Breeders’ Cup Del Mar

Connecting with Craig Fravel, President & CEO of the Breeders’ Cup

By: Timothy Moonstone
The Breeders’ Cup inaugural held at Hollywood Park in 1984 was the culmination of ideas spawned by Thoroughbred owner and breeder John Gaines, who early on had envisioned a year’s end championship round matching the various Thoroughbred racing divisions.

Initial plans were to rotate the yearly event to various venues throughout the country, although ultimately, the scope narrowed and the Cup has been showcased at very few tracks, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs being the most frequent hosting facilities. 

For horse racing fans, the Breeders’ Cup is akin to combining the Super Bowl, March Madness and the World Series into one competition. It is over the top for racing and for fashion, for parties and simply a robust excitement that permeates the atmosphere at the track and at off track events celebrating the moment where the best of the best take the field.

Step in lawyer trained Craig Fravel, a graduate from the Universityof Virginia School of Law who, having left the practice in Washington, D.C. in 1985 made the move to San Diego. Servicing Del Mar (racetrack) as a client, some 5 years hence he was approached by the track and offered an executive position. Knowing little to nothing about horse racing he thought it an unlikely, yet perfect fit. And so it came to be, as this November through his undaunting efforts, Del Mar is to host the Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s most prestigious event.

Q: Lawyering in D.C., then to San Diego must have seemed worlds apart?

A: Two very different practices. One was regulatory and securities, whereas here in San Diego it was all corporate and business law. I stopped practicing in 1991, although that attorney’s acumen helped me with overseeing some of the track legislation that was coming out of Sacramento.

Q: Certainly a degree in law sets the cornerstone for many a successful career, however, did you ever envision it leading you to the race track?

A: Absolutely not. When I went to law school I would not say that I had burning desire to be a lawyer, more so to pursue a great educational opportunity. The skill set gained from that foundation teaches you to view situations from any number of perspectives, and being thorough in your approach. At the time, I had little knowledge of and no passion for horse racing.

Q: Having the racetrack as a client those many years, did you ever force their offer forthcoming?

A: If things are truly going well, you begin to develop a relationship with people you associate with, so I began to develop one with the track and began to see a different side to Thoroughbred racing. Del Mar is a very unique place in that there is a focus on fashion and fun. Mostly it was good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

Q: What title did you hold upon arrival at the track?

A: I started in 1990 as executive Vice President, a position I would characterize in parliamentary terms as a Minister without Portfolio.

Q: Having server those 21 years at Del Mar, eventually becoming President and General Manager in 2010, when was that moment in time when you envisioned the Breeders' Cup being held here in Del Mar?

A: We always had a view that Del Mar would be a great place for the Breeders' Cup. The first time I made a presentation to them was in 1997. At the time we did not have a turf course suited to the event, which led us to seek funds to improve the turf, which ultimately happened after I had left Del Mar.

Q: What title and position did you take with the Breeders' Cup?

A: I was President and CEO from the outset.

Q: Is your focus primarily on holding events and marketing strategy?

A: The Breeders' Cup is one of the ultimate events in racing and we try to make it a Bucket List item, both for people to attend and for horse race owners to participate.

Q: Was it an immediate goal of your to bring the Breeders' Cup to Delmar?

A: Until they did widen the turf course, which I think was in 2013, it was not a possibility. I always felt Del mar to be an excellent venue and I certainly had it in mind.

Q: What makes the Breeders' Cup so special?

A: For me, at the end of the day what really makes it special is that the public gets to see the finest of horses, the very best owners, jockeys and trainers the sport has to offer. It is just that special.

Q: Is it unique to the USA or has it been held worldwide?

A: it is only held in the USA. It is an international joint venture, since we are associated with breeders and owners across the world, however each year the event itself is held within the USA.

Q: How does it align with the Preakness, Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby?

A: Those races are limited to 3-year olds, and in recent years to 3-year old males. The Breeders' Cup is open to all breeds of horses. Those three races are predominantly national races whereas the Breeders' Cup is international in the sense that our entries come worldwide.

Q: The Breeders' Cup obviously is more than just racing. How great an effort is made to promote it as an upscale social event?

A: It is part of our branding strategy and in recent years there has been a focus on hospitality. We work with the local community to have those attending fell welcome. We have found that most people leaving with that there was just one more race and it is just the kind of feeling that we like to engender within our fans and first time visitors.

Q: Santa Anita and Churchill Downs have hosted the Cup for so many years. What makes those venues so special?

A: Their size and prominence within the racing community have been leading factors. In recent years, we have chosen other venues that have their own unique character and success. Keeneland in Lexington is one. Del Mar now is another.

Q: Was San Diego, known to many as America's Finest City a bargaining chip in bringing the Cup to Del Mar?

A: No, actually not. Educating people about Del Mar was an important element of the process.

Q: Do you see the Cup settling on one venue in the coming years or will it begin a more robust rotation?

A: I think that we are on a pa for going to more rather than fewer venues. The tendency is to look to the West Coast where weather patterns are more favorable.

Q: How does the purse compare to other races?

A: Very favorably. Our races pay our 28 million over two days. One thvent is comparable and that is Dubai, which takes place in March of each year.

Q: How do you rate the track at Del mar?

A: I have been here the weekend and it played quite safely and appears to be in a great condition for the season.

Q: There overwhelming concern about the number of horses both injured and put down in recent years. Is that concern a priority issue?

A: Race horses, particularly at the level of the Breeders' Cup are handled with extreme care and concern, however, as with all athletic events there are occurrences where injuries do happen. With the Breeders' Cup we have the very finest veterinarians that check all of the horses before the races, our security at facilities is second to none and we believe that everything is being done in a most responsible manner to insure that proper care and treatment is being administered across the board. No doubt that on occasion we do suffer the loss of a fine animal, which we try in earnest to avoid. No one is comfortable seeing these injuries occur, be they an owner, jockey or trainer who spend long hours with these horses.

Q: How does one qualify their horse to be a participant?

A: We have a series of challenge races call the Breeders' Cup Challenge. A victory in one qualities you to be in the Cup. We hold 83 worldwide. Positioning and the final remaining spaces available are allocated by a committee of international racing experts just days before the event.

Q: During race season in Del mar, there are upwards of 3,000 horses on site. How many would you expect for the Breeders' Cup?

A: Between 150 and 175 participating in the races.

Q: Can you guesstimate how many international participants will be competing?

A: Between 30 and 40 the last few years.

Q: Now that the date and venue have been set, do you get to enjoy come showtime or is it crisis management throughout?

A: If it is crisis management, I am not a very happy person because things that should not have gone wrong may have done so. I shall be keyed up until the last horse crosses the finish line and only then can we take satisfaction for a job well done.

Q:Having devoted some 25 years to horse racing, what appears on the horizon?

A: My horizon for the moment is the Breeders' Cup in November and welcoming first time visitors and those many fans and participants that will be coming to enjoy a most spectacular two days of excitement and fun. Given the history of the Cup, those that choose to partake can be assured of a colorful happening both on and off the track. It is what we have been working on for months and look forward to a great event.

Q: Would you consider getting the Breeders' Cup to Del Mar the most colorful feather in your cap?

I think my perspective would be broader than one single event, and I hope that in looking back I can say that I left those events that I have worked on better than when I found them. it is certainly a proud moment to be introducing Del mar to those unfamiliar with the Breeders' Cup, which will be attended by fans and first time visitors from across the globe this coming November, and it is certain to be a very exciting, colorful and memorable event for all who wish to join with us in celebration.