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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.

Welcome, John.

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 mind.

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 everything.  

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 areas.

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 question?

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 Derby. 

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 process. 

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 acknowledge...

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 good thing. 

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 questions. 

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 exciting.

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 road.

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.

John:  Yeah.  I’ve stopped a few of them in my time so I’m hoping this horse can carry the weight.

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 there.

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 wants. 

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 Derby field.

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 Derby? 

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 then.

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?

Ron:  Right.

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.

Ron:  Exactly.

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 two.

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 before.

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 at night?

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 Derby day. 

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 questions but…

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 everything.

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, wouldn’t it?

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

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Equination.net

It was great of John to take his time to share his thoughts on some very touchy subjects.  Thank you Mr. Asher for a great interview.

25 Feb 2011 5:20 PM
Craig Johnson

Nice Interview John.  Agree 40 entrants is all you need 39 horses and 1 mutual field.  This would allow for the next tier of horses to be bet and allow for 800 more exacta combinations.  You do this next year and handle doubles.

27 Feb 2011 8:26 PM

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