Raises For Roses
Ray Paulick
It's only mid-February, but it's never too early to start talking about the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and the Visa Triple Crown Challenge.

Derby preps are in full swing, the first Derby Future Wager is in the books, ESPN and ESPN2 have launched the "Citgo Road to the Kentucky Derby" telecasts, and The Blood-Horse's own Steve Haskin already has provided comprehensive profiles covering every aspect of all 434 Triple Crown nominees at bloodhorse.com's Triple Crown Mania Web site (well, not quite, but he's busy working at it).

The Derby, of course, is America's greatest horse race. It's run at Churchill Downs, whose corporate owners modestly call it "the world's most legendary racetrack."

The only problem is the world's most legendary racetrack has for nearly a decade failed to add any money into the purse of America's greatest horse race, putting the Kentucky Derby on even terms with the Delta Jackpot, a new race for 2-year-olds run at Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino in Louisiana. Both races offer a $1-million guaranteed purse.

When Sea Hero won the 1993 Derby, first prize was $735,900 from a total purse of $985,900. Last year, when Funny Cide defeated Empire Maker, his owners earned $800,200 from a gross purse of $1,100,200. Over 11 years, that's an increase of just 9% to the winning owner.

Now, it can be argued horse owners would still covet the Kentucky Derby trophy (valued at $85,000, according to Churchill Downs) if it was the only prize that went to the owner of the Derby winner. Tears might flow just as freely in the winner's circle if the winner's share was zero instead of the $700,000 called for in the conditions of the race.

Churchill Downs management might even want to test that theory, making the 130th edition, literally, a Run for the Roses and nothing else. Let the trainer and jockey each live off 10% of the pride that comes with the victory. Give 'em each some roses and a picture of the trophy instead of the real thing.

That'll work, won't it?

Fact is, of the $1 million in the purse, horsemen regularly put up at least half. Entry and starting fees of $30,000 per horse kick in $600,000 when the Derby has a maximum field of 20. Anything in excess of $500,000 goes to the winning owner. So a 20-horse field will increase the pot to $1.1 million, all but $500,000 of it supplied by the owners. Churchill Downs gets off pretty cheap, if you ask me.

There is one small advantage to having a horse in the Derby. In the past, for their $30,000 entry and starting fees, Derby owners have been "given" one box with six seats in the third-floor clubhouse section of the track. Of course, if they need more than one box, or if their trainer or jockey wants a box, they'll have to spend a few thousand dollars.

Bottom line: a million-dollar purse is not commensurate with the prestige or value of the Kentucky Derby, especially considering how much Churchill Downs Inc. makes off the event, from box seats and general admission tickets, to concessions, merchandise, and rights fees.

The Louisville racetrack is in the midst of a major facelift. Luxury suites are being added, and the historic track is being modernized so its patrons will experience the same kind of atmosphere and amenities they are accustomed to at other major sporting events. The company's profits are being reinvested in the future, as they should.

The Kentucky Derby is a primary reason Churchill Downs shareholders have received a solid return on their investment during the tenure of chief executive officer Thomas Meeker. But horse owners are an important constituency, too, and those fortunate enough to have a horse in the Derby should be running for a prize that is worthy of America's greatest race.

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