends as a result of this event.”
Some downtown restaurants, bars and food trucks grumbled that they had hoped to do better than they did, but others who planned well were quite pleased.
“We had a great experience,” said Ben Self of West Sixth Brewery, which released a Breeders’ Cup Brown ale and hosted a beer dinner and “Beers and Bets” event.
Deborah Long, who owns Dudley’s on Short, hosted a private event Friday that filled her restaurant. She offered a price fixe menu Saturday night.
“We were very pleased,” Long said. “I think the city did a great job. Keeneland did a spectacular job. From our perspective, I don’t see how it could have been improved.”
Long said her business was slow Monday and Tuesday nights. Rainy weather was partly to blame, she thinks, but a lot of the reason may have been that Breeders’ Cup visitors started arriving later than many people assumed.
Cornett, who chaired the Breeders’ Cup Festival, agrees. They may have planned too many events to try to entertain visitors and involve Lexington residents in Breeders’ Cup. After all, the week also included Halloween and the Wildcats’ football game with Tennessee.
“We maybe over-prepared by about 30 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t as needed as we thought it would be.”
Still, many of those events were well-attended, such as the Feeders’ Cup food truck event, which sold out its 3,000 tickets, and three Lyric Theatre performances of Frank X Walker’s play about the great black jockey Isaac Murphy.
Cornett said organizers also could have spent less time recruiting private homes for visitors, some of which went unused. Many visitors who came on private jets spent less time in Lexington than expected. Others found their own accommodations through Airbnb.com.
As with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, the Breeders’ Cup showed that Lexington can host a big international event with aplomb.
“There are a lot of things everyone learned that will make it easier the next time around,” Cornett said. “But everyone in Lexington should be proud of what they did. We did everything we could to show we’re a world-class city, and it worked.”