Column: Third time is charmed for Del Mar, which will host Breeders’ Cup in 2024
Record-setting runs in 2017, ’21 help Del Mar racetrack pick up money-soaked international event for the third time in eight years
Horse racing’s champion-crowning jewel is coming to Del Mar, again. The wads of cash, private jets and multi-colored passports will renew a blossoming love affair with the place “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.”
For 33 years, the racetrack hardly mustered a sniff from decision makers running the Breeders’ Cup, a 14-race, two-day racing extravaganza. Now, for the third time in eight years, the group is bringing the four-legged world back to the Southern California beach.
The San Diego Union-Tribune confirmed that the Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 1-2, 2024, at Del Mar racetrack.
And … they’re off. Once more.
“Because it’s Del Mar,” Breeders’ Cup executive vice president and COO John Keitt said, when asked why Del Mar was chosen again. “It’s a great venue. Our participants and fans love to go there. The weather is great. It has a really good vibe. They showed us they can compete with anyone.”
Those unfamiliar with the racing game generally know that the Kentucky Derby represents the sport’s Super Bowl, the first Saturday in May. Many are less familiar with the Breeders’ Cup, which is more like the World Series with the drama and stakes increased inning by inning across multiple days.
For context, the total purse money paid out for the Derby was $3 million in 2022. The Breeders’ Cup Classic alone, the capper of 14 million-dollar-plus races, is double that.
When the Breeders’ Cup last was held at Del Mar in 2021 — it’s debut at the track came in 2017 — a record 42 international horses competed in the event that has been held annually since 1984. They credentialed 48 media members from outside the U.S., some coming from as far away as the Chile and the United Arab Emirates.
World Series? Maybe World Series, with a cross-sport twist.
“To use the golf angle, it’s more Ryder Cup,” said Josh Rubinstein, Del Mar’s president and COO. “It’s a truly international event. Walking around, you feel like you’re at the United Nations.”
A major reason Del Mar earned a third lap with the Breeders’ Cup? The cash register.
The track set event records for total handle — the amount of money wagered on races in those 48 hours — in both 2017 and ’21. The latter was especially notable, given COVID-related attendance restrictions during the pandemic. The $202 million worth of bets was $32 million more than four years earlier.
The $25 million on-track handle in ’17 remains a Breeders’ Cup best.
“It’s affirmation that we’re not just one of the premier venues in the country, but the world,” Rubinstein said.
The event used to routinely choose some of racing’s biggest cathedrals, from Santa Anita to Churchill Downs. Keeneland in Kentucky and Del Mar anchored an experiment to cap ticket sales to lessen waits at betting windows, concession stands and bathrooms.
In 2017, attendance hit 69,980. Four years later, it was 47,420.
They banked on the experience. It worked.
“When the old grandstand was falling down in the late-1990s, when we sat down with the architect, Breeders’ Cup was in the back of our mind,” Del Mar CEO Joe Harper said. “We ended up with a grandstand that’s perfect, in my opinion, because of all the high-end areas we have now.
“You look at the luxury suites, the sky boxes, areas that are kind of small pubs throughout the grandstand. All of a sudden, the $200 ticket at Santa Anita becomes a $300 ticket at Del Mar.”
The more the discussion steered to Del Mar, the more the East Coast- and Kentucky-centric group learned about its potential.
According to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, there are about 50,000 hotel rooms within 30 minutes of the racetrack. Fold in the restaurants, golf course, oceanside views and the attraction grew.
Rubinstein said a study commissioned by Del Mar through the Sports Management Research Institute identified $100 million impact on the region when the Breeders’ Cup lands. Field size and quality in the slower fall meet also has benefited, with more East Coast trainers electing to keep more horses at the track after running during the international event.
The bounce from those experiences, Rubinstein said, also has created increases in non-Breeders’ Cup years.
There has been one specific bit of grumbling, however, when the event played out at Del Mar.
“The only complaint I got in 2017 was from restaurants saying I wish I’d gotten more of the high-end wine,” Harper said. “People walk in and pay $500 for a bottle.”
Rubinstein interjected: “Or $10,000.”
Keitt, the Breeders’ Cup executive, was asked if the recently trendline indicated Del Mar now will find itself firmly in the site-selection rotation.
“Facts would bear that out (in recent years), but of course they are,” he said. “… It’s just such an incredible experience. Having in that sort of setting, in that location, being on the water, it’s really special.
“People keep saying to us, when are we coming back?”
In 2024, for starters. Order more wine.
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