Group seeks to infuse youth into aging horse racing industry

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Dare Sutton and Sam Bussanich watched the horses run at Keeneland Racecourse and a crazy idea came to mind.

Sutton, 24, suggested they buy one. Bussanich was game.

“We’re both young,” said Bussanich, 21. “We both make stupid decisions. Why not?”

They soon discovered buying a horse was too lofty a goal, but that conversation sparked a move horse racing officials hope can help change the face of the sport during a turbulent time. Along with friend Sophie Shore, they founded Nexus Racing Club to give 18- to 30-year-olds a chance to get into the sport through exclusive access, networking events and connections to those who run the industry.

Amid the uproar over fatalities at Santa Anita , the Kentucky Derby disqualification, challenges from expanded legalized sports gambling and an aging fan base, horse racing badly needs an infusion of youth. Now, these young women have the chance to help revive what’s sometimes referred to as a dying sport.

“Young people can bring new creative ideas to the sport,” said Jaime Roth, who runs her family’s LNJ Foxwoods stable. “Are there bad things? Yeah. But for the most part, it’s a great sport. We’re dependent on the future and young women are a big part of the future.”

Bussanich firmly believes “if we don’t get these young people into the sport, we’re not going to have horse racing.” A 2016 study noted the average horse racing fan is 63 , – younger only than golf – and decision makers, owners and trainers are still prominently older white men.

“We constantly sit around board room tables and say, `How are we going to get more young people involved in horse racing?”‘ owner and Thoroughbred Ideas Foundation president and CEO said Craig Bernick said. “I’m the youngest person around the table a lot of times and I’m 41.”

Nexus is full of people horse racing executives yearn to attract: Bussanich grew up in New Jersey and developed her affection for the sport from going to a track in Florida at age 6; Sutton fell in love when filly Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont and Nexus member relations director Mary Cage was hooked by Smarty Jones’ underdog story during the 2004 Triple Crown.

Horse racing is so often a passion passed down generationally. The Nexus co-founders are trying to break down what they see as a high barrier into the industry.

“We just hope to show people that you don’t just have to be born into this sport,” said Sutton, who’s midway through optometry school at Indiana University. “You don’t have to be super rich or anything. That’s what we hope to do is just make it accessible, see that it is a possibility to get involved and enjoy this sport.”

Money is an obstacle. Training for high-profile thoroughbreds can cost upward of $34,000 a year, and Nexus’ first graded stakes race winner, Cruel Intention, was bought by LNJ Foxwoods and partners for $200,000.

That’s why in the almost three years since that fateful day at the track, the idea evolved from pooling money for a horse into a membership that partners with established owners on horses. It’s $100 to join, and while there’s no money in it when a Nexus horse wins a race, members can visit the barns and paddock, get daily updates and maybe even be in the winner’s circle – many perks of ownership without the hefty cost.

“A lot of people looked at us funny when we were like, `Oh, we’re going to have no money in these horses,”‘ said Bussanich, who is an equine and marketing double major at the University of Kentucky and works for Preakness-winning trainer Mark Casse. “For young people, it’s not a business. It’s getting to be able to touch a horse, be able to go to the races, be able to go into the paddock. We don’t need monetary involvement in the sport for it to be special for us.”

Bussanich says millennials and Generation Z want to feel special and suggests ideas like college ticket pricing and exclusive opportunities like she found at Royal Ascot in England last fall. Betting is confusing to her, but she believes visceral experiences are more important: her tears of joy when Casse’s War of Will won the Preakness, a horse’s breath helping a fan bond individually with the animal.

The industry is grappling with ideas to attract more bettors. Nexus is attempting to attract fans with an insider’s view of the sport.

“They get to come out to the barn in the mornings if they want, just show them what’s going on. I just thought it was pretty neat,” said owner and trainer Dallas Stewart, whose filly Diamond Crazy is part of the program.

Bernick, Roth, Stewart and Starlight Racing’s Jack Wolf were among the first to team up with Nexus, which now has over 70 members and connections to eight horses.

“I’d like them to have 5,000 because if this were available when I was growing up, I would’ve jumped for it,” said Bernick, who operates Glenn Hill Farm, which was started by his grandfather.

Sutton says she hopes the company that brought the women together can also lead to more women calling shots at higher levels of the sport.

“You’re starting to see more and more women become successful in this industry, whether it be owners or trainers or jockeys,” Cage said. “The more we can get this younger generation involved in this sport, the more of that you’re going to see because you hear about horse-crazy little girls and a lot of us don’t grow out of that phase. We’re just going to keep seeing more of that.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont Stakes, not the 2017 race.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Qatar Prix de Arc de Triomphe
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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.