John Asher Podcast - Listen Now!

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Ron:  This is Ron Mitchell, moderator for Talkin’ Horses podcasts.  Today our guest is John Asher, Vice President of Communications for Churchill Downs.  Certainly we got quite a few things to go over with John, most particularly the Friday night experiment, with racing at Churchill Downs and what just happened in the legislature with VLTs.

First, John, I want to thank you for taking time out to answer questions from fans.  I know you’ve been a long time advocate of wanting to engage with the general public and fans as much as possible, and I think this shows that. 

So, let’s get started right off with some of the hot button topics of the day.

John:  And we have several.

Ron:  Oh yes.  This first one is from Alex Waldrop.  John, you’ve long been a strong advocate for night racing.  It was you who successfully argued for the inclusion of permanent track lighting in the 2001 master plan for renovation of Churchill Downs.  Was the fan support last Friday night greater than you expected, or what you expected?

John:  Well, I appreciate the question from Alex, and yes, I know that was the Alex because he was here at that time and we worked together, he was President of Churchill Downs at the time we had thrown that master plan together and we all worked together on that, and yes, the lights were originally in the plan.  Regarding last Friday, I thought it was a magical night here at Churchill Downs; it’s one of the most magical I’ve ever spent here.  Now it wasn’t perfect, I think everyone knows, we had a couple of areas where we felt short in and we’re going to fix that.  But you only have one chance to make a first impression, but I’m hoping a lot of fans will…  most of those fans will come back and give us another chance this Friday.

But I was terrifically enthused about the response.  I thought originally just the word on the street here in Louisville area, just meeting people on the street and talking to people about racing who and frankly, had never talked to me about racing before, I knew there was a lot of enthusiasm out there for it, but we really saw the momentum build in the last week leading up to the night, and the night here was just electric.  It was an incredible atmosphere and despite the complaints we had about beer lines, which were very legitimate, and again, that’s an area where we clearly dropped the ball, I’m going to fix that this week, and for the following date on July 2nd, most of the people I talk to –  I talked to a lot of people that night, and a lot of people since then – whether they were unhappy with that part of our service that night or not, they came up and said, “This is a great idea, I love it, but…” and then they went into their concerns about the evening.  But I think most people, even if they were disappointed in one level of service, had a great evening and saw the potential here, and I think after watching that first night of racing,  I really think all things are possible.

I would love to see down the road, maybe think about races like Stephen Foster, something like that maybe at night sometime, something they could really lift that race to its fullest potential.  It was a great moment in what’s been kind of a rough spring for us all here at Churchill.

Ron:  So we would be looking at night racing, perhaps in the future, only for special events, or on an everyday basis?

John:  Well I think that depends on whether we make the decision to go ahead and install lights on a permanent basis.  I mean, we’ve got two more essential market tests, one is Friday the 26th, and then Thursday, July 2nd, leading into the 4th of July holiday weekend, and we’ll take a look back over the three nights, assess what went well, assess what didn’t and do our best to come up with a clear answer as to whether this is something the public wants long term.  I don’t think anybody has ever envisioned an extensive night racing schedule and certainly, although we’ve been asked the question many times, no one has ever envisioned a Kentucky Derby run at night.  But I do think we’d love to have the flexibility with our facility to do whatever our market wants us to do, and if that is an occasional night racing session, whether it’s even every Friday, like Hollywood Park, or some other schedule with maybe special events, I don’t know; but I do think all things are possible after last Thursday and we’ll see what happens after the next couple of weeks. 

I wouldn’t envision an extensive night racing schedule even if permanent light are installed.  Again, that’s something we’ll have to take a long look at.  We are a publicly traded company.  We’ve got to do something that’s in the best interests of both our fans and our shareholders.  It’s a big decision because it’s going to be a pretty big nickel to do that, but I think we’ll look at every possibility and look down the road and see what the fans tell us.  They spoke pretty loudly Friday night, we’ll see what happens.  It was an historic night though, the first time ever; I think a lot of people came out because of the historical aspect as well as the fun they had, but I do think most of them had fun, even those who were disappointed with one aspect of what we did.  And just again, judging from the man on the street and the way that our reservations are going this week, that night 2 is going to be pretty big night as well.  So I’m excited and kind of counting the minutes until Friday.

Ron:  That’s great.  A related question from Bob Sikora.  Bob says, you know all this night racing is just smoke for the real deal.  When is the Kentucky Derby going primetime?

John:  I can speak very honestly and very clearly is that we have not undertaken this test with the notion of a night time Kentucky Derby.  We are looking at ways to build up our regular racing schedule and again, I want you to think of how extensive the lighting would have to be for a Kentucky Derby.  I mean right now we just got the main track illuminated with the temporary lights from Musco Lighting and I think if we went long term, we’d certainly look at something more extensive to take into the turf course as well.  But please remember we’ve got 70,000 people on the infield at Churchill Downs.  Remember the parking everywhere, outlying areas around the racetrack and just how much a night time Kentucky Derby would raise the stakes in terms of security and other issues, not that that’s insurmountable, but again, it’s just something that I can assure the gentleman posing the question is something I can assure him we have not considered.  This is a market test for how offering a new product that hopefully our market in the city and the region, and in simulcast markets – it’s important for simulcast markets as well;  we had a very good response from simulcast markets for Friday night.

But you want to strike a balance that if it does happen long term, you don’t want to do too much of a good thing.  But I can speak very, very truthfully in that we do not enter this with a thought to running the Kentucky Derby at night.

Ron:  I guess certainly sunscreen sales would plummet in Louisville if you had a night time Kentucky Derby.

John:  It would.  That would be one concern we would put to the wayside.  Although, remember that you would have a few folks out there a little bit early, I think.  But again, that’s not anything we’re anticipating any time soon and again there is no – at this point, there’s no plan to put lights in on a permanent basis; we’ll assess after the meet’s over and after these three days are over.  But again, it was a great start.  I don’t want to overuse the magic work, magical, but it just was that, it was a great atmosphere.  And even those who expressed disappointment said this is a great idea, can’t wait to do it again.

Ron:  Next issue from Barry – Around January 2010, Delaware Park will have it all – slots, gaming tables, sports betting and horse racing.  Kentucky could have all of the same in time.  Your thoughts on the Kentucky Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee turning down the VLT bill.

John:  Well, it’s tremendously disappointing.  I mean I think it was a day that left all of us in Kentucky racing a little depressed.  I mean it’s clear – the one thing that has been gratifying about the debate leading up to the special session, and the debate in the early days with special session is that there is an acknowledgment now, in most circles, that the Kentucky racing industry does face some challenges, and very serious challenges, and I think our industry leaders have been very accurate in getting out there, whether it’s Bob Evans here at Churchill and Nick Nicholson at Keeneland or any other representative whose been out there - Patrick Neely with KEEP whose organization has worked so hard.  I do think our industry really has a tipping point. 

It’s something that – the first time this issue went to the Kentucky legislature, it’s been there a long time.  I mean, the first time I know Churchill Downs took it there was before my time here; it was in 1993.  So, this effort dates back to 1993 and, throughout that debate, there have been success in spreading that word and in gaining support in the house and the senate has been incremental over the years.  It has grown, certainly, to the point where this year, House Speaker Stumbo and others, and Governor Beshear had great leadership and got it through the House to the Senate.  But in that debate was the realization that the industry does face challenges, that it’s not an industry that’s either crying wolf or emulating Chicken Little.  I think what has been said since that time in 1993, especially in most recent years, is that in our discussion with law makers and others, that we painted the picture saying that if these things happen in other states, if this competition forms in the United States, if it grows as we expect it to, this is what could happen and this is what’s going to happen, and I think this year the moon and the stars all aligned, and I think everyone in our industry, certainly, and a good number of people outside our industry realize that it’s a very serious situation.  I mean, when you see Churchill Downs cancel seven days of racing, that’s not a smokescreen, that’s an economic reality. 

That was an agreement with our horsemen.  We had two choices there – either cut the days of racing and try to keep purses shored up where they remained reasonably  competitive, or we leave those days of racing intact and lower the purses significantly  and make our races even less competitive than they are with those in nearby states.  The timing was interesting too on the announcement from Governor Strickland in Ohio that he was going to strongly back slots at racetracks there because that opens yet another competitive challenge on our borders.  And clearly, Ellis Park is in a serious situation and Ron Geary says he’ll close at the end of this year.  Bob Elliston’s comments about the future of Turfway Park, especially if Ohio enters the picture, I think we’re a joke to many people that Elliston actually put a date to have – the president of Turfway Park actually putting a date on the possible end of that racetrack, which has a long history stretching back to Latonia as a major racing center back to the early part of the 20th century.

The breeding industry.  I know, for instance, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran a series a couple of weeks ago on questioning whether there was actually a crisis in Kentucky’s horse industry, but there was a piece in the same paper today that quoted a lot of people who weren’t quoted in that series, talking about the number of stallions and mares and the drop in numbers being bred, and the further impact on the sales, we’ll see later in the year as the important sales come up at Keeneland in September and other sales. 

But I mean, clearly there’s an impact throughout our industry and all you have to do is look at the Churchill Downs.  And if you’re a close fan of racing, you don’t even have to look at the purses at Churchill Downs, look at the quality of racing here, it’s been a significant decline over the last two to three years.  Our purses were static for many years and over the last three years, we’ve seen reductions every year, and then this year, reductions in racing dates.  So, that’s a very serious situation.

Again, it was gratifying to see a recognition of that in areas outside of industry and outside of what has been normal support for this issue.  We feel it didn’t get done, and it’s been an interesting too to see the response and I understand there have been a lot of calls into the state capitol, the members of the senate, and we hope that continues.  Grassroot supports an incredibly essential thing in all this, there’s a rally tonight in Lexington, I’m going to be there.  I know a lot of other people are going to be there.  This is an issue that you can’t let go for the future of our industry.  I mean, it’s a critical issue for the future of our industry but the timing is even more critical.  I mean, with something not being done in this session, the prospect for any near term help is well down the road.  And you’re going to reach a point where it’s going to be extremely difficult to even fight back to the level of where you were, much less have any growth for the future.

Timing is critical, the issue is critical.  Sadly, that was a very disappointing result in the Kentucky Senate on Monday, but I still think we can see momentum on the issue out of that, and we’re going go back to doing – we’re going to do the best we can do with the facilities we have and try to run a great daily racing product as best we can.  It’s a challenge for everybody, Churchill Downs and Keeneland included. 

Ron:  Somewhat of a follow up, this is from an anonymous writer – Whether legitimate or not, part of the anti-slots debate centered around the fact that tracks and racing and have not done enough to help themselves.  Do you agree with this, and if so, what can they do to change their product?  Is night racing an example of this?

John:  Well, I imagine it might be an example, but I mean it’s an example of one thing, and I think we have tried to do a lot of things.  I think we have done the best we can do with promotions budgets that we have.  I mean in the competition – we talk about leveling the playing field, and that is a huge, huge factor in this.  Since our casino competition arrived – our direct casino competition arrived here in the fall of 1998, it was the end of November 1998, right after the Breeder’s Cup here – over the next years, the wagering and attendance here at this racetrack dropped some 20%.  Now, that wasn’t solely attributable to casinos; I mean there are a lot of other things that are competing for entertainment dollars, a lot of in home activities competing for the entertainment dollars, and a lot of betters, there are a good number of betters that stay at home and wager now  and only come to the racetrack on an occasional basis, but still that was a significant drop, and that drop has been exacerbated over the last couple of years.  I mean this year, we’re down roughly – I don’t know if the numbers have been quoted in the media – they’re down roughly 20% in terms of wagering on Churchill Downs races, and that’s also a larger decline than usual from last year because of the ADW dispute that’s now settled, at least for the time being. 

I do think we have tried.  Keeneland has done some wonderful things.  Spending $121 million on our racetrack was not a minimal thing to do.  I mean that was a pretty important swing for a company our size, and surely that was aimed at continuing to build the strength of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks and the Breeder’s Cup when it comes back, but we also opened a lot of new revenue streams here for activities on the racetrack during a regular race day, with the availability of suites and new dining areas and new meeting areas, and off season with a lot of other events that come to our track.  We have a lot of conventions and weddings and business gatherings, and things of that nature that come to the track, all of which one would hope leads to bringing some new fans to the racetrack when we are racing.

I would suggest you take a look at what Churchill Downs has done – that’s what other racetracks have done – what Churchill Downs has done over that period, spending $121 million on facilities, taking that swing, especially when it came right in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.  This project – first phase of that project –  was approved by our board of directors a week after that event.  You tell me that doesn’t take a little business courage.  So I think we have taken a swing here, and I think we have tried some things.  We’ve tried new wagers, some of which were good ideas, some of which were not ideas, the market told us which was which, and we’ve tried some inventive ways to get folks in here.  We’re looking for new ways.  But to say that we have not taken new approaches or tried new ideas, or spent money to try to get fans into the racetrack, I really don’t think it’s fair comment. 

Again, back to that level playing field, you’ve got to remember we have a live racing day, we have 9, 10, 11 races per day and for a casino over there, even though that industry certainly has seen the loss of revenue and play in the current economic situation, just in terms of marketing budgets and the churn that they have, just the fact that you’ve got a wager every 30 seconds or say over there, the marketing budgets, in the best case scenario, there’s nothing level about that playing field.

But I would suggest that you look at the overall record and what we’ve done, and especially in terms of facilities and trying to find ways to bring people to our racetrack and Keeneland has done the same thing, and Turfway and Ellis, given their respective financial situations, have done the same thing.  I think we’ve tried those things and we’re looking for new ways to do it, but it’s a challenge given the inequity we have in terms of that level playing field.

Ron:  Our next question on a different subject entirely, from Gordon – It seems like every year D. Wayne Lukas gets a lot of airtime with their suggestion that the Triple Crown needs to be changed.  Considering how long it’s been since he won one of these races, it looks like he’s just trying to make it easier so he can win one.  Do you think the present structure of the Triple Crown should be maintained and how can you defend it?

John:  I defend it first and foremost as saying –  and I’m not an absolutely closed minded guy on the subject.  I’m a lot less close minded than I was say a couple of years ago because for one thing, I looked back into the history of the Triple Crown and looked at the schedule over the years and that five week schedule has not always been that five week schedule.  I mean, that’s really a fairly recent phenomenon, I mean, roughly around the early 1940’s that they kind of settled into the two weeks between Derby and Preakness and three weeks to Belmont.  If you look back over the years, you’ll find that a lot of years, there was a one week gap between the Derby and Preakness and maybe just a two week gap to the Belmont or sometimes a three or four week gap.  They had really wandered around, if you look back to some of those and, again, it wasn’t a formal Triple Crown for the first couple of those things – those Triple Crown winners, Sir Barton was one that was included retroactively once the idea was first laid out there of linking these three races. 

I do hate to see a dumbing down of our sport.  I think in our country too much we see a lot of standards just for the sake of making things a little bit easier.  The Triple Crown is a tremendously difficult thing, and it takes a very special horse to do it.  And I’m not one of those that believes that we have to have a Triple Crown winner to save our sport.  I think we have to have the right horse win the Triple Crown to really have the impact.  And as wonderful as those horses were that were near misses in the ‘90s and the early parts of this new century, I think I can think of a couple of horses I think would have been very deserving Triple Crown winners, Point Given being one.  Empire Maker might have been another.  I think the connection to that horse might have underestimated the difficulty of the Derby a little bit, and the first step being the toughest.  But when the right horse comes, that horse is going to get it done – he or she is going to get it done.

But I am a little bit more open to the prospect of at least looking at it, not in terms of tinkering with any distances; for me that’s a line you don’t cross.  I mean, those distances, I think, they’ve got to remain sacred.  If you wanted to add a week or so to the schedule, and stretch it out just a little bit, I should be open to that debate on a personal level, I’m not saying that as a racetrack stance, I’m just saying that as personal stance because, again, looking back over the Triple Crown, the schedule has varied a bit.  And again, the year when Citation won the Kentucky Derby, I think there were like 5,000+ registered foals.  And this year when Mine That Bird went to Kentucky Derby, we got in the neighborhood of 35,000, so that landscape has changed.  And you can argue that two ways – it was either a pure group of horses available then, or that there were 35,000 that the bloodlines had been diluted and that you’re never going to have that great horse again.  That’s up for individuals to decide.

I do know the landscape has changed, the number of horses bred have changed, and the way horses are raced and trained has changed.  I mean, two year old racing, it’s the early part of the year.  Three year old racing is becoming a less frequent choice, and some of those horses don’t have that foundation they used to have as two year olds. 

So I think there’s plenty of room for debate and I am not – on a personal level – I don’t personally see that that five weeks is actually being cast in stone.  But it would take a hell of an argument for me to change it.  But I do think the distances, those are sacred, going and adopting the Kentucky Derby back to a mile and eight, that’s what Wayne Lukas, he used to propose that, he doesn’t anymore.  I think those distances have got to stay there and the schedule’s got to remain similar but I could see an argument for tweaking a week or two.

Ron:  Maybe it will get to the point where Wayne can win one again.

John:  I wouldn’t rule out Wayne this year, he’s got a ton of good two year olds sitting out there.  Don’t ever count Wayne out, he’s got a bigger grin on his face this year than I’ve seen in many years, and more than one person’s told me that’s a high quality group of two year olds.  He’s won some races with some very impressive ones at Churchill this spring.  So, I think we’ll hear some very legitimate noise from Wayne in the fall and in the spring.

Ron:  This is from Jan Roytz at Three Chimneys Farm; once again, getting back to night racing and, if you’ve already covered this, let me know.  What are your thoughts on how to ensure that night racing continues to thrive rather than having the novelty and luster wear off and the event losing its mainstream draw?

John:  I was thinking right now, after the first one would be that it’s got to be special, and to make it a significant draw, it can’t kind of draw back and fall into a routine.  And we’ve already made adjustments after last week in our schedule for this week, and originally our schedule was to have big blow out party to get things started, and then to pull back a little bit; still offer a lot of the same things; offer day/night dining packages, special dining packages, a bigger party in the paddock and music in the paddock and things like that; and we’re doing that, but we’re also adding some things in the aftermath of last week, because things worked so well – we’re working to pull some of the elements that we were going to pull back on, we’re going to try to instill those in the next two weeks because it was so special and people had such a great time.  Those that weren’t frustrated with beer lines and left a bit early.  I think our thinking right now after one week would be that this is something you don’t want to do every night because you can’t keep it special.

Last week, here in the Louisville area – and I know a lot of folks are coming in from Lexington.  I know one friend of mine came on a bus load of 40 folks who came in from Lexington to be a part of that opening night, and they had a great time.  And I think those folks will come back, but they’re not just going to come back just because we throw the lights on, it’s got to be a special type of event.  I think that would be our early thinking, our early reading, we wouldn’t look for a situation where you have two or three nights of racing per week, because there’s no way you’re going to keep that that special, and there’s no way you’re going to maintain the buzz that we got right now with the community.

The last Friday night, Churchill Downs, in this community, was the place to be, and you can look at the audience, you can look at the demographic makeup of the audience, you had a very young crowd, a very hip crowd.  It was a crowd spread all the way across the demographic spectrum.  But a lot of fans that we never see, and I’m confident some fans who have never been to the racetrack were here that night.  And that’s what we want to maintain, at least in some degree.  It’s not going to be as spectacular as that historic first night, you got that cache about being the first, and a lot of people want to be there for that, they’re not going to be there every night after that.  But I think we’d like to maintain something special, make that night something special, something that when our racing schedule comes out, should we have lights in here next year, and our racing schedule comes out in 2010, I want people to be circling those nights and say, I’m going to be there.

Ron:  You brought up community in your answer there.  This brings us to the next question from Nolan Nelson – In your opinion, how has being a publicly traded company on Wall Street impacted Churchill’s relationship with its home community of Louisville.  By comparison, it certainly seems as though Keeneland, which is nonprofit, enjoys a much warmer relationship with its home community.

John:  I think Keeneland and Churchill have faced different issues over the years, but I think we’re coming closer together in that – and I’ll say this – and this is not a sleight on Keeneland because I love Keeneland and I love everything Keeneland does, but they have not essentially been a racetrack as much as Churchill Downs has been; they have been more of a sales company over the years that conducted racing on much more limited schedule and they maybe didn’t face some of the demands that Churchill or Turfway or Keeneland has faced on a daily basis of their races being our absolute bread and butter.  Again, I think those worlds are coming closer together, and I think you see that in the things Keeneland has done, and they’ve done a wonderful job with fan programs and things like that in recent years, but again, their racing schedule’s 16 days in the spring, 16 days in the fall, and then here at Churchill, at least before this spring, we were 52 days going in, we’re 45 days with the reduction of the racing schedule, and we’ll see what happens in terms of challenges for the fall.

But our businesses have been a bit different and I think that is, if there is a perception that our relationship with our general public is different, I think some of that stems from that. But I would say that it sometimes the perception that Churchill Downs’ interest and corporate interest and shareholder interest are in conflict with community, I think it’s a bit exaggerated sometimes.  I mean, Churchill Downs being the home of the Kentucky Derby is a lightning rod for good things and bad things.  I love, as a publicist here at Churchill Downs, the fact that when you throw out the name of Churchill Downs, a lot of things get covered in the news media that wouldn’t normally get covered, because it is Churchill Downs.  The downside of that is that some things you sometimes might not want to see much coverage also gets coverage.  But people care about it and they care deeply about it, and there’s a deep emotional investment in this community.  You know what happens with Churchill Downs.  Whether you hold a single share stock in Churchill Downs, in this community Churchill Downs is in the minds of everyone in this community, it’s our racetrack, and everyone has a stake, an emotional stake in what happens here, and what works and what doesn’t, and they are ready at a moment’s notice, trust me, to say something good, or to criticize.

And one of the great things about living in this town, I suspect in Lexington, too, but one of the good things about living in Louisville is that as a fairly visible representative of Churchill Downs, I can walk into a food mart at two a.m. and somebody wants to talk about horse racing.  That’s a great thing, it’s a wonderful thing.  But they also, if they’re unhappy with something, they’ll let you have it then, which is also a good thing.  But I would suggest to you that kind of that image that we are at odds, if there is an image that we are at odds with the community out there, is exaggerated, and I think if you asked our neighbors surrounding the racetrack about how our relationship has been with them; just give the night racing as an example. 

We got with the folks in our surrounding neighborhoods two months ago, had a meeting with them, told them before we went to the racing commission, told them what we were hoping to do, told them what we were planning to do in terms of security, how the lights would impact the surrounding neighborhood, police presence, how much the local police had bought into the security plan for that, and I think we did a pretty good job of that, and are doing an improving job with that.

But I think regardless, whenever you’re publicly traded, there is going to be that image.  And there will be the occasion where the interest of the shareholders maybe don’t exactly jive with what people feel is the community interest.  But I think if you went to the person on the street here in Louisville again and asked what their thoughts of Churchill Downs were, they’d be a lot more positive than maybe the media might perceive.  That’s not to say we don’t have issues, that’s not to say we’re working on improving those issues, but I think Keeneland and Churchill have been a little bit apples and oranges over the years, but I think economic circumstances are drawing us a lot closer together in terms of the things we’re working towards.  And we can learn some lessons from Keeneland and maybe they’ll learn some from us, too.

Ron:  Next question on a totally different subject from Trish – What has been your most favorable moment since you’ve been at Churchill Downs?

John:  Since I’ve been at Churchill Downs.  I tell you, there are two Derbies I’m exceptionally proud of.  My favorite moment at Churchill Downs – and I still think in terms of Kentucky Derby, my favorite Derby ever was 1986 and Ferdinand.  I loved everything about that Derby.  That was with Schumacher and Whittingham winning, and it’s still my all time favorite Derby.  And I was a big fan of the Street Sense Derby a couple of years back.  But I tell you there are two derbies that I think I’m intensely proud to have been part of those efforts.  And one was the 2002 Derby, which was immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and we faced a lot of new security concerns and security policies and we got nearly 40 police and government agencies we work with every year to put the Kentucky Derby on; it’s really a massive – not just community wide, but statewide and region wide effort.  The Derby is truly an example of it takes a village, we could not do the Kentucky Derby without the help of everybody involved.  But that year, the initial thought from our federal, state and local security officials that work with us every year to make the Derby a safe experience was to close the infield, was to completely shut that down, and we met with them and offered some alternatives, and they agreed with those, which was to put restrictions on items you could bring into the infield, we banned the coolers, we put infield stores in there – Thornton’s Food Mart was an incredible partner that year – because wanted to put infield stores in; but not only infield stores, but stores that would offer prices on items like the things they once would have brought in in their coolers, at the same price as they would have gotten it outside the gates.

The one thing we didn’t want people to think we were doing was we’re gouging them because of 9/11.  We sincerely wanted them to have a great Derby experience.  But there were a lot of moving parts in that Derby, in terms of getting people in, searches, there were wand searches, you couldn’t bring the coolers in like you had done for years before –  it was a complete change of the Derby culture.  It was a huge effort to get that plan together, get it done early, and then to get the word out.  And our goal – not just our goal, but every agency working with us and the entire community – Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau had helped out – everybody helped out – was to make sure that no one who came to the gates on Oaks and Derby days in 2002 were surprised by anything, that they were expecting… they knew what to expect, that they weren’t dragging a cooler for 14 blocks and got here and were told they couldn’t get in.  We wanted everybody to know.  And it was a tremendous community effort, and it was carried off. 

I’ll give you one great example of just how other agencies bought into that Kentucky Derby, and it ended up being a spectacular Kentucky Derby.  There was one story I heard from the admission gates where a woman was binging in some items and she had this big, clear bag full of these enormous, gorgeous looking strawberries, she was taking them to the infield, and she’s going through the gates and one of the police officers standing there kind of gives her a stern look and says, “Ma’am, you can’t take those strawberries in there.”  She goes, “What?”  He said, “No, you can’t take them in.”  And she says, “But I’ve got them in a bag, they’re in the right bag, just how they’re supposed to look.”  He said, “No ma’am, those just look too darn good, we’re going to have to eat them right here.”  And everybody kind of dissolved in laughter… and that really got her off to a great start on the day.  That attitude was everywhere, that Kentucky Derby, we hope it is every Derby, but it was never more important with that Derby, and it ended up being a tremendously successful day.

I remember another woman too, who had contacted me weeks before and she was fretting about not being able to bring the coolers to the infield.  I must have gotten four or five emails from her leading up to the Kentucky Derby.  Then I got the golden email two days after the Derby, where she said, “It was great, and it actually improved the experience, because I didn’t have to drag this stuff for blocks.”  I mean that email alone made that Derby for me, but that was a great Derby.

Then also 2004 was incredible because you remember that was the day of the rain storm, that was the day we had people swimming in the infield; that was the day that most of the clubhouse was a work in progress, we had tents in the infield, temporary seating for the Millionaire’s Row, a lot of logistical challenges.  And then the weather weighed in and had that monsoon right before the Kentucky Derby and I don’t think people realized too, how close we came to losing that Kentucky Derby, because part of the racetrack washed out on the first turn in that monsoon, and Butch Lehr and his crew who are so amazing on a daily basis, and so under appreciated, I think, in this business, they put that track back together and everybody looked at it and said everything was great, and the Derby was saved, it was just a great derby.  There were a lot of logistical challenges, including that late swing from Mother Nature, but it was an amazing day despite the rain and unbeaten Smarty Jones wins the Derby, and it was a great derby.

But those two to me are the greatest experiences I have had since I’ve been here, just being part of a team, and seeing people walking out and smiling after that day, those were amazing days.  I’ll tell you, Friday night was not far off, despite the one frustrating area, the customer service area we had with the beer lines and things like that; the look on people’s faces, I went up to the admission gate around 5-6 o’clock, the first post was at 6, and watching people walking out, I mean, their grins were just so wide, people were so looking forward to that night.  Even throughout the night again, those people who came up and offered some thoughts on the beer lines and things like that, the fact that so many of them said, “Hey, this is incredible, thanks so much, but you guys need to work on this…” but still just the atmosphere here that night was just incredible, and that’s going to be one of my favorite moments here, despite some frustrating areas.

Ron:  What happened with those beer lines anyway?

John:  We screwed up, we just did.  We thought we were ready for 25,000 people and this is a team of many parts here, and I think on most levels, the night worked beautifully, but the one impression for a lot of people is going to be that we were ill prepared to get it started, just because of those lines.  I think we covered the bases in practically every other area – parking was covered, getting people in and out was covered, having the high quality dining experience was covered, but that’s a very, very important line to be able to have people come over if they want to get a beer or a beverage and get it in a timely basis.  And we just didn’t have enough stations and we didn’t have enough people, and we thought we did, and the teams we work with thought we did, but we blew it.  So, we just say we’re sorry, we hope you’ll give us another chance, we hope it was a good night despite that, and hope those folks will come back in the next couple of weeks.  And I think you might even see a racetrack vice president, too, you might see a couple of those guys with some sleeves rolled up serving some beers, so we’re really going to work exceptionally hard; not that we don’t every week, we worked exceptionally hard to get ready for last week, but that’s one area where we clearly felt short and we’re going to fix it.

Ron:  Certainly you’ve been, to the betterment of the shareholder’s bottom line if you had been selling more beer.  It isn’t like you were cutting back for that reason.

John:  Yeah, trust me, we would have loved to, it was just one of a few logistical errors we had on the night, but it was a pretty big one.  So, all we can do is promise we’ll do better, apologize to those did have a problem, and this week, when they come back this weekend next, we’re going to have the happy hour extended, it’ll be from four to eight, we’ve got dollar beers, we’re cutting the better price in half.  We looked at things like free admission but that’s going to be difficult because we’d already sold a lot of admission tickets to people, we’d already had a lot of reservations and we’d sold some of those pre-night and things like that.  That was going to be a tremendously difficult issue to deal with, and we looked at all the options and just decided to drop the beer price for that four hour happy hour, so we’re doubling the number of vending locations, we’re tripling the number of employees, we’re going to be handling those and we’re going to have those roving beverage vendors moving throughout the racetrack, which actually we tried to do last week, but the company that we deal with on those, all those guys are wrapped at a Nascar event, so those guys weren’t available last week.  So, we got unlucky in couple of spots, too.  We thought we were making the maximum effort last week and obviously we felt short in one area, but we’re stepping it up this week and hoping for a similar crowd.  I don’t know what to expect, but I know reserved seating is going awfully well, and I think the buzz is still out there.  So, I’m expecting to have a good night Friday night.

Ron:  We’re pretty much running out of time here, John.

John:  I’ll try to shorten up my answers, I know I get a little longwinded here.

Ron:  Kim wants to know what racehorse has turned into the most dominant performance you’ve ever seen at Churchill? 

John:  The most dominant performance, Barbaro was one, certainly.  I mean, as impressive as Big Brown was last year, I don’t think it was any more dominant than Barbaro.  Barbaro was just an incredibly powerful performance.  But one of the races that would rank in the top two or three performances – those that immediately come to mind, obviously Arazi’s Breeder’s Cup Juvenile was an incredible moment – that still might be the most electrifying performance I’ve ever personally witnessed, because I was watching this horse and I was getting embarrassed for him, he was so far back, and I was watching him every second then he started his move.  I was working WHAS radio then, and I was standing next to Paul Rogers who was calling the race, and he hadn’t picked him up for a while and it was all I could do to keep from slapping him on the shoulder to say, “Look at this guy, look at this guy,” because he was amazing. 

But I’ll tell you, one of the performances that really resonates with me to this day – and I’ve watched it on YouTube a couple of weeks ago and was thrilled again – was Street Cry’s win in the Stephen Foster handicap, that is one of the most dominant, impressive victories I have ever seen here, just incredibly powerful, and of course, that win is the reason we had Street Sense a few years later because Jim Tafel got beat in that race and decided he wanted to breed his mare to Street Cry.  But Street Cry’s win there was just an incredible, incredible performance and one of my all time favorites, I think one of the all time greats I’ve ever seen here, and it made me wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been hurt the year before in the Kentucky Derby.

Ron:  Next, this is from Ron – As a handicapper, what was your reaction this year’s Derby that a horse who had not been winning in Arizona could come in here and run away with the roses?  Was it all about Calvin, was there anything in the horse’s background that could have told us this might happen?

John:  I tell you what I was doing, I had an incredibly romantic place to watch that Derby, I was sitting in the exact chair I’m sitting in now in my office watching it on television with my daughter, because I had to get to the interview soon after the race.  But I was sitting here watching that race, and as I was watching it with her, I saw #8 slipping through on the rail  I look over at my daughter and said, “Eight’s the winner,” and then I thought, who’s 8?  I looked down at the program and from that point on, for the next eighth of a mile, I just went, “Oh my God, oh my God,” for the rest of the homestretch, and as soon as the race was over, I said, “You know, I think I picked that horse dead last in this year’s Kentucky Derby,” which I did, I had him dead last. 

But here’s the thing about it.  If you look back on his two year old form, you can even look back to the Breeder’s Cup, which his trainer, Chip Woolley says today, “The horse should never have been to that race.”  But if you look at the odds of that race, his odds were lower than those of Pioneerof the Nile in the Breeder’s Cup, so that gives you an idea that some people thought he had some quality.  And his races, it made a whole lot more sense – the New Mexico races still didn’t make any sense to me, leading up to the Derby.  I looked at the mud track, and certainly Calvin got the trip on – Calvin was an enormous part of that victory.  I know Bob Baffert came to the barn the morning after and of course he’d finished second with Pioneerof the Nile – he told Woolley and the owners, he said, “There’s no other jockey in America who’d have won that race except Calvin,” and I tend to believe that’s true on that day.  But the fact is that he finished the last half mile of the Derby faster than anybody since Secretariat – and that’s racehorse time.  And he’s proven since then he’s a racehorse.

But in answer to the question, it was tough.  I could not get by him fading in the race prior to the Sunland Park Derby, the race prior to the Kentucky Derby.  And Chip Woolley will tell you today the horse was ridden poorly, that he decided he was the last three-eighths mile horse, and he told his jockey in those races, “Lay back and come running late,” and he invariably moved early.  And Calvin – it ended up being the perfect race, perfect time, probably liked the muddy track too, that little light body and he squeezed through that hole.  There were a lot of things going into making that Derby.  But I still wouldn’t have picked him.  Knowing what I know now, I still probably wouldn’t have picked him, but I think he’s a very good racehorse.

I will say this about New Mexico – we’ve had two horses go through the state of New Mexico come to the Kentucky Derby, they are two for two in the Kentucky Derby, Real Quiet had run twice in New Mexico as a two year old; he lost them both.  Mine That Bird  ran twice in New Mexico as a three year old, lost them both.  They’re 0 for New Mexico but 2 for 2 in the Kentucky Derby.  I don’t know what that means, but it’s one of my favorite Derby stats.

Ron:  Maybe that road from Arizona to Kentucky just got a little bit shorter.

John:  Well, I tell you what, here’s my prediction for next year, because that race I think will be graded next year, it’s an $800,000 race, it’s going to be a grade three race next year, so the earnings will count.  I will wager today that the field for that race, which is going to be run on actual dirt, will be a higher quality field than the field that runs in Santa Anita Derby a few weeks later, just because it’s dirt and just because the graded money is there.  Let’s wait and see, but that’s my early read on next year’s path to Derby, that that will be one of the best races on the path to the Kentucky Derby.

Ron:  John, with that tip for next year’s Derby, I think it’s going to close us out for this issue of Talkin’ Horses, I really appreciate you taking the time.

John:  I loved doing it, Ron, thanks so much for the opportunity, I’d love to do it again sometime, because I know I do get a little longwinded on the answers, but I appreciate it, and thanks everybody for being here.

1 Comment

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da3hoss

I sure hope the Sunland Park Derby is graded!

30 Jun 2009 6:44 PM

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