Beginning shortly after 2 p.m. (Eastern), Ray Paulick will be live blogging the Breeders' Cup teleconference where the organization's new long-term strategic plan will be outlined by Cup president, Greg Avioli; Satish Sanan, a member of the board of Directors and chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee; and William Field of Value Partners, the international consulting firm that developed the plan in conjunction with the committee.

Nominators to the Breeders' Cup program will be allowed to ask questions about the plan, as will members of the media.

2:05 p.m. … Greg Avioli, Breeders' Cup president, says the Breeders' Cup “has experienced tremendous change in just the past three years” after few changes in the first 20 years, then outlines the changes: two days instead of one, higher purses, more races, the Challenge Series, and increased betting handle in a down market. Sanan and the board, he said, decided this was not a time “to rest on our laurels,” and then introduced Sanan, who was named chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee last August.

2:08 p.m. … Sanan said racing and the Breeders' Cup has been “outpromoted by other sports” and said the long-range plan (and he emphasized long range) was developed to help the Breeders' Cup and the industry grow. “It's one of the most comprehensive projects undertaken by Breeders' Cup” and credited management, the board of Members and Trustees and industry stakesholders worldwide for bringing input into the process. He then introduced Field to outline the plan.

2:10 p.m. … Field said the process included four workshops, a detailed survey of the Trustees, a shorter online survey of nominators, interviews with international industry leaders. “What we tried to do here is look at the Breeders' Cup at a slightly new way.” Field said he was struck by the affection people have for the Breeders' Cup and that it truly is the world championship. “It is something that is recognized by many people around the world as the pinnacle of world racing.” That's not to say there's not more that can be done to make it better, Field said. “We certainly think there are many markets in the world where racing is facing challenges similar to what you are facing in North America, but there certainly are opportunities.” He said there is no other “brand” like the Breeders' Cup internationally.

“North America is the No. 1 priority, but you have a great international aspect,” Field added, citing more participation and increased international handle. 

Field said there is a proposal for a new mission and vision for the Breeders' Cup. Mission: to support breeders by promoting the growth of the Thoroughbred racing industry through the staging of the Breeders' Cup competition.  The vision is to be the most prestigious and popular competiton in world racing, reflecting in  the quality of the horses, the  event as well as total wagering. 

A third point Field wanted to make is that the BC has to serve a lot of different groups in the industry. “We think it is very important that the Breeders' Cup needs to refocus more on the customer” — the horseplayers, casual fans and television viewers. 

Related to that, the Breeders' Cup “is a great brand name” said Field. Great recognition in sports, though not necessarily with the general public, he added. Streamlining of the brand might help with the general public recognition. Building on the Challenge Series and creating races that will determine which horses will run in the championships, he said was one way. “We would like to see that whole process be reinforced…so we are not just thinking about the event in November.”

Strengthening the Challenge Series would promote the brand and help increase betting, he added.

Alongside the Challenge Series, Field said, was an opportunity to build some strong alliances with racetracks across the country. “There is an opportunity to work (with the tracks) as partners,” he said, citing the fact that racetracks are looking for ways to increase their business.

“We would love to draw some of the major tracks into long-term partnerships,” something he said is much more difficult if done on a short-term basis.

The road to the Breeders' Cup (Challenge Series) and the championship itself has to be promoted as one brand, Field added. “We need to reach out through partners if we are going to reach the customer.”

Avioli said the recommendations delivered to the board have been given to management to take to racetracks and come back to the board by the end of the year with an “actual working document” that will explain exactly how the Challenge Series will look.

2:25 p.m. … Sanan reiterated that it will be a long-term plan and that once management reports back to the board there will be more details to be made public: He then repeated the four key points of the plan:

1) the new mission and vision of the Breeders' Cup 

2) unified and enhanced BC competition to run throughout hte season

3) improve and build long-term strategic relationships with racetracks to put together a framework for long-term relationships

4) redefining our customers and putting our customers at the heart of everything so that we have an unyielding focus on the customers.

2:30 p.m. … The teleconference is open to questions. First, Bill Landes asks why only 80% of Members and Trustees responded to the surveys and asked who the 20% were that did not fill out the surveys. He added that he wants more disclosure from the Breeders' Cup on meeting attendance and other issues that are not shared with nominators or the public. In response, Avioli began by explaining who the boards are and that 100% of the board of directors responded to the survey. Landes wasn't happy with that, saying there are still 10 Members and Trustees who didn't reply to the survey and thinks their names should be published.

Avioli said he would begin publishing the list of attendees of future meetings.

2:35 p.m. … Landes was the only nominator with a question. I began the media round with a couple of questions, one on the past programs that might  have been more short-term than long term in strategy, and the other on what will be different now about how the BC and tracks work together. Field said he preferred not to focus on the past, although he had studied the various programs (special stakes, stakes supplements, challenge series, etc.). 

On the second question, Avioli said that one of the recommendations from Value Partners is to try more of a collaborative approach. “In the past, they've said,  'Here's our series, would you  like to participate?” Avioli said. “The mindset is going to be different. we're not going to develop something and try to sell it. We want to first identify tracks that want to work with the Breeders' Cup on a number of levels (including being a host site),” and then work with those tracks to develop the programs. Field said one of the big challenges is fragmentation and that there will “always be and always have been issues and niggles between tracks and Breeders' Cup, but I was very surprised to hear the enthusiasm the tracks have for the Breeders' Cup. If we can approach it on the basis that Greg just described, I am certain that a lot of tracks are going to be very keen on this.”

Sanan said “In any business, if you are going to be successsful and form long-term relationships, the word partnership means you must be willing to risk long-term risks and rewards…your goals really have to be aligned…I think all of the conflicts you hear about really will go away, particularly if it is an all encompassing partnership. There is a  big strategic difference in how we have done it and how we plan to do it in the future.”

2:40 p.m. … A question about the budget and the current year operating deficit. Sanan said he hopes the long-term plan will reduce the heavy reliance on nominators, that increased wagering and sponsorships are part of the plan moving forward. 

2:45 p.m. … There is a question about holding the Breeders' Cup overseas. Field said there were a number of suggestions that the BC consider being held internationally. “We wouldn't absolutely rule it out forever but we don't think it is the desirable thing to do.” Field said there were a number of suggestions in the plan about the rotation. There isn't any urgency to doing anything other than North American tracks, he said, “though you never say never. …. It's not part of the plan we propose.” Sanan said it was discussed and debated but felt the consensus was that it needed to be perfected at home first before looking overseas. “Take it slowly, perfect it North America…and maybe we will revisit it a few years from now. If it makes good business sense perhaps we would undertake it.”

2:50 p.m. …. Another question from a nominator: What will BC do to encourage new nominators and get old nominators to return? Does the BC only want the “heavy hitters?” Avioli said the BC wants as many nominators as possible and cites the current stakes supplement  program as a reason for their participation….he said the strategic plan includes the continuation of stakes races but that there will be more of an emphasis on quality in the future. “I don't think you will see any decrease in the amount of money the Breeders' Cup puts out there for nominators. I think there will be an increase in the money for nominators,” said Avioli.

2:52 p.m. … Will future  championship purses be decreased, Avioli is asked. He said the plan did not take a position on that. “What we're trying to say is we don't know what the appropriate level the championship purses will be until we have a better idea of what the entire program will entail.” Sanan said Avioli wasn't the question, but that the answer won't be known until the strategic plan develops into an implementation plan and financial plan. “When we have that,, that's the only point at which we can make a decision: do we increase or do we decrease.” Avioli and Sanan confirmed that there will be no change in 2009 championship purses.

2:55 p.m. … Are there any more specific recommendations you can detail at this time, one media rep asks? “Regrettably, the answer is probably 'no,'” said Avioli, “because what we've been given is a very high-level strategic plan.” There are broad concepts but no specifics. “They don't exist right now,” said Avioli, who said he hopes to have details in December.

3:00 p.m. … Will the Breeders' Cup consider reducing the number of races or drop back to one day? Field said “the issue of how many races is a tactical issue and not one we focused on as part of the long-term strategic plan. We didn't want to be distracted by issues such as that. The important thing that the event in November is regarded as the event (horse owners) want to bring their horses to.”  Avioli said it will be hard to get the general sporting public to focus on 14 different divisions. “It doesn't mean you wouldn't have a full complement of races on championship day but that you wouldn't focus”  on all of the divisions on the series throughout the year. Sanan said: “It's largely going to depend upon when we start the series, how many tracks and how many days. … It may just be limited to what we used to have.” Avioli said: “To clarify, the concern is how do we lead into 14 different races, 14 different divisions.” He said there will not be a series focusing on 14 different divisions leading up to the championships.

3:05 p.m. … The participants are asked how the Breeders' Cup plans to bring horseplayers and customers into the process. Avioli mentioned that there have been panels with large bettors or “whales” that have been consulted with, and Field said focus groups have been conducted and will continue. “We also have the benefit of a large bettor who leads this committee,” Avioli said of Sanan, who is known as a big gambler. Sanan said Breeders' Cup has not done a good job taking care of horseplayers in the past but said he is recommending between now and the end of the  year when the plan is finalized that a workshop with handicappers/horseplayers be included to get their feedback.

3:15  p.m. … Final comments from the participants. “What I'd like to leave you with is that we are just beginning the process,” said Avioli. “We know the challenge we are facing here. We are cognizant of the various attempts to organize alliances in the past. We are confident we are going to come up with something that is well received.”

Sanan said the Breeders' Cup had a choice to be defensive or be “bold and creative and innovative and help management develop a long-term strategic plan  …. to look into our crystal ball and see what's going to happen five years from now and capitalize on that.”

Field emphasized that this plan was not written by “just a group of consultants,”, that industry stakeholders played a big role.

3:15 p.m. … That's it from the Breeders' Cup teleconference. It will be interesting to see how this plan unfolds in the next six months, what tracks will be brought onboard as partners, how the stakes supplements and Win and You're In Series is altered or consolidated, and whether or not the strategic plan, which obviously will be an ambitious effort to create a meaningful series of races, will have an impact on the structure of the year-end championships.

My own comment: From the standpoint of someone who has been following the Breeders' Cup closely for many years, I think this approach is the most significant and it is hoped the most effective strategic process the Breeders' Cup has undertaken since its inception. There have been many programs introduced, given a short-term chance to make a difference, and then modified or allowed to linger without any meaning or impact. If the Breeders' Cup commits to the strategic plan, develops an implementation and financial plan along with significant track partners, this could be a significant boost for the Breeders' Cup and the sport of racing and business of breeding. I congratulate those who brought the plan to this stage and encourage management and racetracks throughout the country to find a way to make this work.

If it fails to do so, the long-term strategic plan for the Breeders' Cup will join the scrap heap of so many other well-intentioned efforts of the past, from such things as the American Championship Racing Series, the national office of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, the creation of a “league office” at the National Thoroubhred Racing Association, the merger of the NTRA and Breeders' Cup, and the Thoroughbred Championship Tour, among others

Let's hope for the former. The Breeders' Cup and racing needs something horseplayers, casual fans and industry stakeholders can understand, support and participate in.–Ray Paulick

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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