Churchill Just Doesn't Seem to Care - by Eric Mitchell

Churchill Downs Inc. has certainly been taking some body blows over the past several weeks.

The Louisville-based publicly held corporation has been subjected to a barrage of criticisms from owners, a Hall of Fame jockey, handicappers, regulators in other states, trainers, and fans since early April.

CDI took its first public relations hit April 10 when it announced a takeout increase for the impending spring meet. Implementing the maximum takeout rates permitted by state law was necessary to maintain daily purses for the stakes schedule, according to track executives.

While handicappers around the country boiled and called for a boycott of wagering on Derby weekend, the track took its next blow from top owner Rick Porter. An April 28 letter posted on the website of Porter’s Fox Hill Farm blasted Churchill Downs for treating owners as “second-class citizens.”

Porter had intended to enter his multiple graded-placed runner Normandy Invasion in the May 2 Alysheba Stakes (gr. II). When Porter inquired about getting tickets for a couple of employees at his Fox Hill Farm, no complimentary tickets were available to owners nor was complimentary access to the track even available to the owners of horses running in any of the undercard races. He was offered several seats at $200 apiece but was forewarned he “would not be happy” with them. The owner passed on the Alysheba and instead aimed Normandy Invasion for the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) on Belmont Stakes (gr. I) Day June. 7.

Porter’s experience was salt in an unhealed customer service wound he had received a year earlier. In 2013 he invited four World War II veterans, who had been part of the D-Day invasion, to be his guests at Churchill Downs to watch Normandy Invasion compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). When Porter inquired about getting the veterans some seats at a table, he was given a flat “No” by track management. Porter then appealed to board member Richard Duchossois, who secured him a table for eight.

Porter’s letter led to more criticism, including a rebuke from Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte, who took the racetrack to task for not being willing to accommodate him with parking when he attended an event at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Turcotte, a two-time Derby winner, has had to use a wheelchair since a racing accident in 1978.

Also during the week leading up to the Derby, the Louisiana Racing Commission had been threatening not to renew CDI’s racing license for Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots because of complaints about poor maintenance at the facility. The corporation wound up getting a one-year renewal with the condition that specified improvements begin before the end of July.

Finally, the track’s new grandstand sound system installed to support the new gargantuan video board is being blamed by trainer Kenneth Wirth for contributing to the death of his 5-year-old mare Never Tell Lynda. En route to the paddock for schooling prior to the first race May 22, a commercial that included the sound of the starting gate bell boomed out of the grandstand and startled the mare. She flipped and hit her head on the ground, causing injuries that required her to be euthanized.

Throughout all these criticisms runs a theme that CDI is a largely uncaring organization focused more on its balance sheet than its customers.
Reinforcing this perception, Porter said this week he has heard nothing from Churchill Downs. Not a call. Not a letter. Just silence. Whom he has heard from multiple times is the New York Racing Association’s horsemen’s relations group.

“They’ve called me four times to talk about seats and parking and how to get the tickets and parking passes delivered to me,” said Porter, who is also running Coup de Grace in the Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II). “They couldn’t be more cooperative.”

The only statements from Churchill regarding any of these issues have come from John Asher, vice president of racing communications, who did offer an apology to Turcotte and Porter. That’s understandable during the early management of a PR crisis, but at some point shouldn’t the head of the company—CEO Bob Evans—address the plethora of criticism? Even Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, posted an apology after the disastrous execution of a decision to separate its DVD and streaming services then charge 60% more to customers who took both.

“I want to acknowledge and thank our many members that stuck with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly,” Hastings wrote.

Wouldn’t a company in the entertainment industry want to at least give the impression it cared about its customers, whether the top executives actually do or not? The minimal attempt even to try to spin these events is most telling. Does CDI really want to grow racing, attract new owners and customers, and bolster the sport anchoring its corporate roots? The answer seems to be no.

42 Comments

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Salvatore Carcia

It is apparent that Churchill wants out of its unprofitable racing operation. Their behavior is very reflective of this. It's almost as if they are positioning themselves to be forced out one way or the other.

28 May 2014 2:28 PM
MyBigRed

I can truthfully say, I've removed attending the Kentucky Derby, OFF my bucket list, which is sad since I've dreamed of going since 1971. I'll go spend my hard earned money somewhere else where they treat everyone with respect.

28 May 2014 2:42 PM
Karen in Indiana

Here are some items to consider:

1. The agreement with TSG that would allow them to keep operating the casino at Calder, but pass off everything associated with racing to TSG.

2. The attitude and behavior of Bill Carstanjen a few years ago when he was on the show that is about bosses who work 'unknown', some might say undercover, at their companies.

3. Of the 4 executives of CDI, only one has any connection with horse racing. Two of them are straight from GE and know nothing about the horses.

4. Their quarterly profits are up over 10% according to their last report. That puts pressure on management to keep delivering increased profits.

28 May 2014 2:45 PM
Soldier Course

Clearly Churchill Downs needs to take a serious look at these problems so they don't keep recurring. Still, the center of this controversy will always remain for me the GHASTLY behavior of an owner of a serious Triple Crown contender in criticizing CD on televised coverage of the winner's circle ceremonies at Pimlico.

My Big Red: You should consider attending the Kentucky Derby festivities held at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, if you don't want to go to CD. I have attended the Derby several times at CD, but look forward to seeing it at Keeneland from now on. I just don't have the stamina these days to maneuver at wild & crazy venues. The Keeneland experience will more than fill your bucket list.

I am very sorry to hear about what happened to Never Tell Linda.

28 May 2014 3:29 PM
lawrence vaccarelli

Churchill could care less....actions speak louder than words

28 May 2014 4:57 PM
lawrence vaccarelli

"GHASTLY behavior of an owner of a serious Triple Crown contender in criticizing CD on televised coverage of the winner's circle ceremonies at Pimlico." .....I kind of like how he called them to task.

28 May 2014 5:00 PM
Your Only Friend

Nice article....well written.....just because you have ability too write articles for publications....does not give you the right too tell another man how too run his business.

28 May 2014 5:59 PM
sceptre

Very disturbed by the horse safety issues, but the other complaints are a non-issue for me. Don't feel that any of those mentioned should feel "entitled" to such privilege.  Most are just in the habit of feeling "entitled"/more deserving-and that includes Turcotte.  

28 May 2014 6:26 PM
Wendy.lou

Soldier Course, the behavior I found GHASTLY in this is Churchills continued bad manners. This has been going on for a while now, discussing their issues privately has not worked.

28 May 2014 8:39 PM
saharagold

Being from Southern California, I have much acrimony for CDI because of their decision to sell Hollywood Park to a LAND DEVELOPMENT COMPANY rather than to an entity that would continue the tradition of Thoroughbred racing at HP.  They did it because of the BIG FAT PROFIT they made on the deal, rather than having any consideration whatsoever for the horses (who were made homeless by the deal), the owners, trainers, bettors, racing fans, and ALL the other people who made a living associated with HP and would have to scramble to find another position, if possible, in this economy.

Since the closing of HP, I have chosen to stop using my ADW account with Twinspires.com, and have taken my wagering dollars elsewhere.  

I have not been impressed one iota by any of the written statements or press conferences by CDI or its management in response to any of the complaints that have been coming to the surface.  For every complaint mentioned in the media, there are hundreds of others that go unheard.  

Does CDI have a PR person or company?  It doesn't appear so, or else they are not listening to what their PR people are advising them.  They will be sorry for that decision; it will hit them where it hurts - in the bottom line/pocketbook.

I think this one particular statement made by John Asher of CDI in response to Mr. Coburn's criticisms demonstrates this.

"We have an excellent and veteran team of volunteers from throughout our community that serve as official Kentucky Derby hosts, and they work tirelessly to communicate with owners and trainers and to help guide them through the Kentucky Derby week experience."

Volunteers?  Volunteers?  Crazy.  Any company in the business of entertainment knows better than to trust their brand's reputation to VOLUNTEERS.  

It's time for the BC to go to Keeneland.  

28 May 2014 10:34 PM
GhostTown

Soldier Course,

I do not understand your reasoning that Steve Coburn’s statement regarding Churchill Downs treatment, during an extremely emotional time and without his partner being there reportedly because of Churchill Downs treatment, is a bigger “controversy” than the issues Ron Turcotte and Rick Porter experienced.   Sure, the post-race press conference is a better platform to voice your grievances, but jeez louise, his horse just won the second leg of the Triple Crown.  I can not even begin to fathom what kind of emotional rollercoaster he was on at that time.  But to think that his behavior was “ghastly”, oops, I meant “GHASTLY” compared to Churchill Downs for not having convenient access for Mr. Turcotte, who was paralyzed in a racing accident, and basically dismissing our World War II veterans and Mr. Porter who wanted to honor their service, I just don’t get it.  If it were not for the owners, none of us would have the pleasure of following our favorite horses, whether they be one of the greats or one of the lower level horses that give it their all every time.   If it were not for the jockeys, who put their life on the line every time they put a foot in the stirrup, there would be no horse racing.  And it is because of those veterans, whose lives were forever changed after the war, that were are able to have this discussion.  You are entitled to your opinion, as am I, but I think Churchill Downs behavior is much more offensive than a man’s, who’s emotional stability at that time was probably equivalent to a teen aged girl getting kissed for the very first time.

29 May 2014 12:40 AM
GiddyUpBoyWhoa

Churchill Downs has seemed to lost touch with how it treats its patrons, trainers, owners, and acts like they don't care. After several well published reports against CD you would think they could get it fixed. The way the treated one of the owners of California Chrome who had his elderly mother at the Derby, and the jockey that rode the great Secretariat in the Derby. CD has some serious public relations issues that it just brushes under the table. Maybe they are into a turmoil with the politicians from Ky. who turned down their request for slot machines at Churchill Downs, which itself is unbelievable considering that Ky. is noted as a horse breeding and racing state and has a horse on its car license plates. The thing that Ky. is most noted for is horse racing, but you sure couldn't tell it the way Churchill Downs and the State of Ky. treats the industry.  

29 May 2014 6:40 AM
Bret Stossel

Salvatore Carcia is exactly right. I think the Calder agreement with TSG will soon apply to all of their tracks. They'll lease their racing operations out to another entity and operate only the casino side of the business. That may not be all bad. Maybe whatever the company is who takes over racing operations will treat the racing folks with some respect.

29 May 2014 8:24 AM
Bellwether

CDI has taken a page from the Colonial Downs play book which is the worst customer service in the Cosmos...

29 May 2014 9:03 AM
ksweatman9

It's sad that Churchill Downs is being managed by incompetent individuals who do not seem to appreciate the honor of being part of such an historic piece of Americana. The sweat and blood of great thoroughbreds from the past breathe eternal life into Churchill Downs. Mere people could never diminish what the structure stands for. The priceless memories, the emotions, joy, sadness, excitement. The horses who left their lives on that track. No, the rich beautiful history of Churchill Downs won't be tarnished by the actions of the current management. We can't allow that. Hopefully, the future will bring about change,

29 May 2014 10:42 AM
rog harden

Seems to me like the author left out the most notable PR disaster of all in recent weeks - the blistering CD received from California Chrome's co-owner on NBC after the Preakness and in the post-race press conference.

29 May 2014 10:46 AM
Melissa P

This is all too sad. We were lucky enough to run one of our horses at Churchill Downs in the early 1990s. It had always been a dream of mine being a native Kentuckian. The management at that time could NOT have been more accommodating, even though our horse was entered in not a stakes or even allowance race, but a mid-level claiming race. I felt as though we were treated like royalty and it saddens me terribly to hear how far from this treatment things have fallen. I hope that the current management takes notice, but am afraid that all of this is falling on deaf ears.

29 May 2014 11:07 AM
Bloodline Bob

I attended the BC in 2006 @ Churchill Downs. I'll NEVER return to that race track again, Boston Bob.

29 May 2014 12:31 PM
JasonR

When Reagan deemed that corporations could pay CEOs with stock, they went to hell in a hand basket ever since. Same with the Sherman anti trust act. We need to get back, Jo Jo.

29 May 2014 1:30 PM
Dr. G

The takeout increase just before the start of the spring meet, IMO, was nothing more than a crass move to grab a bigger slice of the Derby and Oaks Day handle.  It has diminished my interest in betting post-Derby CD races, although I suspect management wouldn't give a damn because that's not a big piece of their bottom line.  I never thought I'd say this, but CDI is making NYRA look good!

29 May 2014 2:25 PM
Soldier Course

GhostTown:

I continue to believe that Mr. Coburn should have chosen another time and place to air his grievances with Churchill Downs. It was unseemly of the owner of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner to turn the Winner's Circle at Pimlico into his soapbox on national television. When the Triple Crown races are over next month, I hope that Churchill Downs will issue a detailed response to its side of this story. In the meantime, let's turn our full attention to California Chrome and all that he stands to bestow on those who love him and his sport, nine days from now.

29 May 2014 2:31 PM
Azeri1

Actually Mr. Mitchell was very diplomatic and left out some of the details from some the complainants. Mr. Turcotte was treated shamelessly. He has had problems obtaining parking at Churchill on more than one occasion, and one of those occasions was not a race day, but a day that he was there gratis to participate in the filming of a documentary. Mr. Turcotte stated that the film crew members ended up paying for him to obtain a handicap accessible space for disabled persons at a track parking lot. This should not be happening to a Hall of Fame jockey, who came to Churchill to work on a racing education project. It wasn't the busiest day of the year. It was an average day.

I don't understand why anyone would criticize Mr. Coburn for standing up for the indignation that he perceived his partner Mr. Martin and Mr. Martin's family endured during their attendance at The Kentucky Derby. I feel he had every right to speak out on behalf of his colleague and friend.

Again these issue both centered around people who have suffered disabilities being able to have basic access to the track facilities. People with mobility issues should be able to enjoy the experience of racing and should be able to attend the most famous American horse race.

Hospitality is a key issue here.If you are going to do business, a primary element of customer-oriented business is hospitality. Be grateful for your customers. Honor people who have contributed to the legacy of your business.

In the tragic case of Don't Tell Lynda, it appears that the fan experience has taken precedent over sense and safety. Surely anyone who has ever ridden a horse for more than a casual pony ride would understand that horses spook-both easily and often. Their hearing range is more acute than humans averaging between   55-33,500 Hz. A 750 speaker system playing during schooling and post-parade with distracting commercials is probably not the safest of choices when it comes to the welfare of horses and riders. I hope that the issue will be addressed so that no more horses and riders will have to be put in jeopardy.

Churchill Downs is one of the premier racing venues in the country. I agree with ksweatman9. If the individuals running CD can't appreciate and honor the legacy associated with the memories of the legendary horses, trainers, jockeys and owners who have graced the venue in the past then maybe they should abdicate and let people who appreciate the history of the track manage it.              

29 May 2014 2:50 PM
rachel fan

Churchill Downs' poor treatment of the owners and other individuals mentioned is inexcusable. These people have worked long and hard to prepare their horses to compete at the track and they should be entitled to preferential treatment for their efforts and for the revenue they bring to the track and to the sport. It's sad that CDI has only issued a stock statement which falls far short of the apology owed CC's owners.

That said, I'm also of the opinion that Coburn's comments at Preakness regarding CD, however accurate and earnest, shouldn't have been shared during the trophy presentation. Granted, he was overcome with emotion, but this is a professional sport and he could have kept his emotions in check and waited for a more appropriate opportunity to communicate his dissatisfaction with the way he and his partner were treated. I am a total California Chrome fan and am rooting for him to win the Triple Crown, but I hope Coburn will put a lid on his borderline cockiness should he win and use discretion in his public statements.

29 May 2014 2:51 PM
EJMitchellKy

The reason I left out Perry Martin missing the Preakness because of his reportedly bad experience at Churchill Downs is because we never actually heard from Mr. Martin directly on the problems he experienced. I am sure the day was chaotic because of the crowds and trying to accommodate his elderly mother with her wheelchair. Even able-bodied people have trouble moving around Churchill Downs on Derby Day. So there were questions regarding this particular incidence. Was it a true failing on the part of Churchill Downs or was it a matter of trying to manage a difficult situation under extremely trying conditions? I don't know. I would like to hear the details from Perry Martin.

29 May 2014 3:10 PM
Eric Rickard

I have attended since Thunder Gulch won the Derby. Every year since my first year, the experience has gone down hill. I understand the cost of business, but the Fan treatment is horrible. If you do not have a seat, forget about a glimpse of the track. I love the game and most likely will continue to go; but Churchill should make it easier on the Fan and not have the attitude that people will come just because it is the DERBY.

29 May 2014 4:58 PM
sceptre

Let's look at reality. Jockey's don't ride, and owners (of which I'm one) don't own for your benefit/the public's benefit, rather they make these choices solely for their own interests/desires, etc. Why then are they due/deserving of more privilege?...Certainly, the handicapped are entitled to be accommodated such as to receive equal access, but I suspect that Turcotte felt that he was entitled to even more.  

29 May 2014 5:11 PM
Needler in Virginia

PLEASE tell me no one is suggesting that the management of Churchill Downs can't designate one of its' many "minions" (for lack of a better word) to take care of owners who have horses running in the Derby. For most owners having a horse in the Derby is a one time thing; attending THAT race should be a HUGE deal, if we're to believe (as Churchill constantly reminds us) that it is the biggest horse race in the States. The owners are the ones who have paid the bills that got the horse there, and since the horse has no interest in sitting in the grandstands, the owners have, literally, paid for the right to be allowed a little pride of place at the track. And I, for one, have NO problem with the slams on CDI from Mr Porter, Mr Turcotte, Mr Porter or anyone else who has been treated badly by CDI and its' band of foolish managers. If any one of us were in the DAP position, after having been treated so callously after winning the Derby, I daresay we might have been WAY more than PO'ed, too. If any of us were in Mr Porter's position regarding the dismissive attitude toward the Normandy veterans and, by extension, his horse, Normandy Invasion, I'd bet money we'd be PO'ed, too. As for Mr Turcotte, WHO can justify the way Churchill Downs treated a two time winner of the Derby and Hall of Famer, who now rides a wheelchair? Nope, the big deal track now appears small minded, narrow in scope, tacky, tawdry, and very small in how it welcomes paying customers into its' gates. Whoever posted above that Keeneland is the place to be on Derby Day got it spot on; IT IS!

Cheers and very safe trips.

29 May 2014 10:44 PM
bobbywine7

Would Yankee Stadium tell Reggie Jackson, "N0 PARKING PASSES F0R Y0U!!! Methinks N0T. CD is a DISGRACE!! R0N TURC0TTE deserved better!!

30 May 2014 7:39 AM
Kentucky Proud

Sad deal. CDI won't change their ways so we all need to get over it.

30 May 2014 10:29 AM
Soldier Course

The use of parking spaces for disabled people might be regulated by government agencies. I've gotten that impression when I've had to call about renewing my mother's permit. If that's the case in Kentucky, then it's possible that CD couldn't "reserve" one of its disabled parking space for Ron Turcotte or anyone else. The spaces might be governed by a first come, first served basis.  

else.

30 May 2014 4:53 PM
robinm

At some point I hope to hear from the "silent" partner in the Cal Chrome partnership, exactly what so disturbed him about his treatment at Churchill Downs.  I'll agree with some that Steve Coburn's comments were out of place during the televised Preakness awards ceremony.  It appeared to me that what started out as a compliment to Pimlico, morphed into a censure of Churchill Down's hospitality.  I, too, felt it was the wrong time, but I can forgive Mr. Coburn as he was very emotional at the time, and I don't think his comments were rehearsed.  It's harder to forgive Churchill Downs, as Mr. Coburn's negative comment is just one of many.

30 May 2014 10:36 PM
Jacqui B

CDI neither knows, nor cares, about Thoroughbred racing - they have already sold two venues to be turned into residential/retail areas. CDI management should be the ones who wear jackasses on the back of their jackets.....

31 May 2014 5:25 AM
Jean in Chicago

If Steve Coburn hadn't said anything at Pimlico, none of us would be discussing this now.  Any mistreatment of anyone would have just been swept under the rug and, while perhaps talked about in private, would never have been aired in public.  Also, his criticism of CD was part of a compliment to Pimlico ("CD could learn a lot about hospitality from Pimlico.  Everyone here has been wonderful").

As for the parking space for Ron Turcotte, somehow any possible 'regulatory problems' disappeared once the film crew came up with more money.

Your Only Friend:  While no one may have the right to tell owners how to run their business, the public certainly has a right to know how that business is run and if this knowledge effects public choice as to whether or not to patronize the business, so be it.

31 May 2014 1:39 PM
Your Only Friend

CD had attendance of 165,000 plus on Derby Day ...all within approximately one square mile....think they had many things to worry about other than few owners and how they were treated.....how about public safety for one.

31 May 2014 7:16 PM
BelmontBarb

It is quite disturbing about Churchill Downs and most unattractive - as we continue to be informed of all the issues they have ~ it might be a good idea to let "Yum Brands"  step in and  handle it - that might give Churchill a message - since they are the major sponsor for The Derby.  Yes, they need to show a bit more respect to the blood, sweat and tears that are part of racing.  If the management is the problem - get them out - make them history and run the track the way it should be - by horsemen - that know what it takes to get to the finish line.  Its unacceptable and darkens racing that has already to many flaws and faults that need attention in a race of survival.  

31 May 2014 11:06 PM
fightonfig

EXACTLY, its bottom line, wall street, shareholders &

   for profit company...Get one of those guys at

    CDI to run the Veterans Affairs !

01 Jun 2014 11:43 AM
TurfRuler

They should remember that the race is called the Kentucky Derby and not the extravaganza for a Churchill Downs profit bonanza.  When they insulted all of the ardent followers and admirers of horse racing by stating that since thoroughbreds train on dirt they can run on dirt in response to the issue of the turf track at Fair Grounds it reminded me of what the main issue is about.  We may love the Kentucky Derby but it's management we can't handle.

01 Jun 2014 1:24 PM
Soldier Course

Jean In Chicago

Pimlico should feel used rather than complimented by Mr. Coburn's remarks. You don't compliment one person by criticizing another. The owner usurped a golden moment and turned it into a cheap shot.

02 Jun 2014 1:52 PM
nanito

Mr. Mitchell is quite right, and to his comments we'll have to add those from the owners of California Chrome

and the thousands of Calder loyals that were sold out by Churchill Downs to Gulfstream. Did not they realize that Frank Stronach only wants customers for his Gulfstream Village, up to now a lossing venture, just like his rock concerts years ago. I wonder if the next Kentucky Derby is going to be run at Gulfstream.

02 Jun 2014 3:36 PM
SandyLoam

Hey sceptre, trying to get past your disjointed comment, the game depends on "the public" to exist. Comments I see everywhere that fans should take what they get and shut up about being victims and just learn to love it are easy. Martyrdom, or autocracy in your case, is so cute. So you keep racing at Churchill and we'll keep boycotting CD and wish you the best of luck. And for all of us Chicagoans, these corporate policies show themselves at Arlington, which is also eminently boycottable.

04 Jun 2014 12:03 PM
sceptre

Sandyloam:

Nothing "disjointed" at all with my comment(s). Yours, on the other hand, attest to a lack of comprehension, since you apparently misread that mine were scornful of the public.

05 Jun 2014 10:50 AM
lonesomeglory

Churchill Downs Inc. Is now first & foremost a gaming company. The current management neither knows nor cares about Thoroughbred racing, history & tradition nor are they horsemen. The historic track & the Kentucky Derby are simply vehicles for making money. The barrage of complaints & criticism from owners, trainers, handicappers & fans has been well documented & yet CDI's apologies are so lame it's embarrassing. They obviously have no intention of dealing with these problems. The treatment of Ron Turcotte was especially disgraceful & CDI should be embarrassed & ashamed. $500 for a handicapped parking space? Just another example of CDI moneygrubbing & gouging.

I am beginning to see why the Breeders Cup may never come back to Churchill Downs.

If people want to experience truly classy Thoroughbred racing & gracious Southern hospitality go to Lexington & visit Keeneland.

05 Jun 2014 11:47 AM

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