Archive for Churchill Downs

What Makes The Kentucky Derby So Special?

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

The Kentucky Derby Mystique

By late afternoon, the shadows lengthened, 20 horses appear at the gap above the first turn on the Churchill Downs backstretch, gleaming, face to face at last with the moment in their young lives that will either define them forever in history or leave them little more than footnotes among thousands in the Kentucky Derby’s ether.

The ritual begins with the walkover, the procession every owner of a thoroughbred aspires to experience. For the moment, the playing field is level and the attention of an assemblage of humanity in all its forms that spans at least three time zones becomes fixed upon the combatants. At the track, cheers of encouragement ebb and flow, a reflection of status in the betting pools and success in races that began in January and, furlong upon furlong, are now at their backs on the “Road to the Derby,” a thoroughfare with far more egress than access.

By then, Churchill Downs quivers in electric anticipation, a communal, even tribal preparation for what will follow. The field, accompanied with solemn humans aware of the magnitude of what will come within the hour, is led into the tight saddling enclosure, packed with the connected and those in the entourage, encircled by those who that morning had claimed a vantage point from which to view the Derby horses and exercised the timeless right of squatters. Once led through the tunnel and onto the racetrack, jockeys astride, they are gone from sight to most without very expensive seating accommodations — into the noise. Even for those so privileged, watching the unfolding scene unencumbered is a stretch of concentration.

Whether the epidemic, well-documented weeping that underscores the chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” that accompanies the parade to the post is the product of nostalgia, bourbon, beer or random emotion is a matter of speculation, but it happens as anticipation gathers momentum, spreads through the crowd and ripples over an infield packed cheek to jowl with besotted revelers who arrived at first light, have not seen a horse race all day and will have no view of the Derby. Who cares? We’re here!

The first Saturday of March is yet at hand, its springtime counterpart two full months away, and already the search has begun. Snow covers much of Arizona, a blizzard rages in the Midwest and tornados threaten the South. Distractions will not deter the search for a Derby horse, the gem plucked from a thicket. More than 350 3-year-old thoroughbreds, most yet unknown, remain eligible. Several will have raced in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, where Orb raised his profile in a very big way, or in the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans, which deepened the confusion in the South on Saturday last, revealing something perhaps or perhaps not. This is, after all, the point at which confusion becomes part of the equation.

Then, turn to the to-do list. Make reservations for a weekend in May in Louisville — travel, hotels, restaurants, all at three times the usual price. Women shop for elegant hats they will not wear twice. The less ambitious, affluent, locale or duty-bound plan parties in their homes, and these, too, have become traditions at once raucous, solemn and mandatory. From Saratoga Springs to San Diego, there is a celebration, it seems, on every block.

It is not quite clear exactly the point at which the Kentucky Derby became an American icon rather than merely a big day in a niche sport, but it has been so longer than any of us have walked the earth. Perhaps, though, it is a singular enduring vestige of a time when racing was much more than a niche sport, when its giants were superstars on a greater stage. Those days long gone, the Derby remains part of the American tapestry, a cultural anomaly in these times but nevertheless eternal.

“This is the week when dear ladies in Shawano, Wis., get to know about sports figures named Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster,” the legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote in 1979. “Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are thoroughbred race horses and there are vast and sinless areas in this country where they and their like are regarded as instruments of Satan 51 weeks a year. Then comes the week of the Kentucky Derby, and sinless newspapers that wouldn’t mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.”

The aura of the Derby has outlasted the useful print media and the racing writer is all but extinct in the realm of the American daily newspaper, the gap filled nowadays by television and online sources. Smith likely never heard words such as blog and Twitter. The Derby, however, remains undoubtedly — stubbornly — the most anticipated two minutes in American sport, part of the culture. But no one has ever fully explained how the Derby became the most popular and high-profile horse race run in the Western Hemisphere, with interest that has been expanded to Europe and even Asia.

“This is a day for anyone involved with horses,” said Bill Turner, who trained the undefeated 1977 Derby and Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. “There’s nothing like it.”

But it is much more than a day for anyone involved with horses. For them, it is Christmas in May, the focus of all existence. For the rest of the nation, it is Mardi Gras in springtime.

Explaining the Derby’s enduring and in fact growing popularity is a matter of conjecture. Many, human and equine, have contributed to its evolution. But the most durable explanation is that Col. Matt Winn, who operated Churchill Downs for a half century, was a master showman who took the Derby from local celebration to the national stage by luring the most prominent sports journalists of the era to Louisville, paying expenses and supplying entertainment that endeared the river town, the racetrack and its leader to the ink-stained wretches who availed themselves unabashedly to the copious largesse and spread the word to those in the nation’s largest cities, where racing fans lived.

The truth is that Wynn was a Louisville tailor who before taking the leadership of Churchill Downs promoted racing at Empire City in Yonkers, N.Y., a harness track, and Juarez in Mexico — a skilled promoter and student of human nature both consumptive and carnal, but perhaps not the visionary that stands embellished in time and Derby lore, a work still in progress. Undoubtedly, Winn never envisioned the 21st century fruit of the seeds he had sewn.

Winn, however, cannot be denied a singular success pivotal to the Derby’s ascent in the national sporting conscience. He lured the connections of celebrated champion 2-year-old filly Regret, who was based in the East and had yet to race as a 3-year-old, to the Derby of 1915.

When jockey Joe Notter brought Regret home a two-length winner and she became the first filly to triumph in the Derby, it brought a floodtide of national attention to the race. Even then, truly great fillies held a special place in the public heart.

“The race needed only a victory by Regret to create some more coast-to-coast publicity to really put it over,” Winn said after Regret’s popular triumph. “She did not fail us. Regret made the Kentucky Derby an American institution.”

And so it remains.

Racing’s burgeoning transcontinental popularity during the Great Depression and into the post World War II era, when it competed for public attention only with baseball and boxing, contributed mightily to the Derby’s entrenchment in the sporting landscape, a period during which Omaha, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation would win the big race in Louisville and Triple Crown long before that designation was imparted to the sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Television, still in its infancy during the 1950s, played a huge role in expanding the Derby’s sphere, bringing to American homes not only the race itself, but introducing the significant players during broadcasts of preliminary races to winter-bound cities with no more than one or two stations. The emerging technology of the time failed to fully convey the experience and still fails in the present age of the high-definition flat-screen and surround sound.

John Steinbeck, the novelist, wrote this after attending the Derby for the first time and experiencing Needles’ win in 1956:

“By the time this is written, there will be few people in the nation who will not have seen the race on television or heard it on radio, and they will all have felt to some extent the bursting emotion at Churchill Downs. Every step of the great Needles will have been discussed — how he dawdled along trailing the field for two-thirds of the course, then fired himself like a torpedo past the screaming stands and the straining horses to win while the balloon of tension swelled and burst and it was all over.

“Now there is a languor. Over a hundred thousand hearts are more spent than Needles’ heart, and some of them split and their owners on the way to the hospital or the morgue.

“I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is — a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion — is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it.

“What an experience. I am glad I have seen and felt it at last.”

Steinbeck’s experience is shared and understood fully by anyone who has been at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of any May and was still sober at post time. The place during that two minutes engulfs the consciousness, overwhelms the senses, making it all but impossible to hear anything except a building roar or remain fully aware of what transpires on the racetrack until the horses are in direct view. It is possible to identify the animal about to be enshrined in the Louisville pantheon, and even then you wait to watch the replay before you are certain of the outcome. Literally, the building if not the ground beneath shakes. The experience is enveloping, every witness immersed entirely, a rapture two minutes long that reaches crescendo as the leader enters the final furlong, screams to the heavens and fades slowly in an almost languorous sweetness.

At some point, the leaders of Churchill Downs, a group during most of the track’s long history far less straight-backed and corporate than the one that has come to power, discovered that celebrity sells an image. What the late seminal gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson depicted as decadent in an early ’70s account of the Derby lives today, represented by Millionaires’ Row, where celebrities, entertainers, athletes and titans of industry celebrate the day apart from the merely wealthy and sufficiently affluent who have secured less exclusive dining options. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, no American sporting event attracts a wider array of famous and beautiful people lured from Hollywood and Broadway not only by the race and ritual ribaldry, but also by the largesse that in another time, at Col. Winn’s behest, lured prominent media figures to cover the Derby and spread its gospel. Priority and the Derby’s public face have been transformed, but not the eventual result.

The cognoscenti began the search for the 2013 Derby winner last year, at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita, hoping to identify true 10-furlong-in-May talent in eight furlongs of September. Others take up the quest in January in hope of placing an ante-post wager that will produce a handsome profit. Sometimes, being the smartest person at the neighborhood Derby party is sufficient.

Whatever the vantage point or accommodation in various weathers, they have witnessed unforgettable performances by truly great thoroughbreds — Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Barbaro — horses they will never forget at their best on unforgettable afternoons in Kentucky. At its very heart, the Derby is about the breed and the place.

The eternal pursuit of the nearly impossible, for those involved with horses, is no less a siren now than it has ever been. For them, every thoroughbred foal is three years from a destiny realized by only one. For others, the Derby endures because it is eight months of speculation leading to a moment of truth; two minutes of a year shared by a nation and much of the world; attention undivided by global tensions, politics or the financial markets. It is true purity of competition among horses born to this moment with all odds against, a purity to which we all aspire but few capture, something somehow beyond full human understanding.

Or even, perhaps, explanation.


The Pros and Cons of the New Derby Points System

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

Road to the Derby may have bumps under new setup

Unbeaten champion Shanghai Bobby — winner of the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and two other prestigious 2-year-old stakes — makes his 2013 debut Saturday in a race designed to propel the colt toward the May 4 Kentucky Derby.

But unlike previous Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victors, Shanghai Bobby is not yet guaranteed a spot in the starting gate for the 139th running of the Derby.

That’s because Churchill Downs has switched the formula for determining preference if more than the capacity 20 horses are entered, as has become the norm.

Churchill announced last June that it was ditching graded-stakes earnings and replacing it with a tiered points system heavily weighted toward the 11/8-mile prep races in late March and April.

So Shanghai Bobby doesn’t just have to stay healthy until the Derby, the champion also has to prove all over again that he belongs there.

That’s the No. 1 criticism of the new system, one of the most fundamental changes in Derby history. To many trainers and owners, that’s like making the Masters champion qualify the next year to play in the golf classic.

Last fall, Churchill senior management asked Louisville civic leader and horse owner Ed Glasscock what he thought. He is a partner in Shanghai Bobby.

“I said, ‘Do you want me to respond to that question when we have a horse who has won the Breeders’ Cup and every major 2-year-old race, has made $1.6 million and is not qualified for the Kentucky Derby?’ ” he recalled with a laugh.

Glasscock said he often tells the top players at Churchill that, “If Shanghai Bobby cannot live up to our expectations during the 3-year-old spring and season, then maybe he doesn’t deserve to be in the Derby.’

“I say that to be nice. But do I really feel that way? No. He deserves to be in the Derby … whether he wins another race or not.”

Others agree.

“The winner of the Breeders’ Cup should be an automatic,” said trainer Kenny McPeek, who will try to beat Shanghai Bobby with the colt Frac Daddy in today’s $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida.

Whoever wins the 11/16-mile, Grade III Holy Bull will earn 10 points toward the Derby. That’s the same as Shanghai Bobby earned for winning the Breeders’ Cup last November in California — and the same number available for the ungraded, $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes in Arkansas earlier this week.

Churchill officials expect the new structure will organize the prep races into the equivalent of a regular season and playoffs, making it easier for fans to relate and sparking more interest.

The track said studies showed the average person doesn’t know what graded stakes are — they’re the world’s most important races, as designated by a committee — while points are easier to follow.

For the series it’s calling the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Churchill pared about 185 races worldwide down to 36 — the vast majority being historically prominent Derby preps. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each event, starting out with a 10-4-2-1 allocation and building to races with a 100-40-20-10 payout.

Churchill says the goal is to come up with the 20 horses in the best form and best equipped to handle the Derby’s 11/4-mile.

The biggest changes: No race less than a mile was included, the only turf race was one last fall in England, races restricted to fillies do not count toward the points, and only three foreign races count.

The $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile having the same points (10 to the winner) as other 2-year-old stakes and preps held early in the 3-year-old season is one criticism. Another is that Hawthorne’s Illinois Derby — which produced 2002 Derby winner War Emblem — was excluded.

Darren Rogers — Churchill’s senior director of publicity who did much of the modeling and numbers-crunching as track staff debated what system to install — estimates that 40 points should secure a Derby berth, and that horses probably are safe at 30.

D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time winner, contends the format will force trainers to do things they don’t want to so they can be sure they have enough points. “If you wait for one of those 100-point races, saying that will pretty much get you in, what if you stumble at the start or get wiped out? It forces us as trainers to run them more often. Every one of us has to look at another race that we probably wouldn’t have looked at before.”

Rogers says he appreciates trainers’ misgivings but believes they are largely unfounded, that the concerns with gaining enough points most often will be no different than seeking earnings.

Rogers said it doesn’t eliminate the benefits of winning races with big-money purses, because the tiebreaker — which figures to come into play with any points system — is the most earnings in non-restricted stakes.

“The Kentucky Derby is the Holy Grail for our sport,” he said. “It should not be easy to get into the race. We’ve eliminated some of the backdoor routes, quote, unquote. Sprint races. Turf races. Races where the competition was softer but the purses were lofty.

“Look, when you go from 185 races to 36, it becomes more challenging. They’re probably forced to make some tough decisions, especially those with large groups of contenders. There aren’t as many spots to choose from. We understand that. We hear them. We just believe we’re going in the right direction.”

Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner, is fine with the system. He notes that his 2010 Derby runner-up Ice Box and 2011 beaten Derby favorite Dialed In might not have made the race had they not won the Florida Derby. Under the points system, a second or even third in such a 100-point race should be sufficient.

“My horses seem to come around later,” Zito said. “So this format is not too bad.”


Should We All Be Hoping For A Gelded Derby Champion???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Teresa Genaro of Forbes…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A Kentucky Derby Confession (Or: Going For The Gelding)

Since January, I’ve been writing here about the Kentucky Derby. Horses have joined and fallen off the Derby trail, risen and fallen in expectation, appeared with promise and disappeared with injury or lack of graded earnings.

It would logical to assume, based on the eight Derby-related posts that I’ve written in the last four months, that I can’t wait for the first Saturday in May.

So…I have a confession to make. I am not really a big Kentucky Derby fan.

I get it, I do: I get the hype and the scrutiny and the coverage that starts months in advance of the race. This is, after all, pretty much the only time of year that anyone outside of racing pays attention to the sport, and for at least a couple of weeks, people do actually seem to care who wins horse races—two of them, anyway: the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. And if the same horse happens to win both, people care about who wins the Belmont, and we get three weeks of bonus coverage as people salivate at the thought of the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

I also get the coverage of the Derby as an event: celebrities, big hats, mint juleps. I like that people have Derby parties (especially if wagering is involved). I like that for a few days, racing gets the kind of saturation TV coverage normally reserved for awards shows or oh, maybe the Super Bowl (OK, maybe that’s a little grandiose). Last year, there was even a red carpet at the Derby.

But it’s hard to get worked up about a race that is so anomalous in the context of the sport, and whose result often has so little significance in the post-Derby racing world.

On May 5, 20 3-year-olds are going to the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Twenty. No other Thoroughbred race in North America has 20 starters, and that fact in and of itself means that this race isn’t characteristic, and that horses may not run to form. They’re all running 1 ¼ miles for the first time in their young lives; we can guess, but we won’t know, which ones will “get the distance,” in the sporting vernacular.

OK, you might argue, that’s part of the fun, and I can give you that. And the big field and the chaos factor mean that the odds of competitive horses are going to be higher than they would be in any other race: there’s money to be made if you back the right horse(s). That’s a plus.

So maybe it’s not the actual race, or even the result, that makes me Derby-skeptical. I guess it’s what happens after the race….or rather, what doesn’t happen.

Since 2000, horses that have won the Kentucky Derby have won an average of 1.5 post-Derby races; they’ve averaged 6.4 post-Derby starts, and if you take out the geldings, Funny Cide (2003) and Mine That Bird (2009), the number drops to 3.6. More than half were retired the same year they won the Derby.

Long-term, the economics of racing and breeding make Derby winners a lose-lose for the fans. If we’re lucky enough to get a Derby winner who is actually an accomplished, promising horse, we hold our breaths and hope that we get MAYBE a handful of more chances to see him race before he’s retired.

If we get a fluky Derby winner who got lucky, he’ll play out a mediocre career before he, too, heads to the breeding shed.

So that’s what we have to look forward to? That’s what we all anticipate, months in advance? The most exciting two minutes in sports may well be, in hindsight, the most anticlimactic two minutes in sports.

One can always hope, I guess. My hope would take the form of a supremely talented gelding, one who’d dazzle us on Derby day and go on to a couple of years of domination in the handicap division before settling down to a pampered post-Derby life, albeit one bereft of the charms of the breeding shed.

Our hopes for that are slim this year. In 137 runnings of the Derby, geldings have won only nine times, and this year, only one horse in the top 25 of graded earnings is a gelding: Isn’t He Clever, at #22. I thought that perhaps he could be my Derby horse, but as of this morning, his trainer Steve Asmussen said that he’s no longer under consideration for the race.

The next gelding on the list is All Squared Away; he’s at #29 and not Triple Crown-nominated, so he’s got as much of a shot at running in the race as he does of siring a champion…or anything.

My hope for a gutsy gelding, then, will have to wait for another year, replaced with the hope that maybe this year it will be different, that maybe whoever wins the Kentucky Derby will keep racing for the rest of this year and into next. I won’t hold my breath, though, because when that fully equipped (“intact,” in the vernacular) horse makes it to the winner’s circle, the economics of racing make our chances of seeing him next year about as robust as Isn’t He Clever’s sperm count.


Breeders Cup Reveals Reasons Why Horse Racing Should Be Excited About Future

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Joe Drape of New York Times…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Breeders’ Cup Over; Excitement May Not Be

The 28th running of the Breeders’ Cup is in the books, and there is a lot of things to like about the top end of the thoroughbred racing industry. There was hardly a dud among the 15 races contested — which should be expected when $26 million of purse money is at stake.

The Europeans took a strong contingent to Churchill Downs — a must if this is truly going to be a global championship — and they left here with ample loot. The trainer Aidan O’Brien won the Juvenile Turf with Wrote, then experienced a more priceless moment when his 18-year-old son, Joseph, rode St. Nicholas Abbey to victory in the Turf to become the youngest jockey to capture a Breeders’ Cup race.

There were a fair share of bombers that came in, but none bigger than Court Vision, who had not been in the winner’s circle in 13 months but found his way back there with a furious closing kick to win the $2 million Mile at odds of 69-1.

Dale Romans, who took over the training of the horse from Rick Dutrow in September, credited luck, rather than magical horsemanship, for the improbable victory.

“All we needed to do was get him back to his old form, and if they backed up at all, he would come running,” Romans said of Court Vision, who did have eight career victories in 30 career starts. “When you have the best milers in the world running, they will go fast early. We were just hoping they would go too fast and he could run them down. And it all worked out perfectly for us.”

There also was a nice peek at some of the anticipated headliners for next year’s Triple Crown campaign. Usually the winner of the Juvenile is declared the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and from now until the first Saturday in May, he and his connections will be scrutinized as closely as art authenticators pore over found masterpieces looking for any hint of inauthenticity.

This year’s Juvenile champion was Hansen, and he has plenty of quirks to examine in the coming months. He came into the Juvenile undefeated after winning two races by a combined 26 lengths. Hansen flies out of the gate and never looks back. It’s not an ideal style for a colt who hopes to emerge from a full field of 20 at the Derby as the best 3-year-old in the land. His trainer, Mike Maker, knows that but confessed he had little choice but to let the big gray have his way.

“He’s a handful for us,” Maker said. “We don’t try to change him much, because if we do try, he gets mad and wants to fight. So we let him do his thing, make him believe he’s the boss.”

Hansen won Saturday by a short head over Union Rags, a colt that looks best suited to capture the Derby and beyond. He and his rider, Javier Castellano, broke from the No. 10 post and came no closer inside than the four path, turning a mile-and-a-sixteenth race into a mile-and-an-eighth one. Union Rags rolled down the stretch like he was something special, and he just missed reeling Hansen in. Union Rags is the true early Derby favorite.

Inevitably, the subject of championship voting comes up this time of year, and with it comes heated debate. It won’t be as hard to determine the award recipients this year as only a couple of horses lasted throughout 2011 and put up meaningful numbers. The New York Times does not allow its reporters to vote, but that does not mean there aren’t opinions.

Why not Animal Kingdom for the 3-year-old champion?

He had five starts this year, winning the Spiral Stakes on a synthetic track at Turfway Park and the Derby on dirt. He also finished second in an allowance race on turf and lost by a half-length in the Preakness Stakes. His Belmont Stakes effort was compromised when he was bumped at the start and his rider, John Velazquez, lost his stirrup. He finished sixth, and his season ended with a leg injury.

Neither the Preakness champion Shackleford nor the Belmont victor Ruler On Ice won another stakes race, though both are solid competitors. Shackleford made 10 starts this year, and Ruler On Ice nine. Stay Thirsty had nice wins in the Jim Dandy and the Travers, but his 11th-place finish in the Classic highlighted his up-and-down year.

Who is the Horse of the Year? The filly Havre de Grace remains the right choice. She finished fourth Saturday in the Classic after having trouble early, and her connections placed her against male horses in an effort to take away any doubts that she was a worthy recipient.

Drosselmeyer was the long-shot winner, and Game On Dude was a gritty second-place finisher, but neither can say they won 5 of 7, three of them in Grade I company. In fact, another filly and Havre de Grace’s rival, the since-retired Blind Luck, will probably collect the most second-place votes.

“She ran well and certainly didn’t tarnish herself,” Havre de Grace’s trainer, Larry Jones, said. “We have no regrets about running her here, and she’s still got another year ahead of her.”

So here’s to a very good year and raised hopes for an even better next year.


Kentucky Dates Discussion Heated, Yet Little Changes From 2011

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Janet Patton of Lexington Herald-Leader…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Track Dates Inspire Hot Debates

After unusually heated debate, the race dates committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved racetrack requests that are almost a carbon copy of this year’s calendar.

The full racing commission will take up the race dates at the Oct. 18 meeting. “Aren’t we going through the same thing as last year? I don’t see what we are going to do to make our game different,” said Tom Ludt, a committee member. He is also chairman of the Breeders’ Cup board and president of Vinery, a Thoroughbred stud farm. “We can’t keep repeating the same thing we’re doing.”

Ludt’s comment came after the five Thoroughbred tracks asked for 210 days of racing and three Standardbred tracks asked for 65, almost exactly the days they raced this year.

One harness racetrack, Thunder Ridge in Prestonsburg, cut its request by three days, to 21. Asked why, track general manager Anita Ratliff was succinct: “Money.”

She said that the track lost thousands of dollars on the extra days this year and that there were some days when betting on live racing totaled $18 for the day.

Ludt suggested the tracks throw “something controversial” at the committee to get the public’s attention rather than continuing in the same vein. “For $20 a day, why bother?” he asked.

That prompted fellow committee member Betsy Lavin to ask whether Ludt was “suggesting denying dates to someone will put pressure to the state as far as gambling.”

Ludt said he was not directing criticism at any track, but he wanted to see more innovation, especially since they will be competing soon with slots-enriched purses in New York. His farm is moving some operations to New York to take advantage of expected larger purses for state-bred horses.

But several tracks said they were making some adjustments:

■ Churchill Downs has invested $4 million in lights for a few nights of racing each year.

■ Kentucky Downs has opened the first instant racing parlor, increased its dates request from four days to six and nearly doubled the tax revenue paid to the state in September, compared to last year.

■ Ellis Park is applying for instant racing, which track owner Ron Geary said he expects to boost purses by 50 percent, to about $270,000, after the first year of operation.

■ Keeneland has rolled out a mobile betting application that saw $40,000 in handle the first day.

Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park, said a recent report noted that casinos at tracks in Pennsylvania had pumped $275 million into that state, siphoning horses from Kentucky. “These (changes by the Kentucky tracks) are all attempts to overcome that big gaping hole,” Elliston said.

Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack, said that even changing a track’s meet from November to September would not be enough of a game changer. “The game changer is what Bob said,” he said.

One major point of contention was Churchill’s request to drop the Fourth of July from its schedule. For the past few years, Churchill has overlapped the holiday with Ellis Park in Henderson.

Committee member John Ward, a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, said that switch could cost the state money on handle and drive trainers out of the state faster.

“We’re going to see a huge difference in handle between Churchill and Ellis,” Ward said. “Do we represent the state of Kentucky to maximize profits to the state, or the tracks to maximize profits to the tracks, or the horsemen?”

Racing commission chairman Bob Beck said the committee must balance the various interests. “I don’t know that we’re here to maximize anybody’s profits,” Beck said.

But Beck also said he was still worried about the calendar. “Three years ago I had some concerns about the year-round calendar. … I continue to be concerned about that,” he said.


Churchill Downs and The Kentucky Derby Administration Fees: Predictable Capitalism or a Rip Off?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Richard Eng of Las Vegas Review-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

High prices shouldn’t detract from Derby experience

In the good news-bad news department of horse racing, Churchill Downs is making 20,000 seats available to the public for next year’s Kentucky Derby. The bad news is there is a $100 administrative fee, half of which will be refunded if you get shut out.

For those complaining about the surcharge, they have closed their eyes to the basic capitalism principle that is supply and demand. A finite number of tickets are available, and the thirst for Derby seats seemingly is unquenchable.

In economic theory, the fee is no different than NFL teams forcing season-ticket holders to also buy tickets to meaningless preseason games. Or to get the best seats for your alma mater in football and basketball, it helps to make a donation to the athletic department. They do it because they can.

Churchill bean counters had seen ticket brokers making ungodly profits on Derby ducats for decades. They wanted to rein that in, in the name of protecting the customer. In reality, those profits needed to be going to the Churchill bottom line.

I have no doubts the new system will be safer and more efficient. Buying fake or nonexistent tickets for a major sporting event from unscrupulous vendors can be a problem. However, obtaining seats is just the start of a costly journey to Louisville for the first Saturday in May.

Your room at a lower-tier motel, which usually costs $39 a night in summer, will be a couple of hundred dollars a night. Renting a car? Most likely you’ll have to fly into Cincinnati, rent a car there and drive the 90 miles to Louisville. Dinner? The $14.99 rib-eye in October will be $39.99 in May, provided you even can get a restaurant reservation.

It is capitalism in all its glory.

This is not knocking the Kentucky Derby or Louisville. I have attended 15 Derbies and would give my eye teeth to see another in person. For folks my age, or close to it, the Derby needs to be on your bucket list. It is one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

If price, in this case a $50 fee, is a deal-breaker, then you are better off watching at home on NBC. In Louisville, $100 bills will be flying out of your wallet. But I guarantee you will have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Plus, here’s an advantage that no other sport other than horse racing can offer: If you get lucky betting on Oaks and/or Derby day, you can win enough to pay for the trip.


Breeders Cup Going To Santa Anita Makes Strong Statement Against Belmont Park

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Crist of Daily Racing Form…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Breeders’ Cup decision a slap in face to Belmont

Next Wednesday, at a luncheon being hosted by the mayor of Los Angeles and Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita is expected to be named the host site for the 2012 Cup races. Politicians and Cup officials will surely hail the announcement that Santa Anita will be the host for the third time in five years as wonderful news.

To my mind, it will be a sad day for American racing and for a Breeders’ Cup organization that has lost its way and abandoned the ideals it established nearly 30 years ago.

I would feel the same way if Belmont Park were being given the Cup for the third time in five years while California had not had one since 2005. Santa Anita is a beautiful facility and a terrific host for the Breeders Cup – once every three or four years. So are Belmont Park and Churchill Downs. (There’s a separate discussion about whether the rotation should include a fourth slot for a wild-card track.)

One of the founding principles of the Cup was that the races would move around the country while emphasizing the primary racing centers of California, Kentucky, and New York. It was a bedrock principle, the only way to ensure national unity and support for a year-end championship day that by definition was diminishing traditional events in each region, and obviously the fairest thing for the sport’s far-flung horsemen and fans.

At one time, before fairness and inclusiveness at the Breeders’ Cup went the way of the dodo and the Distaff, there wouldn’t even have been a discussion about the site of the 2012 Cup. After being run at Santa Anita in both 2008 and 2009, then at Churchill Downs in 2010 and again this year, the only question should have been whether Belmont would host it in 2012 alone or in both 2012 and 2013. Instead, Cup officials not only spurned New York for the fourth year in a row, but also did so in disrespectful and humiliating fashion.

Tom Ludt, the new Breeders’ Cup chairman, made the unnecessary announcement in June that there were now three “finalists” for 2012 hosting – Belmont, Churchill, and Santa Anita. Obviously, New York was being passed over again. Cup board members had been very impressed with the presentation made on Santa Anita’s behalf by Greg Avioli, now a top official at the track’s parent company but the chief executive of Breeders’ Cup until this spring.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Cup officials can possibly justify three Cups at Santa Anita in five years while New York has not had one since 2005. I offered Ludt and Craig Fravel, the new Cup chief executive, an opportunity to do so but both declined comment pending next week’s announcement.

The Cup board’s previous arguments on behalf of Santa Anita as perhaps a permanent Cup host were flimsy or probably wrong. They proposed that Santa Anita should be considered for that because other major sports events have permanent homes (they don’t); because Los Angeles is a media and entertainment center with fine hotels and restaurants (unlike New York?); and because the 2008-09 runnings were so successful (in fact, they were the two lowest-handling Breeders’ Cup Saturdays in recent years, outdone by Belmont in 2005, Churchill in 2006 and 2010, and even Monmouth in torrential rains in 2007).

More recently, some Cup board members have been spreading the word that New York didn’t actually want the Breeders’ Cup, a complete fiction. The fact is that Belmont was ready, eager and able to host the Cup in 2009, or 2010, or 2011, or 2012. Each time it was misled about its prospects and had the goalposts moved – one time its franchise renewal hadn’t technically been ratified, another year officials had inadvertently promised the site to both Belmont and Churchill, another year it had to take advantage of a Kentucky tax break no one had suggested New York needed to pursue. Yet this time it’s okay to give it to Santa Anita even though the track has not even been awarded racing dates for 2012 and does not currently have a tested racing surface for the event.

The mean-spirited capper to all this is that when NYRA officials learned second-hand that they were not being given the Cup yet again for 2012, they asked if it could at least be announced next week that Belmont would finally getting the races again in 2013. The request was denied, and they were told there needs to be “further discussions” about that.

In a parallel universe of fairness and statesmanship, Santa Anita might not even have applied for the 2012 Cup and instead said it was obviously New York’s turn but that they’d sure like to be considered for 2013. When the Breeders’ Cup was being run by people who supported racing without regional preferences, by leaders such as Ted Bassett and John Nerud and D.G. Van Clief, Breeders’ Cups were awarded in an equitable fashion with the goal of helping the entire industry.

Those days are clearly gone, along with a fair and balanced Breeders’ Cup.