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Ron: This is Ron Mitchell with
BloodHorse.com’s Talkin’ Horses podcast and this week we’re very honored to
have John Asher of Churchill Downs. Mr.
Asher is an executive at Churchill Downs.
More than that he’s an authority and a tireless promoter, historian,
whatever you want to call it for the Kentucky Derby.
John: Great to be here, Ron. Great to be here. It’s 73 days till Derby so we’re getting
anxious around here.
Ron: I know that it’s certainly a labor of
love for you but I’ll tell you between January 1 and that first Saturday of May
you go well beyond the call of duty. We
all appreciate it.
John: You know it’s what you live for in this
business, it really is and I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be here. I grew up on a little farm that had nothing
remotely to do with thoroughbred racing when I was a kid but fell in love with
the Kentucky Derby like a lot of other Kentuckians and watching it on
television and have just been incredibly fortunate to end up here and being a
part of it. This is the most wonderful
time of the year for me, clearly, and I’m always excited to talk about the
Derby’s past and this one, but it’s just
the greatest industry in the world and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.
Ron: Obviously, since we announced we’re going
to have you as a guest, we have gotten a lot of questions. Most are related to
Derby but some are not and some really are not within your area of expertise
but we’ll go ahead and get some of those out of the way right now if you don’t
John: That’s great.
Ron: There are quite a few questions
concerning Life At Ten and the incident before and after the Breeders’ Cup and
I’m pretty sure most of our readers, listeners, whatever, are already been
familiar with that situation. Some of our readers really wanted to know if you
have an opinion of what should have been done before or after the race or what
could be done in the future.
John: First and foremost, that’s an issue for
the Kentucky Racing Commission and the commission ultimately will have a say on
whatever ruling comes out of that. It is
a situation that affected a lot of people, affected bettors all over North
America and racing fans in many, many ways and anytime that happens, we as a
company and I think those of us who just love the sport are affected by that,
it concerns us, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
In that particular case, obviously, it’s very unusual
case. We try as a racetrack and as a
company and I think the stewards try this as well, I think the racing
commission has made attempts to do this as well, and you try to cover every
contingency going into any event. Even
for the Kentucky Derby we go through crisis scenarios, we go through situations
to try and anticipate anything that might happen in any area of the operation
coming into those events but obviously it’s impossible to cover
I don’t know exactly what happened that evening. I’ll be honest with you, that night I was
here at racetrack. Obviously, it was
Breeders’ Cup day, the first day of the two day Breeders’ Cup. I was out, I was not in my office and I
didn’t even realize this was happening until it was well after the event. When you’re on the racetrack on race day
there are a lot of moving parts and sometimes it takes a little while to figure
out exactly what’s happening. But I can
say that we try to anticipate those issues before any race, before any major
event and before just any race, there are some things that are just going to
get past you once.
The thing about this is it’s something that will clearly
never happen again. It happened once, and
it’s incredibly regrettable that it happened once, but it will never happen
again. In the aftermath, we as a team
here at the racetrack have tried to look at what happened and what could have
been done to make the situation more acceptable to our fans and lovers of
thoroughbred racing. I mean we’ve talked
about big things, small things, even something as small as maybe – and I’ll
pretty much guarantee you that anytime there’s a national telecast, there’s a
Breeders’ Cup here or Kentucky Derby day– it might be something as simple as
just having somebody whose job is just sit in a room and watch the TV coverage
just in case anything comes up that might slip through the cracks in some other
Again, I hated that it happened for all the bettors that
were involved and for everyone that was involved, for the owners of Life At
Ten, for Todd Pletcher, for John Velazquez.
I do think there’s responsibility for all involved to make sure those
things don’t happen or if an issue arises on the track before a race whether
it’s the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic or the fourth race on Thursday afternoon, there are some things
that need to run through all the participants’ minds to make sure that this
doesn’t impact the horse in a negative way and the public in a negative way. We’ll see what comes out of the Racing
Commission after their thorough investigation and what their recommendations
might be. As well as having a great
event and a safe event and an event that’s fun for a lot of people, any day we
come to work the integrity of what we do in our business is at the top of the
agenda for all of us and I think whatever comes out of this we’ll have a
positive step in that direction. It’s
just extremely regrettable it happened.
Ron: John, thanks for being so upfront about
that and taking on the question. Another
question was from several readers who want to know why their boxes at Churchill
Downs or their seats have been changed I guess to accommodate Derby or
whatever. Can you approach that
John: There are a couple of issues and I’m not
involved in the Derby ticketing nor would I ever want to be. That’s a big, big job and you can’t make everybody
happy in it. That’s just the bottom line
when you go into Derby ticketing.
I still believe and I would argue with anybody on this, it’s
the toughest ticket to get in the world.
It just is. I think with all the
sporting events, Super Bowls, whatever, the Kentucky Derby ticket is prized,
valued, treasured as any ticket in sports.
So that makes it very tough from the get go to make everyone happy.
We have had a couple of changes over the years—there was a system renovation and personal seat licenses
have been in place since then--and you’ll find that in most sports facilities
around the country, especially those of you that have gone through a renovation
or in a new facility and there are individuals that pay a significant amount to
purchase the right to purchase seats in that.
We’ve got some seats that go to personal seat licensed holders and that
has caused some movement in Derby seating.
We also have more sponsorships. Sponsorships are becoming an increasingly
important part of what we do and again with those sponsors there are seating
arrangements with many of the sponsors and that has required the moving of some
people who’ve had ticket boxes, have had box seats for the Derby and have seats
for the Oaks through the years. This year we’ve had some people that have been
concerned that we have more of a focus on the marketing of tickets for Derby
and Oaks as a two-day event. Actually,
that’s been the case pretty much throughout the recent history of the Kentucky
We have up until this year 80% of these tickets sold for
seats at the Kentucky Derby, box seats, clubhouse seats, grandstand seats –80%
of those have been sold on an Oaks and Derby basis. I know every paid ticket I’ve ever purchased
here has been like that. We’re actually
just working to even that out and make that uniform now, which has made some
people who had bought maybe just an Oaks box or a Derby box over the years
uncomfortable and we’re trying to find ways to help them with that or give them
a more reasonable opportunity at least in terms of what they can afford
financially. But I think you’d understand in that case, we’re just trying to
make sure that the playing field is even for everyone. So we’re focusing on selling those seats more
as a two-day event now and that’s been some change.
Some change is usually good but are never, never completely
comfortable and I think those are some of the issues that we’re dealing with
that. We do see an incredible demand for these
Derby tickets and we work hard to... I think with our online
sales for instance, we have several periods of online sales through the year
now and that has been a thing I think that has kind of opened the Derby up to
some people who have wanted to come and had never been able to get tickets.
They can get there and get through our online ticket site and register
for those sales. They’ve got as good a
shot as anyone to get those tickets when the sale starts.
For anyone who’s listening to this podcast, I would suggest
that if you’re looking for Derby tickets to give that a try. Go to our online box office, which is www.tickets.churchilldowns.com
and get on the waiting list. Register on
that site and you will be notified when these online ticket sales come up and
you’ll have that opportunity just like anybody else would to get those
tickets. We’ve had a lot of people that
have gotten Derby tickets, Oaks tickets for the first time through that
Again, you know our technology is changing, and it changes
the nature of what we do. Again the growing sponsorships changes what we do but
we are looking to make as many people as possible happy on Derby Day and the
best way to get in and get those seats and to get a shot at a seat is to go to that
online ticket office site.
The distribution of Derby tickets has been an issue as long
as I’ve been here. I’ve been here since
’97 and I covered my first Derby as a radio reporter back in ’82. We’re never
going to make everyone happy but we are doing the best we can to accommodate as
many people as we can and to give just regular fans out there who’ve never had
a chance to get to the Kentucky Derby, get to the Derby or get to Oaks to get a
shot of seats through our online process.
I don’t know if I answered any question there except to
Ron: It’s an ever evolving process and you
just say you can’t make everybody happy but it sounds like you’re really
opening up the opportunities to a lot more people to participate and that’s a
John: I think it has and I think it’s kind of
lost in the discussions in that those opportunities are there. Another thing we do is we do go through those
lists and if we find a lot of similar addresses on there that, say, are obvious
ticket brokers and folks like that, we look to take those tickets back and give
other people a shot to grab them in the next online auction. So we’re watching for those kinds of
things. I know when it comes down to an
individual basis, it’s kind of like what old Tip O’Neill said: “All politics
are local.” When it comes to the Derby
it’s personal, and we understand that, but we are working to do the best we can
to make it open to as many people as possible and to improve the process and
get as many people a shot as we can.
Ron: Now that we’ve gotten the slippery slopes
out of the way, and by the way your bosses would be very pleased you’ve got
that plug in there for the Derby tickets online website, we’ll get to other
John: There’s some things I’m programmed for.
Ron: Let’s move on to some other things. First of all, it was announced this week that
all three Triple Crown races will be televised by one network once again, NBC,
and I think we all think that’s a good step for consistency of programming, if
nothing else. Do you think this is a
first step toward eventually getting back to Triple Crown bonus? Can we see like a Kentucky Fried Triple
Crown, something like that?
John: I think that possibility is there. I mean we’re all back on the same page in
regard to a broadcast partner, and I think it’s a little late this year to be
exploring that route being in late February but I think that’s certainly
something the Triple Crown tracks would be taking a look at on down the road
and not far down the road. It does open
those opportunities back up. You know we
at Churchill agree that it’s a very good thing.
First and foremost for the fan that watches these races--and you get a
lot of people that watch the Triple Crown that don’t watch many races the rest
of the year-- it’s first and foremost to make it easier for them to find those
races, that’s something you can count on.
Over that five-week period you got a Derby on the first Saturday of May,
the Preakness two weeks later and then three weeks later the Belmont Stakes and
they know where to find it.
Also as part of this deal though you know there are a couple
of things we’re very excited about. One
is that with NBC and VERSUS, their cable network, the coverage of those Triple
Crown races and including some of the races surrounding the Derby, Preakness,
and Belmont roughly doubles. I think
we’re up to about 25 hours now, where it had been 14 as recently as last
year. So through NBC and VERSUS you’re
going to have opportunity to see a lot more these days, what makes this day
special at our racetracks, and a lot more horses and a lot more races so that’s
We here at Churchill have been very, very happy with our
partnership with NBC. Obviously, we just
re-upped the new five-year contract, we’ve had five great years with them, and
we love the way NBC looks at the event and we’re on the same page here on
that. We’ve got the horses, we’ve got
the stars in the show, we got the jockeys, the trainers, the sports event
aspect of it is obviously huge so is everything that surrounds it and we think
NBC has done a great job in promoting everything else that makes the Derby and the
Triple Crown races special--the people, the fashion, the celebrities, the
excitement surrounding it. They’re going
to be bringing it. It will be a unified
approach over those three races and we think that’s extremely exciting. It does present some opportunities down the
road and with the NBC Comcast deal, I mean who knows where we go from
there. With that merger there may be
some other outlets available to bring more racing to the masses. That’s a great thing.
Along with making it easier for the fans to find what
they’re looking for, we do think there are opportunities to allow people the
chance to see these horses, to see these events, and see what goes on on these
days. It just explodes and we think
that’s a wonderful thing and there’s opportunity for continued growth down the
road. Again, with the approach NBC has
used, I just think it’s a win on every possible level. We’re excited to see what happens down the
Ron: Now what I’d like to do is find where
VERSUS is on my cable lineup and/or call my cable provider to make sure I’ll
get the full buffet.
John: Here’s the good thing about VERSUS--I’ve
been reading a lot of VERSUS, much more about VERSUS in the last month than
I’ve ever read in my life--is that obviously NBC is making a significant push
behind VERSUS. Whether they’re going to take on ESPN head-on I don’t know but
certainly they want to be a significant player in the sports viewing market out
there. So that’s a clear goal and I think the Triple Crown races, the other programming
surrounding the Triple Crown races, they’re going to be very, very important
early on there.
Ron: Even though we may not know much about
VERSUS right now we are going to soon I guess learn a lot more about them.
John: Yeah, I would assume so too and then I’m
kind of the same way. I’m looking to see
where it is up here as well but again with the push by NBC, with the NBC
Comcast merger, I think VERSUS got a leg up at becoming a lot more visible in a
pretty short period of time so that’s exciting as well.
Ron: On to this year’s Derby, John, from the
beginning you’ve had this horse To Honor and Serve at the top of your list, why
and why didn’t you just take the conventional route and go with the last year’s
2-year old champion?
John: For a couple of things I think he’s a
very good horse and he proved that last fall in his races in New York in the
Remsen and the Nashua. He has a terrific
pedigree. I’m incredibly excited about
Bernardini as a sire... he looks to me like he’s going to be the next super
sire in our business. Certainly the early returns are good with a
horse like this but I also like the hands that he’s in. I’m a huge fan of Bill Mott as I am of Todd Pletcher
and all the other top trainers but Bill Mott is of course the all time leading
trainer here at Churchill Downs. My
favorite line from Bill, he told me one day he said, “I’ve been around Churchill
Downs so long I remember when you could see all the way across the infield and
that’s been awhile.”
Now Steve Asmussen and Dale Romans are gobbling up ground on
him on him each year because they win a lot of races here and they start a lot
of horses more than Bill’s stable headed by Kenny McCarthy or Churchill Downs
but Bill remains a huge force at this racetrack although he’s based primarily
in New York. He still is by a wide
margin the all time leading trainer at this racetrack. He’s won well over 600 races at this
racetrack and he’s just one of the great trainers in American racing history
and he’s never even come close to winning the greatest race at the other track
that he basically owned for many years.
I’m probably leading with my heart a little bit on the topic
although I am a big believer in this horse and he got some things to prove as
does Uncle Mo. I mean Uncle Mo turned
the corner as a 3-year-old as impressive as any horse you could think of. He just dominated his foes in his races last
year. I hear a lot of conversations
where people would talk about Uncle Mo and ones like Seattle Slew were dropped
into the conversation. That’s pretty
good company. I’m not sure that I
disagree with that. He’s looked fabulous
but he’s got a lot of things to prove over here over the next 70 days or so,
and it’s not exactly the contrarian viewed to put To Honor and Serve on the top
of the list. But just looking at him, I think he’s got tremendous upside, a lot
of room to improve and again he’s in the absolutely brilliant hands of Bill
Mott. So that then and a little more
than in a nutshell is why I’ve got him on top at this point.
The Derby is a very romantic event. There are always incredible stories come out
of it. Again, I’m probably leading with
my heart a little bit but I think Bill Mott with this horse and with the chance
to win a Kentucky Derby this year is one of the most appealing stories going
into this race.
Ron: I guess Bill Mott along with Steve
Asmussen are perhaps top the list of two
best trainers not to win the Derby.
John: Yeah, I’d say so and then Steve probably
a little more on the bull’s eye because he’s got those Eclipse Awards in recent
years and has won so many big races and he’s had obviously like horses of the
year and Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. But Mott certainly, those two are 1 and 1
A, whichever direction you want to go, and you can throw Ron McAnally and some other
great names in there as well. It is a
tough, tough, tough race to win but those three you’d have to say right now are
on top of the list of the greatest ones not to have won it. Bill, still for
all of his accomplishments and the fact that he’s been in
the Hall of Fame for a good while – still a pretty young guy.
You look at Charlie Whitingham’s career and you think of
someone like Bill Mott, he still has a lot of years and a lot of
opportunities. I have a feeling he
thinks this is one of his better shots and while the competition is formidable
out there you got Uncle Mo’s obviously a great prospect, Dialed In is obviously
a tremendous prospect. We’re going to
see a lot of names moving down below.
Right now probably just because I hate blinking lights so
much, I’m not a guy that ever likes to take the favorite too much, I’ve got To
Honor and Serve on top. There’s no
disrespect for Uncle Mo. It’s just
tremendous respect for the horse and especially his trainer.
Ron: Just for historical purposes, who did
have on your list at this time last year for the 2010 Derby?
John: You know I think about it. Who did I have on top of the list for last
year? You’ll have to look back and
see. I don’t know.
Ron: I just wondered where he is today.
I’ve stopped a few of them in my time so I’m hoping this horse can carry
Ron: The next question comes from Esther Marr,
who’s on the staff here at The Blood-Horse. John, describe a day in your life
during crunch time of Derby season. Have
you nearly had a panic attack thinking of everything you had to do and what are
your escape mechanisms during that time if any?
John: Don’t really have any escape mechanisms
first and foremost. The Derby is the
thing that time of year. Before I came to Churchill Downs, I mean when I was
working on radio journalism ,I had the great opportunity while I worked at WHAS
radio up here to do half hour specials on the Derby, which is unheard of pretty
much in commercial radio. They gave me that opportunity, they greatly supported
Derby, and many years I spent a sleepless night or two in those days putting
those things together because as we all know the Derby scene can change from
day to day in that final week. So I was well used to the schedule by the time I
got here to Churchill. The busiest time
is leading up to it and roughly from probably mid-March, maybe early March on
it and it’s a seven-day a week thing here in the office of getting ready for
the Derby, getting the information out. I work with a great partner in Darren Rogers
who’s our senior director of publicity and media services here. Darren is a
statistical maniac who keeps us all informed on what the horses are doing,
where they’re going, and then of course we’re planning for the needs of 2,000
credential media here.
It’s also a very busy time in terms of people wanting to talk
about our sport. So along with the daily preparations for the Derby and the
various communications that we get on a weekly basis--we do pre-user preps,
radio user preps, we have our website activity--we’ve got all of the things we
do in trying to accommodate the needs of the media and don’t cover racing
throughout the year. There’s a lot of
time with the keyboard involved and of course keeping in touch with owners and
trainers and trying to keep a good gauge on what horses are doing well, what horses aren’t, whether a
horse comes up with an injury. We do our best to keep that information out
One thing that keeps me incredibly busy that adds to it but
is a great part of it is you get a lot of opportunities to go out and talk
about the sport and to talk about the Derby and to speak to groups and speak at
special occasions where people are dying to hear about the Derby. So that from
here on in that’s a big part of my life, going to various locations throughout
the region to talk about the Derby and to talk about thoroughbred racing. You know it might be a small neighborhood
gathering, it might be you know during Derby week.
On Thursday of Derby week I speak every year to the downtown
Rotary Club that meets at noon and we’ve got a crowd of about 600 there that
are dying to hear about which horse I’ve picked for the Derby. I have a woeful
record of success in that race, but they still keep coming. That’s a big part of it too. We’ve got a great opportunity at this time of
year to go out in the community and to talk about what we do not just in terms
of the Derby and how great it is but just give an idea what this business means
to this region and this community and that adds a lot of hours to my schedule
but I love every one of those, everyone of them.
Ron: Do you sleep at all during this time?
John: Not a lot but I’m not a guy who likes to
sleep anyway. I don’t like to go to bed
early but I do like to get up early so sleeps kind of been an elective for me
over the years although I am getting a little grayer so I might be slowing down
a little bit. Last year was the first time with all the weather concerns and
everything coming with the Derby I actually slept in the office two nights
during Derby week last year. It was the
first time I’d ever done it though. Will
try to avoid that this year but it was just you know – that’s what you get when
you love the job and you’ve got an event like this. But it’s always worth it
and my family understands, god love them.
They’ve always been great and they know they don’t see much of me that
time of year and we try to make up for it later but it’s demanding. It does swallow up a lot of your time but I
can’t imagine a greater job to have.
Ron: Do we need to talk to Kevin Flanery see
about getting a shower built in there, remodel your office?
John: We do.
Actually, I use his shower when I’m in here. The track president (Flanery) has one in his office and usually
I’m here some hours when nobody else is here so I have the permission to duck
in there and I thank him for that.
Ron: Probably as many questions as people
always have about Derby tickets and those things is always the size of the
Derby field so these next three questions all relate to that. First of all, Win Place and No Show wants to
know if you would ever consider reverting back to 12 to 14 horse field.
Sweed asks – Why don’t you cut the field of the Kentucky
Derby, to 18 and that way take out the 1 hole and the 20 hole which nobody
Then finally John asks – Do you see a day in the near future where
Churchill will regain its sanity and return to 14 horses because he says “many
of Triple Crown winner is denied the crown due to too large of field in the
Derby” which (in my opinion) may be a stretch to put all that burden on the
What’s the answer there, John?
John: The answer is I probably don’t have a
definitive answer on that other than to say that this is an issue that we
discuss and study every year and the Derby is the Kentucky Derby. That there is no other race like it, it’s a
once in a lifetime opportunity, and--frankly, this is just me strictly speaking
on a personal level--I would find it difficult to take it down to 14 because,
well, first of all, just getting the mechanism to take it down to 14 I think
would be a difficult thing. You still
look at graded earnings. Do you then get
a selection committee that chooses the horse that gets into the Kentucky
I can name a couple of horses that have won the race in
recent years--Mine That Bird, being foremost among those--that would have had
zero chance of getting through any committee that would have selected the
entrants to the Kentucky Derby and he won the race by 6¾ lengths. You had to go back 60 years to Assault to find
the horse that won the Derby with more authority than he did on the day. I just I think you want to provide the
opportunity that you can. We believe
that 20 horses is a safe limit here at Churchill Downs, although it is something we look at every
year. Obviously, you’re going to have
some traffic problems in a lot of Kentucky Derbies, not every Kentucky Derby
but in some Kentucky Derbies. I’ve seen
the same type of problems in a five-horse field that – I’ve seen horses have
more trouble in a five-horse field...
It’s a difficult one to answer but we do take a look at it
each year and you look at the horse, you look at those post positions. You know
you talked about eliminating the 1 and the 20.
I don’t know what that would do other than making the 2 and the 19 the
least desirable post positions for a race of that size. The Belmont maximum is 16, of course they got
a big sweeping racetrack with more space to take care of it. But all I can say
is we do study the issue every year.
We keep coming back to the same conclusion at least to this
point that it’s with the allure of the race being a worldwide target we believe
20 horses can be safely accommodated on the racetrack. Then again, you’re going to run into races
with trouble everyday of the week and it can happen in the Kentucky Derby
especially on that far turn where the speed horses are backing up and looking
for a gas station and you got the closers that are coming. There are various
spots on the racetrack we can all point to that are potential trouble spots but
those are trouble spots on any day.
Obviously, you got other conditions, (including) 150,000
people that these horses have never been around before. It takes a special horse
to get it done on that day. There are a couple horses in recent years that I
think could have been Triple Crown winners had they won the Kentucky Derby. I
think Point Given is one but he didn’t lose the race because of traffic
problems and I think Empire Maker is another one. He didn’t lose the race because of traffic
problems. It’s a difficult race to win,
an extremely difficult race to win and for now we’re sticking with the 20 horse
limit although we continue to look at it every year. We seriously look at it
every year and we certainly love to hear what people have to say about. But the
Derby’s such a special opportunity, that once in a lifetime opportunity that
you want to give as many horses as safely possible the chance to achieve it
I think in most years when there is a trouble plagued Derby,
I mean it’s easy to point to that but you look at most Derbies and they’re
pretty remarkably cleanly run. You look
back through the charts most Derby’s really are.
Ron: Right, and kind of along the same lines
there, Kevin asks: Considering that you’re always going to have a full field of
20, what do you think of using graded stakes earnings to help determine the
post position choices. In other words,
the connections of the horse with the most graded earnings going in get their
pick of the post position of course as you are aware post position formats have
been tweaked over the years and you guys have gone back to the traditional
system which seems to work pretty well.
John: Let’s say you’re Bob Baffert and you draw
a bad position for your horse in a personal draw and you want another shot so
again it’s always this year’s situation that’s the most important. We did go to the selection of post position
formats or the post selection draw format for several years and you know it
worked reasonably well on most years. But you know in terms of using the graded
earnings, that’s an issue we look at every year in terms of just Derby
eligibility. Here’s the major issue I would bring up in the suggestion to use
graded earnings to give first preference on a post for the Kentucky Derby and
that’s where those graded earnings were accumulated--were they accumulated in
the Delta Jackpot, which is a fine race but has yet to prove itself as a real
Derby (prep), a real proven ground for Derby candidates. Once that graded money earned early in the 2-year
old year and shorter distances I think you couldn’t just do it as graded money,
I think you’d have to put a lot of qualifications on it and I’m not sure that
using graded earnings through the post positions would be nearly as fair as
just a blind draw for post position order.
I think you’d open yourself up to many more questions than really
seriously getting anything done.
Obviously, Uncle Mo is a horse that is at the top of the
earnings list right now but Godolphin at this point has not nominated anybody
to the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown; well what if Splash Point wins the
UAE Derby and immediately brings those millions in and there’s a horse that has
proven only that he’s won in Dubai, which again is another location, has not
proven to be a Derby proving ground as yet.
That horse gets first pick. Is
that really fair? So while I appreciate
the suggestion, I just don’t think it would work well in terms of post order.
Ron: What you just brought up about the big
purse 2-year-old races is a good segueway into Jason Shandler’s question, another BloodHorse
staffer. Jason wants to know whether any
thought has been given to a system that gives more weight to grade I races and
3-year old races in determining the Derby field based on graded stakes. How much serious talk has there been about
changing the current system?
John: Again, those are issues that we look at
every year. We have batted around using a weighted system, we’ve looked at
using races only a mile or over to try to weed out some of the graded races
among 2-year olds as determining factors and getting horses in. Those are
issues we discuss every year. We have
yet to come up with a system that we thought was more fair or more efficient
than the current graded earning system which has been in place since the mid
1970’s but they are issues we discuss every year and we’ll look seriously at it
again this year when we have our look back at the Derby and what went well and
what didn’t. But these are issues we discuss every year just like the Kentucky
Derby Future Wager. We get suggestions
on why don’t you just throw it (future wagering) open to all 364 entrants or
why don’t you use more horses than the 23 horses and “all others” wagering
interests and those are issues we discuss every year you know. We’re limited in terms of technology on some
things like that but we do go over these things each year and those are issues
we seriously look at and will continue to do so.
We’ve had a lot of support in some of these meetings on
using a weighted system or using a weighted system if the race is only a mile
or over. They are things we discuss but
we just want to be very cautious
with it and make sure we’re doing the right and fair thing if we do make a
significant change because it affects a lot of people.
Ron: Right and then again you’re segueing into
my next couple of questions. We have two
questions about the Derby Future Wagers and why not open it up to every – have
a wager opportunity on every horse that’s nominated to the Derby?
John: I think there are two perspectives on
that. For one, one thing that makes the
pari-mutuel Derby Future Wager work has been the mutual field, has been the All
Others because it guaranteed a winner.
If we just threw out 24 horses with no mutuel field – I’ll just give you
an idea of the importance of the mutuel field…
in 13 years… I’ll just say the previous 12, because we don’t know who’s
going to win this Kentucky Derby, but in the previous 12 years since we’ve had
the Future Wager starting in 1999, five Derbys have been won with horses that
weren’t among the 23 wagering entrants and those included horses like Big
Brown, Smarty Jones. Those are two
pretty good race horses and they didn’t make pool 1 but we had a winner because
of the All Others so I think to make the pari-mutuel Derby Future Wager work, I
don’t know any way you could throw it up to 364.
Ron: That’s right because if you had all those
horses in there there’s a good possibility that number 225 let’s say wins the –
you’re not assured of having a winner.
John: Yeah and again with the mutuel field you
get not only the rest of those 364 early nominees. You get every 3-year old of the
universe. You get them all over the
world because you know somebody can be a late nominee and remember you can
supplement up until the day of entry in the Kentucky Derby. If you want to pay $200,000 you can do that
to get a horse in... I think when you look at the Derby Future Wager you’ve got
to look at it first and foremost as the mutuel field being an attractive
option. Now, we would want to expand the
roster wagering interests and this is something we tackle each year and up to
this point it’s been a technology problem, not that it’s not there, that the
technology’s out there but it’s just the expense of implementing the technology
not only at our racetrack but especially at those small OTBs around the country
that handle this wager. I think we’re
getting closer to a solution on that, my perfect number.
What I would love to see that I think would make the Derby
Future Wager a more popular bet --it’s been solid, I mean it doesn’t grow every
year--we had a very good first pool this time, in pool one last week we had the
second largest of pool one in the history of the event and the history of the
bet. The previous favorite was back in
2005 when Giacamo won. That, for
whatever reason, that was the biggest pool we’ve had and this was number 2 but
I would love to see us go up to 40. I
think that gives you a nice number with the opportunity to throw in some
prospects, some long range prospects, some intriguing prospects and we try to
do that in the 23 that we have now. But that would give you more opportunity to
do that plus it would still allow the mutuel field to be an important part of
this and you got to look at it from two perspectives. You’ve got people like Jason who would like
to have the opportunity to wager on every horse nominated and I understand that
but you also have on the other side you’ve got some pretty big players in terms
of volume of the amount that’s wagered.
You remember a few years back we had the guy we referred to as the Lone
Star Plunger that put the $50,000 bet down on the mutuel field in pool one?
John: I mean we’ve got those players too that
like this wager for reasons and one of those is they love the mutuel
field. That makes this a playable wager
for them. Really, you’ve got a broad
range of players. You’ve got now the $2
bettor that shows up at noon on Friday, as soon as the pool opens, to just get
their small wager on their horse and to put their ticket away. You’ve got a more serious player say like
Jason, he sits in and looks at the prices, wants to get the best price as
possible and thinks that 364, especially when you come to Sunday and you’re looking
at prospects, is going to give you the opportunity to maybe to find some big
ticket value in one of those horses lesser known members on the roster
nominee. Then you’ve got those large
players that find the wager attractive because of a limited number and the
mutuel field which serves as a saver wager.
I know for instance one big player we have, he plays the
Vegas books and he’ll play the Derby Future Wager and he just looks for value
in both and again the guy as a Lone Star Plunger, he uses the mutuel field as a
backup wager for him. It allows him to
be a little bit more creative and take some more chances in the pari-mutuel
pool and in the Vegas books where he plays so we have to take the entire
wagering market into consideration and plus I just don’t know how the 364 would
be manageable. That’s my first and
foremost where that’s a lot of numbers, especially with exactas now, that’s
just a lot of information to process in a two-hour period.
John: My dream would be 40 entrants, 39 horses
and a mutuel field and I’m getting optimistic that might happen in a year or
Ron: Yeah so we’re not going to see that
during the next two legs of it this year?
John: No, not this year. It won’t be anything this close. I mean again we’re talking about you know
some software hardware that’s used and we’ve got to find a way to get
past. The technology is there but it’s
expensive to do so to implement it at every place it needs to be implemented
and again this wager does generate more than a million dollars a year but
remember in all fair mutuel wagering, $0.82 of every one of those $1 goes back
to the bettor so when you make that investment, it’s an investment for growth,
but it’s got to make some financial sense too.
I think we’re at the point where I think we’re going to get there but
it’s not something I know people think we move slowly on this thing but it’s
not something we don’t think about and discuss and try to achieve every
year. It’s just that we’re a little
limited in our capability to do so but I’m feeling much better that we’re going
to see some change in next year too.
Ron: For the record, those questions about the
Derby futures came in from Maurice and Dave and weren’t Jason’s…
John: Oh I’m sorry. Yeah, okay.
Thanks to Maurice and Dave.
Ron: Moving on, Greg Hoik wants to know –
well, first of all, he starts off by saying here we go with another drug
suspension for horse trainer Richard Dutrow. He wants to know why Churchill
Downs and management and some of the tracks just do not take action against
somebody like Mr. Dutrow as far as suspending their license . I guess for a racetrack point of view you
probably aren’t able to suspend the guy’s license but use your right of
exclusion to say that he can’t race there.
Has Churchill done that before, would they consider it, or do you even
know what the policy is?
John: Keep in mind too in recent years and
especially in the aftermath of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby, that we as a
racetrack, as a company, established a set of safety policies and procedures and
we pump about a million dollars a year into those including testing of
racetrack surfaces and just drug testing for horses. So it is an important
issue to us. It’s a very important issue
to us. As to taking that kind of step,
that’s probably something that’s left a little better in the hands of racing
commissions and those that have oversight of the sport and our respective
jurisdictions. But I do think it probably would be on a case by case basis and
we do have rights to exclude any owner, trainer, individual, player, anybody
from any racetrack on a given day.
Again, in case of Mr. Dutrow – and I know there’s been
especially a lot of discussion of his situation in the last couple of weeks --I
think we’ve had probably one episode involving him that happened here outside of
Derby a couple of years ago. But I think in his case it would probably be or a
similar case – you know I think those would be an issue and it’s an issue we’d
look at. That’s a step we would look
into but also, I think it’s a matter of reciprocity, which happens with the
racing jurisdictions across the country.
If there’s a significant issue in one jurisdiction that is large enough
to warrant a suspension or a denial of license, something like that, I think
you would see that. I wouldn’t say it
would never happen here but I think at this point, we would look at kind of
larger the picture and see what regulators do in regard to cases.
Ron: Robert Secora, you may have heard of him
John: Yes I have.
Ron: He says: “I’ve asked you once now I ask
you again. When will the Derby be run in
primetime under the lights?” My question, my followup is what kind of safety
issues would be involved with that infield mess if you were running this thing
John: I think not only infield but it’s
parking, getting people to their cars safely. Those are issues we would all be
concerned about. Bob Evans, our
company’s President and CEO said publicly a couple years ago that he did not
anticipate a nighttime Kentucky Derby.
He noted too that NBC has been on record in the past is saying that they
really don’t know whether that would add much more value to it. The post time is 6:20 already, you’re edging
close to primetime already and that Saturday’s not the strongest day of the
week for--in fact it’s the weakest day of the wee--in terms of nighttime
viewing so you’ve got to take all those factors into consideration. Again, given the massive scope of the crowd,
last year we had as ugly a day you could imagine for Kentucky Derby day and we
had 156,000 people here. You’ve got to
move those people safely about. I mean
we do have lights, we could find a way to light that infield. We actually have some lighting on it
now. If need be we’ve got some
backlights on the back of the new lighting system here that surrounds the
racetrack but I’ll just give probably the same answer to Mr. Secora as I’ve
given him before.
We have no plans for a nighttime Kentucky Derby right
now. We never say never, you never
completely rule anything out, but I just don’t see any movement toward that
right now giving all of the pieces that are in place surrounding a Kentucky
Again, not saying it won’t happen but surely no one will
anticipate one anytime soon. Having said
that, I will say that this track sure looked beautiful in the early evening
last year on the Breeders’ Cup when the Breeders’ Cup Classic was run
here. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen
this place look more beautiful than that TV shot so that’s a great thing and I
think obviously the Friday night was a success in the eyes of the Breeders’ Cup
and we’ll get to see that scenario again this fall. I’m sure I haven’t seen any definite plans
for post time but I would have to think that as the Breeders’ Cup comes back
this fall we’d have the same situation there but there is no event quite like
the Kentucky Derby in our sport or frankly in the world sports and that’s a
big, big, big decision to move it nighttime.
Again, it’s something we would not rule out and we’ve looked
at the logistics of it and it may become more attractive in the years to come
but right now there are no plans for.
Ron: John, we’re really coming down for the
end here. We’ve still got a lot of
John: Okay, I’ll shorten them up for you.
Ron: No, it’s okay. On a little bit lighter note A. Spradling
wants to know – Will you be the Derby chief party officer this year and what
happened to that program anyway?
John: The chief party officer I think has been
retired. You know you try some things
and see if they work and sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t and we are
going to continue to focus on the fun of Derby day and the fun available of
that infield. How many Kentucky Derby fans that are in box seats now have their
first experience somewhere out in that infield and came here during college
days and paid $40 to get into the track and never saw an actual horse on that
day. That’s part of a charm in Kentucky
Derby and the infield certainly every part of western civilization’s on display
on location in that infield, it’s a great thing, but I don’t think we have any
plans. We had a couple of chief party
officers. They did a fine job but I
think we’re looking beyond that right now but if you’d like to volunteer or I
would – while they suggested me I would not seek nor will I accept that in the
words of Lyndon Johnson but yeah, I think the CPO was a nice idea for a couple
of years but we’re looking in other directions now.
Ron: Just judging by how much I see on your
Facebook page you are a culture maven so let me ask you what’s on your mp3
player right now?
John: Right now the thing I’m listening to most
I listen to Avett Brothers right now, I love those guys, I’m listening Roseanne
Cash’s album “The List”, those songs that her father, Johnny Cash, had passed
down to her and told her these are things you need to pay attention to and the
one that would probably surprise a few folks I have John Legend in the roots of
my mp3. That’s a wakeup record of those
reworking some great 70’s R&B songs, so I listen a little bit to
Ron: We’re going to wrap up this up with a
question from Michael. He wants to know
who your sleeper horse is on this year’s Derby Trail and also who’s the most
overrated horse on the Derby Trail in your opinion as of today.
John: The second one is tougher to answer for
me because I mean a horse that I think whose chances are limited to win the
Kentucky Derby – although I like the horse and I love to see him run and he’s a
hard trotter is a horse like Comma to the Top.
It’s tough for me to see him winning the Derby, although I’ll never
forget I was standing next to my daughter when Mine That Bird won the Kentucky
Derby, and when he came home I was just saying that’s amazing. I turned to her and I said… because every
year I have to do a newspaper article here in town where you take the Derby
first starter to the last and I said “I think I picked that horse dead last,”
and I did. It’s not an exact science. Comma to the Top is a nice horse but he’s
just one of just I have real trouble see
him going a mile a quarter, although I would love it if he comes here and I
hope they have a lot of success with him to get him here.
My sleeper horse is in Jerry Hollendorfer’s barn and it’s
Indian Winter. He was scratched last
week from the San Vicente but just because Jerry didn’t like the pace scenario
and probably didn’t like the thought about running against The Factor at
seven-furlong, which is a scary thing because The Factor is a seriously fast
horse but he’s running him back I think in the Turf Paradise Derby this
week. It’s an unusual path. He’s a
talented horse. He’s by Indian Charlie but ran a really good race in San Pedro
and ran good races at 2. I think his
price in the Future Wager was 70 or 80-1.
I would legitimately call him an outsider.
He’s in Hollendorfer’s hands and when Jerry comes from the
west coast… it used to be when he came out of Northern California, but when he
brings a horse out of town you better pay attention to him. He’s won three Oaks here, he’s a great
trainer, I think he’s one of those trainers that has recently joined the list
of great trainers that have yet to win the Derby and I think he’d be a great
story to win. Right now my outsider to
watch is Indian Winter.
Ron: OK and we’re all pulling for certainly
Jerry Hollendorfer to be in the Derby Winner’s Circle would be awesome,
John: It would and I’d love to see it happen in
the year that he goes into the Hall of Game.
I think he’s got a great shot to go into the Hall of Fame this year and
a very, very deserving trainer.
Ron: John, that’s all our time for today. Definitely appreciate it a lot. You’ve been very upfront with all the answers
and good luck in the Derby.
John: Thanks so much, Ron. It’s great to have the opportunity to do
this. I really appreciate it so it’s a
great thing. I listen to the Talkin’
Horses often and I may skip this one but I’ll keep listening to the other ones
and again I just appreciate it. I wish
everybody a happy Derby and can’t wait to see what happens on the first
Saturday of May and the first Friday of May would be pretty call too.
John Asher Bio