Archive for Churchill Downs

Could Churchill Use The Popularity of the Kentucky Derby to Make Positive Changes in Horse Racing???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Churchill could spark change

Imagine a run-up to the Triple Crown that didn’t include the Florida Derby or the Fountain of Youth or the Louisiana Derby. Such an upheaval to so traditional a road is unlikely, of course, but if it did happen, if an imperative forced the highway to take a dramatic detour, then after a few shocking moments and a few more aftershocks it would probably be good for racing.

Yes, good for racing, salubrious even. The sport must make dramatic changes. Wagering on horse racing has declined 2.41 percent from a year ago, according to Equibase; purses are down, too. The stakeholders must shake off their inertia and embrace change. Racetracks can’t operate like little fiefdoms, nor states like islands. In the struggle to achieve uniform medication rules, Churchill Downs could do the sport a great service if it would strip the Florida Derby, the Fountain of Youth and the Louisiana Derby of all their precious Kentucky Derby qualifying points, and, even better, nullify the Lecomte, Holy Bull, Tampa Bay Derby and Risen Star Stakes, too, along with, don’t forget, the Delta Downs Jackpot.

Such extremes probably wouldn’t be necessary. A warning might suffice, making clear that all of Florida’s and Louisiana’s Derby preps could be erased from the ruddy Derby roadmap, effective in, perhaps, 2016. That warning would allow their advocates a little time to recover from apoplexy and attempt to do something about it.

And that, of course, would be the actual goal, their doing something about it. The threat of such a seismic shift would contribute to the longterm health of the sport if it forced Florida and Louisiana to adopt, at the very least, the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule of the model rules recommended by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Keep in mind that these model rules developed by veterinarians and scientists are based on years of research and piles of data, not on horsemen’s hankering. The rules are strict, but also organic, incorporating the latest findings and analysis. And the rules’ adoption is positively essential if racing is to prosper, for they’re the foundation of the uniform rules that the sport desperately needs.

For any number of reasons, one of them being that Churchill owns the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, it’s a wild idea, linking the Kentucky Derby points to uniform rules. Then again, it’s even wilder, perhaps crazy, that there are no nationally uniform medication rules, and that’s really the point.

In the last year, horse racing has made significant, even great, progress towards the adoption of uniform medication rules. As a result, in the next year the number of states operating under the model medication rules will increase from four to 16. But, most notably, six states have yet to adopt the rules — Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They’re stuck in a morass of bureaucracy and, in some cases, stupidity. Churchill Downs could encourage them out of that morass, as could the American Graded Stakes Committee.

The American Graded Stakes Committee has added eight graded stakes for 2015 and two of those, the Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park and the Penn Mile at Penn National, are run in states that have not adopted the model medication rules. But Pennsylvania “should be very close to fully implementing” the model guidelines, according to Dionne Benson, who’s both a veterinarian and an attorney and so ideally qualified as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. And in Florida, she said, horsemen have endorsed the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule; they’re not to blame. The obstacle to fully adopting the rules in Florida, she said, is largely legislative. Florida and Pennsylvania, in other words, have made significant progress in the general direction of uniform medication rules.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, has not. Oklahoma allows for the race-day use of phenylbutazone at a level that’s 2-1/2 times what the RMTC recommends in its model rules. In addition, Oklahoma permits the use of another pain-killer, flunixin (Banamine), and of two corticosteroids. Flagrantly and ponderously out of step with the progress throughout the sport, Oklahoma has the most permissive medication rules in the country. It’s a level of permissiveness that not only indulges some people’s inclination to rely more on medication than horsemanship, but also threatens to harm the bettors, the sport and, most important, the jockeys and horses. Regulators and horsemen there damage the sport and abuse its fans by not embracing medication reform and, more specifically, the model rules.

And so perhaps it’s not coincidental that the Springboard Mile is not among the eight races that in 2015 will be graded for the first time. Will Take Charge, the runner-up in the 2012 Springboard Mile, went on to be the next year’s champion 3-year-old. And at least the first three finishers in Sunday’s renewal at Remington Park in Oklahoma City — Bayerd, Shotgun Kowboy and High Noon Rider — appear to be very promising. Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma’s medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.

Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma’s medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.

Clearly the American Graded Stakes Committee has paired progress on medication reform with grading. Grading stakes is a powerful tool, and in this regard the committee is using it wisely for the amelioration of the sport. The message is that no racing jurisdiction can prosper as an island. The next step would be to downgrade existing graded stakes in states that have not adopted the model rules. Pennsylvania, you and your Penn Mile have a year. Florida, you have a year before the Donn and the Gulfstream Park Handicap slip to Grade 2.

But in some jurisdictions, Churchill Downs has an even more powerful goad, those cherished Kentucky Derby points that determine who’ll be in the roseate field. Would Florida lawmakers continue to loll in their morass if their derby were about to be relegated? That’s a question Churchill could ask for the good of the sport — might even enjoy asking.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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Was The Bettor Experience at Churchill One of the Worst???

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

Odds against bettors at Churchill meet

How to put this politely? Despite the usual great and profitable Kentucky Derby and Oaks cards and pockets of top-flight racing, this spring meet was the worst overall betting product I’ve seen in years at a place billing itself as the world’s most legendary racetrack.

The average field size declined from 7.78 horses for the 2013 spring meet to 7.29, and that’s with 24 fewer races in 2014, as Churchill wisely often ran only nine races instead of 10.

Even the highly publicized fisticuffs between Indian Charlie newsletter publisher Eddie Musselman and trainer Dale Romans could distract attention from the racing’s struggles for only a few days.

It wasn’t just bad numbers but too often short fields of bad horses. Late scratches were killers.

Certainly other tracks in the region face similar woes (see Ellis Park’s four-horse field that kicked off its meet Thursday). But Churchill Downs, by its own motto, is held to a higher standard.

The competition for horses is ferocious with Indiana Grand (formerly Indiana Downs) offering slots-enhanced purses and Belterra (formerly River Downs) running after a year hiatus during construction.

As Churchill track president Kevin Flanery said in an interview, competition in the simulcast market also became tougher, with Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita — offering a stronger brand than Calder and the defunct Hollywood Park — overlapping Churchill’s spring meet for the first time.

But some of the damage was self-inflicted and years in the making.

Much of the middle class, those with the small and medium-sized claiming stables, has been run off as Churchill catered to the big outfits that brought in quality but also a lot of 2-year-olds who might not run until the fall meet. More and more stalls are concentrated into fewer hands, and those hands don’t all have the kinds of horses needed to fill out a card today.

Some blue-collar outfits that do have those horses moved out of state or to training centers, where they are free agents with no obligation to race at Churchill.

What happened to all the claiming horses in the $10,000-$40,000 range? Your best shot at running at Churchill was to have a horse on the bottom or toward the top from a class perspective. The middle is shattered — albeit not just at Churchill.

Churchill cites a declining foal crop as a factor in field size. How about a lack of owners? Get owners wanting to race, and the breeders will come up with the horses.

It didn’t help that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s new medication rules went into effect June 6. Among other things, they changed the timing between giving Clenbuterol (a helpful medication to prevent or reduce respiratory ailments) and racing from three days to two weeks.

Some of the state-employed veterinarians were unusually strict in prerace soundness exams, something that a track can hardly protest. No stabling at Turfway and limited training at Keeneland surely cost Churchill horses.

Whatever the reasons, the bettors spoke with their wallets, with all-source wagering on the meet down 11.5 percent from a year ago. Total wagering dropped from $416.8 million to $368.8 million, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Factoring out Derby and Oaks days, it was down 25 percent.

The Horseplayers Association of North America says the No. 1 reason, more so than field size, was that Churchill increased the takeout (the money skimmed off the top of each dollar bet that goes to purses, the track and taxes) from 16 to 17½ percent for win, place and show bets and from 19 to 22 percent for multi-horse bets. In protest, HANA spearheaded a betting boycott.

HANA president Jeff Platt says the research shows that takeout — the cost of betting — has a far larger impact than field size on a regular racing day because of its effect on serious players.

“Forget that we’re boycotting,” Platt said. “It’s the market speaking about what players think about higher takeout.”

Flanery said he’s comfortable that Churchill remains in the middle range of takeout, higher than some in straight wagers and exactas but lower in trifectas and superfectas.

“We’re not the cheapest and we’re not the most expensive,” he said.

He sees field size, driven by horse population, as the major culprit and contends there would have been a purse decrease, including a significant cutback in stakes, without the price hike for betting.

Platt said that if the takeout increase had been in play only for Derby Day and possibly Oaks Day, “I wouldn’t have liked it … but there wouldn’t have been a boycott.” He said that’s because, with their much larger fields, high quality and massive betting pools, wagering on those cards still makes sense for the serious player.

Quick takes:

• Daily purses averaged $532,903 for 38 days, down about $2,000 per day.

• A total of 181 horses were claimed for $3.771 million, accounting for $226,260 in state sales taxes.

• New announcer Larry Collmus made entertaining even the two-horse race that occurred after a $5,000 claiming race had four scratches.

• Thankfully, Churchill learned to modulate its new sound system. Sadly, the impetus appeared to be the mare who died after flipping and hitting her head in apparent reaction to a loud video of a starting gate springing open.

• As said before, the new Grandstand Terrace and Big Board are welcome additions. As always, there certainly were things to like at the meet. But racing fans in Louisville want to once again love going to their hometown track (and I’m not talking about night racing.) That’s Churchill management’s challenge.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Derby Provides Many Things, Including a Level Playing Field for Connections

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of WDRB.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

In The Derby, Royalty and Regulars Race on Even Playing Field

I know that horse racing has problems. They will run the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and most sports fans in America won’t pay much more attention to the sport until this time next year, unless the Triple Crown becomes a possibility, or there’s an unfortunate tragedy.

This week we’ve heard renewed concerns about the well-being of racehorses. They’re legitimate. We’ve heard complaints about the way Churchill Downs is treating horsemen and other longtime racing fixtures. Those too, completely legitimate.

One walk through the Kentucky Derby Museum (which you should absolutely make, by the way) is enough to remind you that the sport isn’t what it used to be. I’ll go one better. The horses aren’t what they used to be. The breed is not as stable, the horses not as durable or, really, even as fast, despite all the breeding for speed. It’s a sport and a breed in decline.

I know all the problems. But this is why you should care about the Kentucky Derby. This is what this one horse race has over every other major sporting event in the nation, and perhaps the world.

There is no more democratic event in sports. They used to call it the sport of kings. These days, you also could call it the sport of kings for a day.

Consider the millions of dollars Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum has spent trying to win this race. (And, by the way, I’m grateful for his presence in the sport, and hope one day he is successful.) But he isn’t here in the Derby this year, and has need won it.

Daniel and Lori Dougherty are here. The Louisville residents who used to own a furniture store paid the bargain basement price of $25,000 for the son of Curlin, and got the deal on him because he had a turned-in foot. His trainer, “Bronco” Billy Gowan was down to one horse not too long ago, because of injuries. That one horse was this one, who Calvin Borel will ride in the Derby.

It’s not the only story. Each year brings new ones.

You can watch the Super Bowl, where billionaire owners whose teams play in publicly financed stadiums clash in battles of blue-bloods.

In the Kentucky Derby, the blue bloods are trying to get in. The Doughertys have been offered more than a million for their colt. No way.

The owners of California Chrome have been offered six times that. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin call their operation “Dumb-Ass Partners,” and some would say it’s exactly that to turn down a $6 million offer. Coburn didn’t like the idea of some big-shot coming in and buying the Kentucky Derby. “The offer came from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning,” he said.

No sale.

I’m not saying horse racing isn’t a rich person’s game. It is. It always has been. But you can spend a ton of money and never make it to the Kentucky Derby. You can breed and wheel and deal and never feel the excitement of your horse on the track when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played.

The most expensive colt ever bought at auction — for $16 million — raced three times, never won, and was retired. A colt that was bred for a $2,500 stud fee is the favorite for this year’s Derby.

Name me another sport in which people with regular jobs walk onto a level playing field with royalty.

In this year’s Derby, there are syndicates and causes, Wounded Warrior project benefactors and wine distributors. Wildcat Red is owned by Salvatore Delfino and his wife Josie Martino Delfino, wine importer/exporters from Venezuela.

Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, has been trying to train a Kentucky Derby starter his whole life. Others get here quickly.

Wicked Strong runs in memory of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Samraat is owned by the the chairman of Barnes & Noble, Leonard Riggio, who built the bookstore giant out of one college bookstore he opened in 1965.

The Dale Romans-trained Medal Count is owned by historic Spendthrift Farm. Commanding Curve is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a syndicate founded by Terry Finley, a former artillery officer.

They come from all over. The super wealthy, the moderately well-to-do, and the ones who have poured everything into this opportunity hoping it will lead to more.

The special thing about the first Saturday in May is that no matter how many resources they have, when the horses go into the paddock, it’s saddle, and rider, and talent and luck that will determine who fades, and who goes down in history. And there’s not a bank account on the track that can change that.

Sure, you can buy the Kentucky Derby. But you can also spend hundreds of millions and not buy it. Of the 49 most expensive yearlings purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2012, none will start in the Kentucky Derby. You have to get to Intense Holiday, the 50th most expensive, to find a starter.

In a world where, increasingly, money rules all, the Derby has a way of breaking wealthy hearts as easily as anyone else’s.

Horse racing has problems, yes. I’m not even suggesting that anyone forget about them.

But for two minutes on the first Saturday in May, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It matters how much horse you have. It doesn’t matter if you got to Churchill Downs in a private jet flown halfway around the world or a horse trailer from New Mexico. For two minutes in May, money doesn’t matter.

It’s not often in sports you can say that anymore.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Churchill Recap: Top Horses Remain Elite, Middle and Lower Ranks Need Depth

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

Churchill Downs’ 2013 spring meet was pretty much a rerun of recent years

Same old, same old.

Racing at the top remains terrific. For only the fourth time anywhere, reigning winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Fort Larned, who won the Stephen Foster) and Ladies’ Classic (Royal Delta, who lost the Fleur de Lis) ran on the same card. Stakes remained inordinately tough for their relatively sparse purses — Horse of the Year Wise Dan ran in a Grade II for $150,000. Money-won allowance races once again were like graded stakes.

But the middle and bottom continue to deteriorate with too many short fields of bad horses. It’s one thing to have a six-horse field of strong allowance horses, another when it’s a bottom claiming or maiden race. Middle-range claiming races are lucky to even be used.

Part of this is competition from other tracks in the region with purses supplemented by slots. Part of it is self-inflicted. Churchill often has catered to the biggest outfits, giving them way more than what is supposed to be the maximum number of stalls per trainer, and as a result has squeezed out a chunk of its middle- and lower-middle class and smaller outfits.

Now they need those blue-collar horses to fill the cheaper races that take up an increasing percentage of the daily program. However, many of those horses are no longer stabled at Churchill but training centers (or out of state). As such, their trainers are not beholden to running at Churchill, and instead increasingly are running for very good money against lesser competition elsewhere.

What happens to all the 2-year-old maiden winners? Not long ago, Churchill had three stakes for 2-year-old colts in the spring. Now there’s only the Bashford Manor (plus the Debutante for fillies). And there’s virtually no such thing as an allowance race for 2-year-olds. How is this, with so many 2-year-olds on the grounds?

In the big picture, Churchill has fewer problems than most racetracks. But it’s the only one calling itself “the World’s Most Legendary Racetrack.”

• Horse of the meet: How often do you get to see the Horse of the Year run twice at a Churchill meet? Wise Dan won the Grade I Woodford Reserve with aplomb, then overcame traffic in the Firecracker Handicap. A $150,000, Grade II stakes wouldn’t seem to do much for the gelding’s legacy. But that high-weight of 128 pounds — in this day and age — is going to look good on his career record.

• Race of the meet: Fort Larned’s 6-¼-length Stephen Foster victory in near track-record amid a field populated with Grade I winners was electrifying. Here’s hoping Fort Larned and Wise Dan meet at some point this year.

• Jockey of the meet: Shaun Bridgmohan won his first spring title with 53 wins, including six stakes.

• Leading newcomer (famous division): Rosie Napravnik, who dominated the past three winters in New Orleans, didn’t win the title but had a huge meet to finish second to Bridgmohan with 45 wins.

• Leading newcomer (who? division): We now know who jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. is after he finished fourth with 28 victories.

• Apprentice: Dylan Davis, son of former jockey Robbie Davis, won 16 races.

• Best week: Joel Rosario rode here Derby Week and June 15, but still finished sixth in the jockey standings, going 17 for 46. And, of course, he got the big one, the Derby on Orb.

• Owners stat: Ken and Sarah Ramsey not only smashed the record for wins at a meet (32), but they were the racing office’s best friend with 103 starters. They also won four stakes.

• Unsung heroes: Churchill Downs’ outriders, starting-gate and track-maintenance crews. These are jobs where experience matters.

• Curiously quiet: Dale Romans, the reigning Eclipse Award trainer and who ranks No. 2 in career wins at his hometown track, clearly is in rebuilding (and, in the case of multiple Grade I winners Little Mike and Dullahan, regrouping) mode, with only five wins out of 61 starts. When he won last year’s spring title, Romans went 23 for 122.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

In The Process of Growing, Did Churchill Downs Lose Its Charm???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Progress is no subtle beast

First images can be burned forever into memory.

The Grand Canyon. Niagara Falls. The Colosseum in Rome. Big Sur. The Manhattan skyline. The twin spires at Churchill Downs silhouetted against the gentle illumination of first light viewed from the end of the mile chute.

That image now lingers only in memory. The iconic spires remain but are now dwarfed by the towering expanses built to accommodate luxury suites and casinos that have yet to be embraced by Kentucky politicians. The top floors of the new version of Churchill Downs look down on the spires, the historic track’s once crowning glory overshadowed by what some see as progress, others as desecration by architecture.

The Churchill Downs landscape, the Kentucky Derby and the city that is home to both have undergone dramatic evolution since the last Derby winner won the Triple Crown.

Kentucky itself has seen marked change in the past 30 years. The distillation of bourbon is constant, but the autumn air around Lexington no longer carries the pungent scent of curing tobacco. Poultry, not horses, is the state’s largest agricultural product. The breeding industry has contracted as other states offer generous incentives fueled by proceeds from alternative gaming. Louisville has become a livable city.

When Affirmed beat Alydar in the Derby of 1978, Louisville was very much a river town struggling almost apologetically to keep up with the 20th century. Churchill Downs, up close, looked like the work of a dyslexic madman with a life-size erector set, and the Derby was the only race run there that mattered.

What is now a vibrant city — with a nationally prominent medical community, rejuvenated historical districts, diverse cultural alternatives, good restaurants and hotels, expansive public parks, colleges and a large university, accommodating suburbs, nightlife, and an active downtown — has evolved from a town that not too long ago hunkered down on the southern bank of the Ohio River, doing its best to avoid the attention of outsiders except when they brought money in copious sums during the first weekend of May.

In that Louisville, there were, at most, four habitable hotels, at least two of which required a taste for (or at least tolerance of) sketchy decor and all things musty and worn. There were fewer acceptable restaurants capable of much more than a regional stew known as burgoo or a plate of congealed cheese, sliced turkey and tomato known as a “hot brown.” Both were acquired tastes. There was, however, an abundance of dark and often-forbidding bars, most of which had windows decorated with neon signs that said either “Whiskey” or “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

Louisville in 2013 barely resembles the city in which Affirmed beat Alydar, an era that predates guided morning tours of the Churchill Downs backstretch, the orchestrated and convoluted draw for post position staged inconveniently in late afternoon, point systems, and a race presented by a fast-food conglomerate that sells more fried chicken in China than in the land of Colonel Sanders.

There was no Churchill Downs Inc. in those days. The home of the Derby was simply Churchill Downs, a racing association without greater ambition. The stock was owned primarily by people with an interest in the sport and was thinly traded. A typical racing card was not discernibly better than those offered at nearby River Downs or what was then known at Latonia, now Turfway Park, generally cheap horses even on the Derby-day supporting card. In the pre-Internet infancy of simulcasting, there was no advance-deposit wagering platform, no consideration of shareholder interest. With “Inc.” came acquisitions in Florida, Chicago and New Orleans as well as a tote company, casinos and an online poker enterprise. The Derby went from big race to an industry unto itself. With “Inc.” came a new image and a view focused on the bottom line. Homespun, how-y’all-doin’ Churchill Downs was gone, never to return.

This is how the present-day “Inc.” describes itself:

“CDI is a diversified growth company built around three core businesses.

“Our Racing operations occupy more than 800 acres of real estate in four cities: Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Calder Casino & Race Course in Miami Gardens, Florida; Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Ky., home of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

“Our Gaming operations consist of 33,000 square feet of gaming space, including slots machines, table games and a poker room at Harlow’s Casino Resort & Hotel in Greenville, Miss., 1,245 slot machines and poker room at the Calder Casino, 606 slot machines at the Fair Grounds Slots venue, and 809 video poker machines at our 11 off-track-betting establishments in New Orleans.

“Our online operations include our Internet wagering business, TwinSpires.com, an interest in the horse racing television network HRTV and our Bloodstock Research and Information Services business which provides handicapping and breeding data and publications.”

Rapidly expanding “Inc.” needed an upgraded image, and the eyesore that was Churchill Downs beneath the spires — a patchwork of metalwork in which each of many expansions was clearly evident — fell to the 20th century. From 2001 to 2005, the track underwent a 3½ year, $121 million renovation. The clubhouse and grandstand were replaced with a pair of huge buildings that house 79 luxury suites. The corporate culture overtook the hard boots. The twin spires, an iconic landmark, became a logo.

This ain’t your daddy’s Churchill Downs. There was a certain charm that is no longer part of the racing experience in Louisville. Old Churchill welcomed you back every spring like an old friend. “Inc.” is impersonal and aloof. It revolves around return-on-investment and share price, not tradition. It could be anywhere.

But for all its commercial diversification and ever-widening sphere, “Inc.” still lives and dies with two days in May. Derby eve, Oaks day, was once known as “Louisville’s day at the races,” until “Inc.” — recognizing a captive audience when it saw one — introduced the requirement to purchase tickets for both days and moved the celebration for locals to Thursday.

On most days, Churchill Downs is like any other racetrack — generally empty. Night racing on Fridays has been popular, but day to day, few rattle around in a place built to accommodate large crowds. Unlike other tracks, it has this advantage: About a quarter-million people will be in attendance over the weekend and “Inc.” will maximize the opportunity. There is no draw in American sport quite like the Derby, which holds an audience for some eight hours from first post until last, much of that time devoted to eating, drinking and gambling.

With its various enterprises, “Inc.” now enjoys a national scope that expands exponentially into the international market on the first Saturday of May, but most outside Louisville or without direct connection to the racing industry still know it only as the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby.

Once upon a time, that was enough.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Rebel Stakes Proof That New Derby Points System Works???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Rebel proof new points system works

Those Kentucky Derby scholarships have been revoked, those free rides discontinued that would have led to a reserved stall in the starting gate. Sixteen spots for the Derby remain open and vacant; they wait to be won. And so the next five weeks could produce some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern interstate highway system that annually leads to Kentucky.

It’s a healthy situation for the sport, and it’s largely a result of the new point system employed by Churchill Downs. When announced last year, the new system met with skepticism and with tiresome cackles of “If it ain’t broke …” The usual parties circled around, quite predictably, to protect their own interests, whether they were the entitlements of precocious 2-year-olds or the exalted status of certain races. Only a few observers, it seemed, even acknowledged that there might be a larger question, as in whether this change would be good for racing. Well, it is. It’s very good for racing, which the upcoming weeks will demonstrate.

As you’re undoubtedly aware, points in designated races have replaced earnings in graded stakes as the criterion for determining the 20 Kentucky Derby starters. But why is that improvement, and why is it salubrious for the sport?

If the earlier method were still employed today, then at least 12 Triple Crown nominees, not counting fillies or injured horses, such as Violence and Ive Struck A Nerve, would already have a bankroll large enough to virtually guarantee them a run at the famed roses. Even worse, they wouldn’t necessarily be the 12 most worthy horses, nor would they be the fans’ most desirable dozen.

He’s Had Enough, for example, has $442,000 in graded earnings, most of that ($360,000) from his runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race that nearly disintegrated in the overheated turbulence of its pace. Under the graded-earnings criterion, that $442,000 would have reserved him a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Last year, with earnings in graded stakes of $184,708, Optimizer was the 20th horse to qualify for the Derby. In 2010, Make Music For Me needed $218,750 in graded earnings to gain the 20th spot in the Derby, and that was the most ever required.

In other words, under the former rules, He’s Had Enough would have earned all he needed in the Juvenile; he, in effect, would have won a Kentucky Derby scholarship by finishing second last November at Santa Anita. But does he deserve a scholarship, a free ride into the Derby? Should he already have a reserved stall in the starting gate and a saddle towel adorned with a Derby logo and his name? After all, he has won only once in his career, a maiden race in his debut. And since the Breeders’ Cup, he has finished fifth in the CashCall Futurity, third (which was also next to last) in the Robert Lewis Stakes and fifth in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by a total of nearly 27 lengths.

Does Fortify deserve a scholarship? With $220,000 in graded earnings as a 2-year-old, he would have had one under the former system, even though he has won only once in his career and finished sixth in his most recent outing in Dubai.

In the new qualifying format, a horse might need something around 40 points to assure himself a place in the roseate lineup. He’s Had Enough has six points and Fortify three, but with 12 races remaining that offer points, they still have the opportunity to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby, and that’s, well, the point. The new system is more meritocratic.

And, in fact, it was indeed broken, that old system for determining the Derby starters. For evidence of that, just look at the leading graded money winners among this year’s Triple Crown nominees and ask yourself how many of the top 20 should run in the Kentucky Derby.

Grades were never intended to be used for winnowing the Derby chaff from the Derby contenders. Success in a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds or in a turf race, no matter what their grades, isn’t predictive of success in the Kentucky Derby. And, frankly, Churchill Downs was foolish ever to allow the Graded Stakes Committee to determine who runs in the Derby. Why would you throw a million-dollar party and let some committee in Lexington make out the guest list?

But with its point system, Churchill took possession of its Derby this year, and the consequences of that decision are already looking very positive. Only four horses — Hear The Ghost, Orb, Verrazano and Vyjack, who all have 50 points — are already in the Derby.

And so, 16 spots are open with 12 races remaining. That’s the sort of drama fans love. Does the new system place too much emphasis on these final races, which are worth more points than earlier preps?

Pondering that question and having realized that the foremost Triple Crown candidate in his barn, Uncaptured, would have, because of a minor injury, only two races prior to the Derby, trainer Mark Casse said, “If a horse can’t run well in either of his final preps, then he shouldn’t be in the Derby.”

If that seems apostasy, it’s because the Derby scholarship has become so accepted. But the scholarships have been revoked and the free rides discontinued.

No, this year, for many, getting into the Derby comes down to these final prep races. Momentum is building; stakes are rising. To reserve a place for himself in the Churchill starting gate, Shanghai Bobby needs another good outing in the Florida Derby, but is that too much to ask of a champion? Revolutionary needs a one-two finish in the Louisiana Derby, Normandy Invasion needs to put his troubles behind him in the Wood, and Uncaptured must return with his best form in either the Spiral or the Blue Grass if they’re to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby.

These final preps are going to reverberate with drama and intrigue. Just look at Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, worth 50 points to the winner, which, of course, is tantamount to a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Super Ninety Nine, who won the Southwest Stakes in a romp, has returned from California and appears formidable, even intimidating, but few have backed down. In fact, the field is laden with speed, with the sort of horses that could challenge Super Ninety Nine early. Delhomme, for example, who finished third after leading until deep stretch in the Remsen, is making his seasonal debut. Oxbow, who won the Lecomte Stakes by more than 11 lengths before a troubled trip and a fourth in the Risen Star Stakes, could also challenge. Treasury Bill and Den’s Legacy would probably benefit from a lively and contentious pace, and then there’s Carve, an intriguing sort if only because he’s unbeaten.

It’s a terrific race, this Rebel, and it’s just the next step in this progression. Partly because of a new point system, the next five weeks could offer some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern thoroughfare that leads to Kentucky.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?