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.