Lexington is flying high these days, in large part with its beloved and unbeaten University of Kentucky men's basketball team riding a 31-game win streak into the upcoming SEC and NCAA tournaments. The city was abuzz again for a different reason this week. It had nothing to do with the Wildcats, as a majority of the allotted tickets available to the general public for the first Breeders' Cup at Keeneland were sold out and many between lunchtime and the evening commute that first day.
Tickets went on sale at noon EDT Wednesday and by midafternoon all of the mid-range priced seats were sold, along with all the clubhouse general admission passes and many general admission and tailgating area passes. Seats from six areas - Loge Box, Equestrian Dining Room and Brats N Brews on the first floor, Paddock View table seating and Sports Bar on the second floor and grandstand reserve seats - sold out in less than an hour.
Breeders' Cup Ltd. said in a statement Wednesday that total ticketing for the two-day event is projected at 77,000 - including tickets for the tailgating areas that allow access of all occupants of a car - with an estimated attendance between 42,000 and 45,000 each day. The statement also said "After today's public sales, we have sold 60,000 of those tickets, and have approximately 17,000 available."
The sales slowed down a bit Thursday when a massive 17-inch snowfall walloped Lexington, but selling what was left continued heading into the weekend.
A Friday statement said all trackside ticket areas for Breeders' Cup Saturday were expected to sell out by Friday and that the remaining 3,500 or so trackside tickets for Breeders' Cup Friday would be gone soon, too.
Needless to say, Lexington Breeders' Cup tickets were and are a hot commodity.
Bob Elliston, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Breeders' Cup Ltd., was at the company's Lexington office last week and talked with This Is Horse Racing's Tom Law about ticket sales, problems fans experienced trying to buy online or over the phone and overall excitement for the event Oct. 30-31.
This Is Horse Racing: Can you describe the environment at the office leading up to noon, after you started selling and now?
Bob Elliston: We were coming off three straight years in one market and really we've done five at (Santa Anita) in seven years, so this was all brand new. A brand new venue. We've been planning a great deal, literally since before we got to California for the 2014 event. We had to map the entire place and put it into our system, to create the interactive pieces with our online feature. You set all that up, get everybody here and then we had some pre-sale stuff, where our board members, Keeneland board members and our top nominators, we reach out to them and make arrangements for them. Then we're waiting to go on sale. I think you expect that there's going to be this demand but you don't know for sure.
At like 11:00, 11:30, Justin McDonald, who runs digital for us out of New York, sent me a note that says, 'there's 1,100 people sitting on the site waiting for noon.' The phones are already starting up, so we could feel it about 11:15, 11:30, the energy level by the people waiting. Then at noon it's just this crush of people, which was very exciting."
TIHR: Obviously nothing tops the two days of racing, where does the day rank as far as excitement and stress level for the staff?
Elliston: Brandy Stoeckinger, who is our senior director of ticketing, that morning, came in and said, 'I literally woke up this morning and it felt exactly like Friday morning at Breeders' Cup.' It felt like an event day. That's the level of excitement and enthusiasm and anticipation and a little bit of stress thrown in there because you want to make sure it all works and be prepared. We had 15 operators on the line that had been trained, we had all the tech people from our web hosting to our ticket mapping system, everybody online, ready to go to do as much as we could. And it did, it felt like when they're bringing horses to the paddock for the first on Breeders' Cup Day.
TIHR: You reported a pretty strong number of tickets sold on Day 1, really those first few hours, do you have an update as of now (Friday morning)?
Elliston: It continues, even with the weather. Unfortunately (Thursday) our call center couldn't be open because we couldn't get people in, but we were monitoring from home and people would leave messages. We would call them from our homes and fulfill their orders there. If you look at what's gone on from Wednesday to now, basically all we have left on Saturday are the remote locations, The Hill and The Meadow. That's all that's left for Saturday. Friday we're down to about a little over 3,000 (general admissions) and we have some capacity in the Bourbon Lounge. About 800 seats left there. And The Hill and The Meadow.
TIHR: So I'm guessing, and it might be a hard question to answer, you are anticipating or predicting a sellout sometime soon?
Elliston: The Hill and The Meadow, the tailgate lots, those are outdoor venues that are remote from the track itself. If you move that aside it's almost a certainty. Over the course of the summer those tailgate lots will continue to sell, you pay $35 on Friday or $50 on Saturday and you bring a carload of folks and have a tailgate. At Keeneland that happens a lot on Saturdays and Fridays when the weather is good, but this far in advance people probably don't plan for that kind of activity. I think you'll see that filter in during the course of the summer.
TIHR: The tickets that aren't sold to the general public, the ones held back, how many are there and who are they for?
Elliston: As I mentioned earlier, we do some pre-sale orders with our board of directors, with Keeneland's board of directors, with nominators who have supported the Breeders' Cup and helped create the resources we have through nominations of their foals and stallions over many years, so that's one segment. That's all paid. We don't gratis to any of those folks, they pay for those seats. On top of that we hold back as we do at every venue, anticipated seating for the participants in the races. We grant seating to the owners of the horses in the 13 races, the trainers, the jockeys and the nominators of those horses. We do some comps of those seats and we hold some for them to buy as well. Honestly, if you look at the total seats over the whole event, we've got about 42,000 to 45,000 that will be at the venue, it's less 10 percent, maybe about 5 or 6 percent of the total seats, that are held for participants in the races.
You know this, you hope that your 2-year-olds turning 3 can get a shot at the Kentucky Derby or 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, maybe even 2-year-olds, can get a shot at the Breeders' Cup, but you never know early in the year. Some people go ahead and make their own arrangements and they purchase tickets. Others are coming if the horse comes, so you've got to hold that inventory because you want them to have a wonderful experience. They're paying a lot of money quite frankly to enter one of these races, unless they won a 'Win And You're In Race.'
TIHR: People had problems with the system, but you seemed to be working on it in "real time" as it was going on. How hectic was that?
Elliston: You want everybody to have a great experience, that's why we prepared the way we did. That's why we had everybody who had a finger on some aspect of the system prepared and ready to respond and that crush came. No doubt, from 12 to 1, that first hour, online some people had a bad experience. We processed a lot of tickets online, but the demand was so high that we didn't meet the standard we had hoped for some of our guests at that time. We were literally going multiple places, on social media, trying to tell folks, 'stay in the queue, don't refresh your button,' just trying to provide council there.
Secondly, anybody who responded to us via email or phone call, we personally took care of them. We went directly back to them. And I think in every single case, we might have had 15 or 20, that sent emails or called, and we responded and got them ticketing. We wanted to recover them because we knew they were not having a good experience. Actually about 1:00, the system, we spent a lot of money on the system so it was a very robust and interactive system, where you could go on to your seats, go to an interactive map and explore that, but we had that crush of people. That takes more time and in hindsight that's one of the issues we probably needed to reconsider. But I will tell you in past years we turned those maps off and just gave the option of Best Available and we got a lot of criticism that they wanted that interaction.
But as you said, 'real-time response,' about 12:45, 12:50, we realized talking with our technological partner, turn the maps off and it will expedite the queue and that's what we did and sure enough it did. So we got people out of the queue and through the process faster. At that point they were just able to get 'Best Available' seating option and not an interactive, intuitive map. Yes, you're right our response and I appreciate your recognition of that, but maybe we would like to have that hour back.
TIHR: Kind of a broad question, but did anything surprise you?
Elliston: Just how fast it came. We expected to have robust sales. Word was out on the street. It came from everywhere. It wasn't just here in Lexington. We anticipated it to do well here, because it's a very plugged-in market to the horse industry. But they were coming from California, Florida, Henderson, Tenn., and all kinds of places. That was pleasant to see, that they wanted to come from remote locations. It wasn't just an insular, Lexington-Central Kentucky thing. That's one. Two, I would have expected to get where we are now over a little longer horizon. I didn't anticipate two days later we would have been a nearly functional sellout on the property except for the remote locations. We'd never been anywhere close to that in the 31 years we've done it before. It continues the validate the level of enthusiasm people have for the Keeneland experience.
TIHR: And the Breeders' Cup experience.
Elliston: Yes, and the Breeders' Cup connects with that. We do have that. You couple that with a homecoming if you will, a unique, brand-new way of putting the event on at Keeneland. It all starts with 13 spectacular races and it will never change from that. Yes we've changed the races before, but what I mean is it will always be about the product.