Did Churchill’s Fall Meet Lack Enthusiasm, Good Racing???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Churchill Downs’ fall meet left a lot to be desired

The final three days — with progressively warmer weather, good and enthusiastic crowds and terrific stakes — let the meet end on a very high note.

But make no mistake: This was a bad meet for Churchill Downs.

Usually the fall meet smooths over the ills of the spring meet, when competition for horses is brutal and the short fields show it. Louisville is a great autumn stopping point for one more race before the breeding shed or before heading south for the winter.

Usually the fields are full, the daily racing has a lot of quality and there is a happy buzz throughout the meet. Kentucky horse racing’s ongoing implosion is easy to ignore until Turfway Park opens.

Not this year. I’ve never seen a fall meet met with less enthusiasm.

True, there was some cold and soggy weather. That happens in November in Kentucky.

Could it have been that the new September meet kept Louisvillians from embracing the traditional fall session as being special, since they’d gone only three weeks without live racing?

Then there was the racing itself. Some of the allowance races, 2-year-old maiden races and stakes showcased top-flight horses. But the daily fodder was increasingly bleak, dominated by cheaper claiming races and often with more than half the card being maiden races. Too many had short fields.

Much of it stems from the competitive disadvantage that Kentucky racing has been in the last 20 years as other tracks in the region siphon off horses with purses boosted by slot machines.

Add in this: During the meet, Keno started locally and is proving very popular in South Louisville, a horse racing stronghold. That is only more competition for the gaming dollar.

Still, some of the malaise was self-inflicted.

Churchill unilaterally bumped purses for its new September meet far above what horsemen expected to run for, at the same time assuring trainers and owners that the November racing would not be impacted.

When Churchill’s projections were off, daily average purses for November were reduced 22 percent from 2012 — a huge hit even given that there were four more racing days. For the first time in memory, purses at the Churchill Downs Inc.-owned Fair Grounds were better than those at Churchill’s fall meet.

The week-plus overlap with Fair Grounds exacerbated matters. I never saw so many empty stalls and barns with almost two weeks left in the meet.

It’s stunning that average field size was still as high as 8.84, down from 9.56 during the 21-date meet of 2012. That’s with 20 of 52 scheduled grass races taken off the turf.

Churchill can’t help the weather, but it can help how it treats customers. The track has run off fans through actions such as eliminating the Twin Spires Club that let members get in for a buck. It hasn’t helped that Louisvillians who have had Derby boxes for decades find them taken away, moved or made into prohibitively expensive Personal Seat Licenses. This certainly is Churchill’s right, but it doesn’t foster fan loyalty.

Many fans disliked being shoehorned into The Parlay for offseason simulcasting.

Take Howard Lerner, who has been going to Churchill for 60 years. Part of his discontent this fall was that too many horses who didn’t figure to were winning and too many who seemed like locks were up the track.

“I have never, ever, in all the years I’ve been following it had less interest in what is going on at Churchill Downs than I have right now,” the Gold Room and Turf Club member said. “My views are that the management of Churchill Downs wants to run everybody off.

“For instance, how can you invite somebody to spend an entire day with you to bet simulcast racing and not provide a hamburger for them? The food is absolutely horrible. They offer you premade sandwiches. ‘Take it or leave it. And if you don’t like it, go home and bet on Twinspires.com.’ ”

Lerner is among those who believe that discouraged simulcast bettors now are staying home during live racing.

The $1 draft beer and hot dogs on closing day were nice. Ellis Park does that every Sunday.

Something needs to be done about Sundays. Nobody was there, and it didn’t look like the Family Fun Days did any business at all. I know NFL Sunday Ticket is exorbitant for big facilities, but how do the big sports bars make it work?

Trying to predict kickoff for the University of Louisville’s Saturday home games is impossible. So why not schedule night racing when the Cardinals are on the road or playing on a weeknight?

Why no on-track handicapping contest? Those brought in people who bet the races live.

Churchill and its corporate management might think they do a lot for the average fan — their consumers — but those I hear from just don’t see it. Perception becomes reality in such a competitive landscape.


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