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Bobby Flay boosts the Breeders’ Cup’s luxe quotient

October 31, 2014, 7:17 PM UTC
Host Chef Bobby Flay is seen at The Breeders' Cup "A Taste of the World" event at the Huntington Library, on Friday Nov. 1, 2013, in San Marino Calif. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision for Breeders' Cup/AP Images)
Host Chef Bobby Flay is seen at The Breeders' Cup "A Taste of the World" event at the Huntington Library, on Friday Nov. 1, 2013, in San Marino Calif. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision for Breeders' Cup/AP Images)
Photograph by Matt Sayles—Invision for Breeders' Cup/AP

What do Food Network star Bobby Flay and the Breeders’ Cup horse racing event have in common? Luxury, apparently.

That’s because the five-star chef, whose horse More Than Real won an event there in 2010, is the co-chair of the Cup’s enhanced experience committee. That team has been tasked with making the event a more luxe experience for fans and horse owners alike.

It’s a tough ask to drastically change a horse racing event with a purse of $26 million total. In fact, the Breeders’ Cup is considered the sport’s world championship. Every year, horses from around the globe travel to the racetrack—which for the last three years has been set at Santa Anita Park in California—to bring their owners glory.

This year that aim is no different. But what has changed increasingly over the last few years are the rebranding efforts to make the Breeders’ Cup a more fan and owner-friendly affair, including serving better food, adding on more races over a longer span of time, and providing perks for horse owners to keep making the trek each year.

“We have owners from all around the world. These guys are putting a lot of money to [get here],” said Peter Rotondo, the vice president of media and entertainment at Breeders’ Cup. “They’re flying their horses to get into the Breeders’ Cup. We need to create an experience for them.”

Unsurprisingly, Flay’s flavor of leadership so far has been with food at the forefront. He has helped start and enhance an exclusive, invite-only “Taste of the World” event, a “Taste of Napa”-themed soiree for attendees, a trackside breakfasts for the owners to watch their horses train and plenty of champagne available throughout, among other dining options.

CEO Craig Fravel underscored the enhanced food offerings at the event as intrinsic to the Breeders’ Cups more luxurious feel. “We’ve brought in a lot of elements over the last three or four years,” he said, including the cuisine upgrades. But food and champagne aren’t meant to overshadow the races, it seems. Fravel added that his Breeders’ Cup is “not only a great time from a food and beverage perspective, but also one of the best races in the world.”

Barry Weisbord, the co-chair of the enhanced experience committee first met Bobby Flay about 20 years ago and noted that their relationship has been symbiotic: “I introduced him to horse racing, and he introduced me to restaurant world.” That partnership appears to have considerably affected the event.

Weisbord, who has been involved with the Breeders’ Cup since 2008, said that their committee’s role is to “make the experience of engaging with the Breeders’ Cup a more enriching experience.” But that’s not reserved only for the fans. Weisbord said the horse owners, trainers, sponsors, and broadcasters benefit from the new additions.

“Bobby has really been the moral compass” for the event’s enhancements, according to Weisbord, adding, “He makes his living in having consistency in service and a luxury and fine dining experience whenever you go to his restaurants. I think his vision has rubbed off,” Weisbord said.

Weisbord noted the impetus for the slew of changes to the event stemmed from increased competition. “The world of international racing events has gotten a lot more crowded in the last few years,” he said. As a result, the Breeders’ Cup needed to evolve its platform to stay relevant in the luxury space.

One of the celebrity ambassadors summoned to provide the Breeders’ Cup with its exclusive and expensive feel is Bo Derek, an actress best known for her 1979 film 10. Derek also happens to be an avid horse lover and animal rights activist, serving on the California Horse Racing Board (former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked her to join in 2008, naturally). Derek, who owns horses of her own and rides regularly, told Fortune: “The Breeders’ Cup is the ultimate race for me— the biggest purses, the fastest horses from around the world.” She added that her role as ambassador is “spreading the word” and sharing her “passion” for horse racing. Her involvement, in turn, is expected to pay dividends with fans attending the two-day affair.

Weisbord says that the enhanced experience committee was born in part to shake off overconfidence and inspire innovation. “Although we’ve been around for a long time, we’re really leaders in this field before a number of our competitors even existed. We maybe got a little sleepy which can happen to a lot of business and sports properties. And we sort of needed to take a step back and say what can we do to get less sleepy,” he said.

Fravel explained that some of the biggest obstacles in building up the Breeders’ Cup have been technical—within the horse racing community. “The challenges are there always a lot of moving parts,” he said. “There are more independent entities [within horse racing and] there are no national entities that schedule races.”

Derek, too, made similar remarks about the difficulties the structure of U.S. horse racing presents. “Racing in the U.S. suffers from not having a national governing body,” she said. “Everything is regulated state-by-state.”

Coordinating with the national television schedule is impacted by the roadblocks, said Fravel. On that front though, the Breeders’ Cup has expanded to include 18 televised qualifying races, dubbed the “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In,” which provides increased air time—all broadcast on NBC.

Ray Katz, a professor of sports marketing at Columbia University, called the upped partnership with NBC a boon. He also praised the event’s efforts to be more luxury-focused, a trend in sports these days. “A luxury event has to be more than just sports. It has to entail ideally some level of culture, some level of entertainment, some level of food and some level of wine and other fine spirits. It’s got to be aspirational,” he said. Sporting events from basketball, hockey and football are “offering more of an upscale experience,” according to Katz. The Breeders’ Cup, of course, among them.

But despite added competition from other racing events and other sports that have started providing more luxury offers, Weisbord remains optimistic. “We’ll be much better equipped to stay competitive from all other racing events from around the world because we’re into the fourth year of these initiatives, and our eyes are on the ball,” he said.