Archive for Louisville

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?

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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?

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.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?