Churchill Downs staggered away from last year’s Triple Crown season suffering from as many jabs to its reputation as blows Manny Pacquiao took from Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the “Fight of the Century.”
Owners caused most of the bruising by denouncing the Louisville racetrack for being too dismissive of the people putting on the show during its most lucrative weekend on the calendar.
“They don’t have any regard for the owners, in my opinion,” wrote owner Rick Porter in a letter posted on his Fox Hill Farm website prior to the 2014 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The previous year Porter’s horse Normandy Invasion started in the Derby. He had invited four 90-year-old World War II veterans of the Omaha Beach invasion to attend and had to fight to get seats for them. “They (Churchill Downs) are for themselves and the racetrack, as I see it. Not only do I feel that owners are treated like second-class citizens by Churchill Downs, so too are the handicappers and everyday bettors.”
Porter’s comments came on the heels of criticism from Secretariat’s jockey Ron Turcotte, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a riding accident in 1978. Turcotte said a recent visit to the track for an event at the Kentucky Derby Museum “tarnished my fond memories of Churchill Downs through the actions, or should I say inaction, of track management who has not provided me with either accommodation or parking access during (Kentucky) Oaks and Derby days.”
Another blow came from dual classic winner California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn, who chided Churchill Downs during a press conference after the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
“We got to Churchill, and not only did I complain, but there were other trainers, owners, and even jockeys complaining about the way they were treated,” Coburn said. “I’ve said this once, I’ve said it 50 times—Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality.”
Churchill Downs, a publicly traded company, is often criticized for focusing on shareholder value at the expense of owners and horsemen. The company, however, took the criticisms seriously.
“It was disappointing,” said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs, about the barrage of criticism. “I thought we were doing a pretty good job but clearly there were some areas where we were falling short.”
Racetrack executives regrouped and made improving the owners’ experience a priority for 2015.
“We looked at the whole picture,” said Asher. “We looked at other tracks and their best practices. We reached out to people who participated in the Triple Crown last year. The Winner’s Circle Suites were the result.”
Churchill Downs used to provide Derby and Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) owners a box with six seats and the option to buy another six seats if needed. These seats are in Section 318, on the third level right in front of the wire. The new Winner’s Circle Suites, a $4.2 million project, provide the owners of Derby and Oaks horses with 18 trackside seats on their respective days and offer access to food and beverage.
“When you look at owners, you want proximity so it is easy for them to get to the paddock and, for those fortunate to win, to get to the winner’s circle,” Asher said, adding that the track still accommodates owners who want to sit in Section 318.
The track also improved its communication with the owners of potential Derby starters by sending out an “exhaustive” package of material intended to answer any question owners might have when they arrive in Louisville. Distribution of these packages to owners with horses ranking high in Kentucky Derby qualifying points began months before the Derby. Track executives also followed up with personal phone calls. Additional tweaks were made to a host program, which provides owners a local guide and a car. This year the track provided a driver, too.
Initial responses to the changes have been positive. Ahmed Zayat, owner/breeder of this year’s Derby winner American Pharoah, made a point during the winner’s press conference to recognize the effort.
“As a person who has been coming here and had more than one Derby runner, I have seen a 180 degree change in all attitudes,” Zayat said, who was not prompted to comment about his experience over the weekend. “And to the whole organization from A to Z, I would like personally to thank them for their hospitality, for what they have done for all owners and horsemen.”
Managing an international event of the Kentucky Derby’s scope means room for improvement always exists, but Churchill deserves praise for aggressively addressing its customer service weaknesses and within a year making improvements that ensure the experience of starting a horse in the Derby or the Oaks matches the owners’ dreams.