Case Study: Unique Storytelling, Crossover Appeal and an Enchanting Equine Angle Help the Breeders’ Cup Set Records

Organization: The Breeders’ Cup

Agency: Conover Tuttle Pace

Timeframe: August - Nov. 2010

Tweet This: Although Zenyatta (at left) came up a nose short against Blame in one of the most dramatic Breeders’ Cup races ever, Blame did not have his own Twitter account.  Photo courtesy of Conover Tuttle Pace

What drinks beer, dances and inspires a record number of wagers? No, we’re not talking about the attendees of PR News ’ Nov. 2011 Twitter Conference in Las Vegas. The answer is Zenyatta—the remarkable horse and cornerstone of the PR strategy for the Quest for Perfection campaign for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup World Championship.

A two-day, 14-race showcase of the world’s top thoroughbreds, the Breeders’ Cup is a horse-racing staple. In recent years, however, overall interest—even at the biggest horse racing events—has dropped significantly. For PR agency Conover Tuttle Pace (CTP) and the Breeders’ Cup, a successful 2010 event would be tied to how well they could attract and engage mainstream audiences. In its two previous editions, which were held at Santa Anita near Los Angeles, CTP and the Breeders’ Cup took advantage of the event’s proximity to Hollywood by engaging celebrities to help spread excitement. However, for its 27th edition on Nov. 6-7, 2010, the event headed to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., a boon for the hard-core horse-racing fan but not an ideal location for cultivating national mainstream awareness. The small, relatively remote media market of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup demanded a unique, integrated and far-reaching program to deliver on the following goals:

1. Drive ticket sales and attendance

2. Promote wagering

3. Continue establishing the Breeders’ Cup as one of the nation’s elite events


In the early planning stages in August 2010, the combined six-person communications team identified a contending horse with the potential to captivate even those with little interest in horse racing. Zenyatta, the female horse named for The Police album “Zenyatta Mondatta,” remained undefeated while running against males. As much as she was respected for her record, she had also become a star for her personality. When Zenyatta approached the track prior to racing, she danced. She sipped Guinness after workouts and won every one of her races in a thrilling, come-from-behind fashion. Zenyatta’s dominance on the track and quirky antics had even earned her a spot on Oprah’s “2010 O Power List.”

A victory in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic would also make her the first horse in 130 years to retire undefeated with at least 20 wins. So CTP zeroed in on a strategy to promote the Breeders’ Cup through the blinders of Zenyatta.

The Quest for Perfection campaign sought to deliver her story to mainstream audiences, turn her race into one of the year’s most anticipated events and, subsequently, impact the Cup’s bottom line. “We rarely put our all our eggs in one basket on a horse for the campaign because they can get hurt, retire or they simply lose, but Zenyatta was different,” says Pete Rotundo, VP of media and entertainment for the Breeders’ Cup.

Rotundo and the team had a video made and a Web site ready to be launched going into her 19th race on October 2. Within one hour of her winning, the “Zenyatta Takes Over Secretariat Trailer!!!” was launched on YouTube. And from that point, the PR race was on.


The Quest for Perfection campaign was to be centered on great storytelling. From “girl against the boys” and her captivating personality to rock-star roots (owner Jerry Moss was a cofounder of A&M Records who worked closely with The Police), Zenyatta delivered something for just about everyone.

“Horse racing is a bit of a self-contained industry sometimes, so we wanted something outside audiences could get behind,” says Jenna Browning, senior account executive at CTP. Reaching diverse audiences required an integrated approach replete with social, digital and traditional tactics.


The team created a social media strategy that included regular Twitter and Facebook updates on Breeders’ Cup pages, and established a roster of nearly a dozen celebrities—from Chad Ochocinco to Alyssa Milano—to tweet about the Breeders’ Cup. They also managed a dedicated Twitter handle for Zenyatta (@2010zenyatta) where they could tell her story by sharing news and exclusive updates.

To engage horseplayers, they relaunched, a specialized site that served as a bettor’s guide. The team provided a live stream of The Draw (which reveals each horses’ starting position) on on Nov. 1, an added feature for 2010 that netted over 10,000 streams.

Next, they assisted in the development and promotion of the Official Breeders’ Cup iPhone and iPad app. NFL personalities Ochocinco and Terrell Owens visited Zenyatta and tweeted to their combined 2.3 million followers to “Get the Breeders Cup Official App today! Its free to download. Make sure to check out Zenyatta!”, which provided a major kick to the campaign, says Rotundo.

A microsite,, was also launched to connect fans with her leading up to the race. “We worked closely with Zenyatta’s team—owners, trainers and jockey Mike Smith—for a flow of photos, videos and training updates people couldn’t get anywhere else,” says Browning.

To capitalize on the already hundreds of Zenyatta fan-made videos on YouTube, two weeks before the race, CTP launched a “Zenyatta Fan Video” contest via the Breeders’ Cup Facebook page to win a VIP trip to the Eclipse Awards, which honor champions of the sport, the following January in Miami.


A traditional media relations plan was also put into action. Browning says pitches explained Zenyatta’s legend and her crossover appeal, and targeted major newspapers, magazines, national news stations and morning/daytime and late-night TV shows. “We were lucky with the variety of angles we had,” says Browning.

The agency pitched CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell the story of Zenyatta’s impact on the business of the Breeders’ Cup. Rovell then interviewed Greg Avioli, CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, and on the day before the Classic, posted a lengthy piece, “Zenyatta Can’t Retire After Saturday,” on his “Sports Biz” blog. He tweeted a link to the story to his 62,200-plus followers.

For Browning, the most difficult and unique aspect of the campaign was having a centerpiece that couldn’t give interviews. “We were lucky that she had a great team around her—her personality and story had to be told through other spokespeople,” says Browning.


Despite Zenyatta’s heartbreaking loss, coming up just short to Blame—the 2010 event was the most successful Breeders’ Cup of all time. Results include:

The Bottom Line: Ticket sales increased 40% from 2009 and attendance reached 114,353. Revenue increased 27.4% from 2009, while wagering reached a record $196 million.

Awareness: Unaided awareness of the event increased to 44% (from 14% in 2006). Consumer research revealed that among U.S. sports fans overall awareness increased to 96% (from 40% in 2006).

Media Highlights: More than 5 million TV viewers watched the Classic—ranking above nationally televised NBA and MLB games, NASCAR telecasts and the Ryder Cup. Rovell’s piece was discussed on Slate’s sports podcast and picked up by the USA Today “Game On” blog, in addition to several pick-ups across various sports business Web sites and blogs.

• Social Media: The campaign led to a one-year, 200% increase (to 13,100) in Breeders’ Cup Facebook fans and engaged more than 3,900 Breeders’ Cup Twitter followers, up 76% from 2009. “Breeders’ Cup” and “Zenyatta” were trending topics during the event. Zenyatta’s Twitter handle reached 1,300 followers in one month. The effort attracted 1,311 subscribers to the Breeders’ Cup YouTube channel, with over 1.46 million total views.

Digital Initiatives: An iPhone/iPad app received 49,000 downloads in one month, fifth among free sports apps in the iTunes Store. Traffic on reached a record 500,000 page views.

Rotundo admits that 2010’s Zenyatta story was a tough acto to follow in 2011, but he says the Breeders’ Cup’s future looks bright. The now-retired Zenyatta will be giving birth soon. “The birth will be a big event.” says Rotundo. But, will the foal drink and dance? PRN


Jenna Browning,, Pete Rotundo,; Slash Coleman,

Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg