John Asher Churchill Downs
Wednesday March 1, 2006
John Asher, vice president of Communications at Churchill Downs, has worked in the Thoroughbred racing industry as a journalist and a publicist for more than 20 years. A native of Leitchfield, Ky., Asher has a journalism degree from Western Kentucky University.
Asher joined Churchill Downs in January 1997 and has served in his current position since March 1999. In that position he oversees communications and media relations efforts at Churchill Downs, the home of the world famous Kentucky Derby and the flagship operation of Churchill Downs Incorporated.
As a radio journalist at WHAS-AM and WAVE-AM in Louisville, he earned five Eclipse Awards for "Outstanding National Radio Coverage of Thoroughbred Racing" and several other awards that recognized his coverage of the horse industry. The Associated Press honored Asher seven times as the "Best Reporter in Kentucky Large Market Radio." In addition to many other honors, he received the "Warner L. Jones, Jr. Horseman of the Year Award" from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners for his contributions to the industry.
In his capacity at Churchill, Asher is the public face of the Kentucky Derby during the months and weeks leading up to the season's first classic. An astute handicapper. Asher also keeps tabs on all potential Derby contenders and other horses pointing toward Churchill's major races.
Asher is available to answer questions pertaining to Churchill Downs, the Derby, Derby and Kentucky Oaks contenders, and his overall observations on racing.
This sport is desperate for new fans, that much is true. How you believe that the Kentucky Derby, a long standing American tradition, could be marketed better to a fresher and younger demographic?
The Kentucky Derby, as America's greatest horse race, has to be a key part of any effort to market out sport to a younger demographic. It remains the one event in our sport that is a cultural touchstone. There are other wonderful events in our sport -- the Triple Crown itself and Breeders' Cup being foremost among them -- but the racing experience with most Americans starts with the Derby because it is our one event that truly transcends the sport.
But while we surely want larger numbers of younger fans to find their way to racetracks, we shouldn't forget other audiences. There's a large group of baby boomers heading into a time in their lives when they'll be looking for more entertainment options. Our sport did not do a good job of marketing itself to that group, and we have an opportunity to make up for lost time with that group while continuing to work to bring a younger demographic to racing.
Has Churchill ever considered running a 4-year-old version of the Derby on Oaks Day? That way horses that were nominated or competed in previous runnings could compete at 1-1/4 miles. If the distance was objectionable, it could be shortened to 1-1/8 miles.
Our racing officials have talked about a "Derby Alumni"-type stakes race at various times through the years. We currently have a race on the Oaks Day schedule in the $100,000 Alysheba that has the potential to become that type of event as it matures. Prominent Derby alums Perfect Drift and Limehouse have already been key players in that 1 1/16-mile race. But the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap usually attracts some former Derby contenders -- and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic has attracted a couple over the years. The "Derby for 4-year-olds" idea has merit, but such a race would need a very serious purse to attract major players from previous Derbys that also have such options as the $6 million Dubai World Cup, Santa Anita's Big Cap, and Churchill Downs' own $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap.
Do you feel that there needs to be a more aggressive approach in negotiating national TV deals to air racing so programs aren't pre-empted by children's baseball games and other events. It seems to me that the packages of racing leading to the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup is like the playoffs in the major sports. They should be treated accordingly and not like program filler if the industry is to capture new viewers.
I surely understand your concern. I remember a few years ago when scheduled hour-long coverage of the race that is now known as the Lane's End at Turfway Park was carved to 10 or 15 minutes because coverage of the America's Cup yacht race ran long. Those situations are certainly frustrating for lovers of Thoroughbred racing, but our industry bypassed some television opportunities in the 60's and 70's and, as an industry, we continue to pay for missing out on potential fans in those generations of baby boom TV viewers. But our big events continue to command major coverage -- with the Derby and Preakness on NBC, the Belmont switching to ABC and the Breeders' Cup moving from NBC to ESPN, which begins with this year's renewal at Churchill Downs. There is an explosion of cable and satellite channels out there and racing could benefit from entities such as the Outdoor Life Network, which is taking on a greater sports emphasis and could potentially be a site for racing coverage down the road. And still out there is the Broadband world and wireless communication -- with opportunities for our sport to present itself on quickly evolving cell phone technology and video iPods. The major networks are still the major networks and racing certainly desires a strong presence there -- but there are other television options that racing should not, and will not, hesitate to explore.
San Diego, CA:
Congrats on the amazing renovation at CD. It is superb. I am active in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation as a volunteer, and would love to see Churchill pair with TRF to auction off vials of the racing surface from the KY Derby w/ a photo of the winner at the end of each meet, with the proceeds going to support the retirement of horses who have run in the Derby, or are longtime CD warriors. Would you be open to discussing this sort of contribution? If so, please mention it to Sue McPeek next time you see her.
Thanks much for the kind words regarding our renovation. Our patrons -- now a year-round audience that ranges from fans of live racing to guests that visit us for business meetings, dinners and other social or business gatherings -- are telling us that they love the new facilities. That reaction is extremely gratifying. I'm not going to tell you that it's a unanimous feeling, but a walk through the track on any given day reveals a lot of smiling faces.
We appreciate your suggestion on the TRF fundraiser. Churchill Downs already has a strong relationship with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and makes an annual contribution to that agency. Our company also, as part of our employee giving program, offer our team members the option of contributing to TRF through payroll deduction.
I will mention your suggestion next time I see Sue, who is getting ready to adjust to farm life as husband Ken prepares to return to training and operate a Central Kentucky farm and training center.
Do you think that we will see our next Triple Crown winner this year?
Like most racing fans, I certainly hope so. We do have some very attractive candidates among Derby contenders and my early feeling is that we're looking at a promising crop. I would love to see a Triple Crown winner -- but, more importantly, I want to see a deserving horse win that Triple Crown. If you look back over the roster of winners, none of those horses lucked into any of those wins. Near misses by Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, Point Given, Smarty Jones, and Afleet Alex have undoubtedly been tough for racing fans to handle in recent years -- but those efforts by a very talented group of horses should make us appreciate the rare three-race sweep when it finally arrives.
Are there any plans to raise the Twin Spires?
When our architects, Louisville-based Luckett & Farley, studied our track prior to our $121 million renovation, they looked at many options for the Twin Spires. The company's predecessor, D.X. Murphy & Brother, designed the Spires, which were completed in 1895. They looked at the option of raising the Spires and roof of that historic section of the Clubhouse and told us that any effort to raise the Spires would result in the dismantling of the entire historic Clubhouse beneath those structures. Any effort to raise the Spires and clubhouse roof would require a completely new support system that would require the razing of a structure that is a National Historic Landmark. So, the decision was made to leave that structure intact, fortify the Spires and design the structures on either side to complement the Spires as much as possible.
John, with the coverage of racing in daily publication dwindling, do you think these publications could start their own standings? I know the TCT is defunct, but the idea of standings based on Graded Stakes is still plausible and could be a tiny foothold in papers to springboard articles and talk up races that might lack horses with name recognition.
I'm not sure that our sport will ever regain the space it has lost in newspapers across the country, with the Louisville market and others being blessed exceptions. On the other hand, our industry should look at that changing landscape as an opportunity to enhance our commitment to our individual racetrack Web sites and emerging new media, such as wireless communication and podcasting. While we still dearly love coverage of racing in daily publications, we need to focus on ways to deliver that information to a fan base that is becoming increasingly comfortable with the Web and new technology.
Taking a look at poker's current rise in success, do you see any similarities or possibilities that horse racing could somehow create its own resurgence using some of the same "tactics" used in poker? Specifically, I am talking about tapping into the Internet generation. With the advent and rise of Poker Blogs and Internet poker rooms, Poker has tapped into a major demographic that a game like horse racing so desperately needs. Are the forces in power willing to take some chances and work with those in the Internet world and tap into some non-mainstream opportunities, or do you feel their blood may be too blue to make that leap?
I think our industry is willing to make that leap -- and the NTRA's efforts to efforts to bring the National Handicapping Championships to a television audience on ESPN is one example of that. I found myself watching people weighing fish on Sunday at the conclusion of the Bassmasters Classic on the same cable network. The poker boom has tapped into an audience that appreciates a mental challenge, strategy, expertise, and nerve. That sounds like handicapping a horse race to me -- plus, you get the thrill of watching an unfolding race that can either validate your handicapping skill or provide an opportunity for the player to learn and improve.
The Internet provides a wonderful opportunity for us to make up for ground our sport lost when it was ineffective in expanding a television presence in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Just think of how the racing world has already changed since the arrival of the Internet. We can now reach the racing fan in areas of our country and the world where residents would never see a word about racing in their local or regional newspapers. The key challenge for us as racetracks and racing entities is to provide compelling and well-written content on our Web sites, blogs, and podcasts to encourage fans to make repeat visits and learn more about our sport and the human and equine stars that make it special.
What is the run-up distance for six furlong races at Churchill, and is there some reason why it is significantly different (as in longer, which results in quicker first quarters) than at other tracks?
The placement of the starting gate on our one-mile track for six-furlong races provides a longer than usual run-up to the actual start of the timing of those races at Churchill Downs. Placing the gate at the actual six-furlong point would place it in the middle of the first turn gap, which would raise a safety concern. Because of the track configuration, a six-furlong race at Churchill Downs is actually closer to six and-a-quarter furlongs because of that running start -- and that explains the quick first quarter clockings.
As a horse lover and horse racing fan, this is my favorite time of year. However, during the TV races leading up to the Triple Crown there seems to be more social and celebrity information given. Why isn't there more horse, trainer, breeding, and owner information.? Why not more interviews with people like yourself, Randy Moss, Charlsie Canty, Jill Byrne, and other well informed horse people? More time viewing the horses, etc. It's the beauty of the horses and the skill getting them to the races. Would this not create more interest and therefore promote the sport?
Your point is a valid one. Our sport has some wonderfully talented people -- and I would add Donna Brothers and Mike Battaglia to your list -- that can not only talk about the intricacies of racing, but have a marvelous talent to do so in a style that newcomers can understand while still connecting with veteran racing fans. But celebrities add sizzle to any event -- whether it's Jack Nicholson at courtside for a Los Angeles Lakers game or Usher at the Kentucky Derby. Celebrity attendance and visibility is a very important part of the Kentucky Derby -- Col. Matt Winn saw their participation as a key to the Derby's success in the earliest days of his legendary leadership of our track.
For lovers of horse racing, we should hope for a mix in TV coverage that balances the natural allure of our sport and the beauty and grace of its equine athletes with the sizzle provided by celebrities and dignitaries. Back to the earlier examples of the poker boom, part of the reason for the growth of that game is that celebrities were playing the game on Bravo and other outlets. While many of us might prefer a little more analysis or expertise in all areas of precious television airtime, the celebrity and social aspect is going to remain important to us as we look to bring new fans and audiences to our sport.
I know you've received some criticism regarding your new policy to pay purse money to all stakes race finishers in your upcoming spring meet. What would you tell someone who feels the policy will "reward mediocrity?"
We believe that our decision to pay purse money to all participants in Churchill Downs stakes races (excluding the Kentucky Derby) is a pro-active step designed to address the industry-wide problem of small fields in those marquee events. It is also a way to show appreciation to horsemen for their support of our stakes program. The addition of a horse or two to any stakes race makes it a more attractive wagering option to on-track and simulcast fans. The horse that we are hoping to attract to those races is one that is on the fence regarding a particular stakes race. That horse may be an improving horse moving up in class or a veteran stakes performer. The purse money for horses finishing lower than fifth, the previous cutoff point for stakes purses, is one percent of the purse. In most cases, that will take care of entry and starting fees and allow the owner and trainer to recoup nomination costs -- and that may be enough to convince them to take a shot in that stakes race rather than pass on the event. Again, that additional horse or two in, say, a race like the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap could turn an uninviting five or six horse field into a race with seven or eight starters that provides more attractive exacta or trifecta options.
And horses that are "hustled" into races often run very well -- with longshot 2004 Stephen Foster winner Colonial Colony being a major example.
John, why would Brothers take the Florida route to the Kentucky Derby with First Samurai? That horse will have all the credentials (2 year old profile, Beyers, etc.) to win on the first Saturday in May, but that 5 week lay off is too long. History proves that.
First things first, I'm a big fan of Frankie Brothers and I believe that his job with Pulpit, who finished fourth while being injured during the running of the 1997 Kentucky Derby, is one of the most under appreciated training jobs in recent Derby history. First Samurai is running this weekend in the Fountain of Youth, but that doesn't mean that he has to stay at Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby. I haven't talked to Frankie about his plans for First Samurai, but the Churchill Downs stable area that is his home base reopens for training on March 11, and I'll be surprised if his stable does not ship north from Florida soon after that to prepare for the Keeneland and Churchill meets. The Fountain of Youth provides a terrific opportunity for First Samurai to prove his prowess around two turns at a mile and-an-eighth. But I'd be very surprised if the colt's next start, provided all goes well this weekend, would be anything other than the Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland or Aqueduct's Wood Memorial. We'll see what happens, but Frank Brothers is an intelligent trainer who strives to do the right thing for his horses and his decision on a final pre-Derby prep will be made with that objective in mind.
John, what do you think about Keyed Entry's chances of holding up at a distance? Could he wire the Derby?
I loved Keyed Entry's race in the Hutcheson, and the horse he defeated that day remains at the top of my list of Derby contenders. His pedigree leads me to believe that he'll have problems at the Derby's 1 1/4-miles, but I didn't think that a son of Distorted Humor or Elusive Quality would get the job done, either. As for wiring the Derby field, that's a tough thing to accomplish because the pace is almost always hot and contested in a field of nearly 20 horse. But Spend A Buck completed the task when the other apparent speed in the 1985 Derby, Eternal Prince, got off to a poor start. And Lion Heart would have easily wired the field two years ago if not for the remarkable talent of the stalking Smarty Jones. Clearly, the conventional wisdom of what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby is going through some changes. I do believe that Keyed Entry, whether he gets the Derby distance or not, is a wonderful talent and he'll be expertly placed by two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. If he's in the gate on Derby Day, it'll be because Todd thinks he has the talent and class to get the job done.
Mr. Asher, thank you for coming here and taking our questions. Before I ask my question, I would like to commend CD for handling what was an unbelievable and totally unexpected experience for me. We've been to every Breeders' Cup held at CD and thoroughly enjoyed every one. But at BC 2000, we had the most incredible seats and we were so excited. Just as they were loading for the Mile, I had this "seizure" or something. The CD people and EMS were right there in minutes and took me to First Aid. Everything seemed to check out ok, and after a rest I returned to my seat. Right before the Sprint, it happened again. My family was really scared and determined I needed to go to the hospital. CD people and EMS were right there again and gave me oxygen, but I wouldn't leave until I saw Kona Gold win! Then I got rushed to the hospital and ended up spending the night and some $4,000 to find out it was nothing but an anxiety attack, which I'd never had before and haven't since. In retrospect, I know what caused it, and it certainly had nothing to do with my favorite Sport of Kings! Anyway, the response from CD and the EMS people you use was remarkable! My question is two-fold; what was your favorite BC race at CD and what was your favorite Derby? Thanks for taking my question and thanks again to CD for such awesome response on a big day!
Thanks much for sharing your story on the 2000 Breeders' Cup experience. I'll pass it along to our security team. We have remarkable partners that work with us on Derby, Oaks, and Breeders' Cup Days, and they'll be happy to hear that your story had a happy, if expensive, ending. Here's hoping that you get to visit us for this year's Derby or the long-awaited return of the Breeders' Cup on November 6.
As for my favorite Breeders' Cup race at Churchill Downs, it would have to be Arazi's incredible run in the 1991 Juvenile. The memory of this wonderful little horse is tainted for some by his Derby disappointment the following spring, but his win on Breeders' Cup Day remains the greatest individual performance that I have personally witnessed in any race in my nearly 25 years of watching races as a journalist or publicist at Churchill Downs.
Personal Ensign's win in the 1988 Distaff, Awesome Again's Classic win over the greatest field ever in '98, the narrow victory by Flanders over Serena's Song in the '94 Juvenile Fillies, and Michael Dickinson's magical Mile win with Da Hoss in 2000 are right behind my top choice. But Arazi's dazzling win is an easy choice for my favorite Breeders' Cup memory under the Spires.
My favorite Kentucky Derby is also an easy choice. Ferdinand's win in 1986 is my most special Derby memory. First of all, I loved the horse, who had a wonderful pedigree but a distressing habit of losing interest when he got the lead. But he rose to the occasion of some big days, including his heart-stopping Breeders' Cup Classic win over Alysheba in a duel of Derby winners the following year.
Along with the horse, that Derby is special because it gave the great Charlie Whittingham his first Derby win and the legendary Bill Shoemaker his last.
And I picked the winner at $44.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. As a fan of Silverbulletday and Smarty Jones, how impressive were their victories in the Oaks and Derby?
Both horses were dominant winners of their respective races. Silverbulletday is one of only two winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies to win the Oaks the following spring -- and both horses accomplished that feat by winning both races at Churchill Downs (Open Mind was the other). She was as easy an Oaks winner as you would hope to see.
My appreciation of the talent of Smarty Jones came way too late -- recognition of his brilliance hit me at about the three-sixteenths pole at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. But he was a remarkable horse, and his Derby win was a special performance. He tracked a dangerous front-runner who was loose on the lead on a track that had been soaked by a late afternoon deluge, but simply cruised by and won as he pleased under Stewart Elliott. As much as I appreciate the talent of Smarty Jones, I have even more respect for the work of trainer John Servis. A Kentucky Derby rookie coming in with an unbeaten horse, Servis handled the media crush before and after the race like he'd been here all of his life. It was remarkable work under a blinding spotlight -- but he was helped by the fact that he was training a very special horse.
How much does the track variance come into play with racing and where would you find the comparisons?
In handicapping, I'm always on the lookout for track biases. We rarely have those at Churchill Downs as Butch Lehr and his crew do a remarkable job -- but I do believe that it was a disadvantage to be on our rail during a good chunk of last year's Spring Meet. Keeneland's celebrated bias toward inside speed has provided some wonderful handicapping opportunities over the years for fans who noticed that a closer racing on the outside actually ran a huge race against the bias. Those bettors were often rewarded when those horses came back to run well at strong price over the more even-handed track at Churchill Downs. If you can't watch races every day and draw your own conclusions regarding track biases and other variants, the Ragozin Sheets and similar publications offer strong data and opinion on those factors.
What was the most exciting Derby you have witnessed? The most impressive Derby winner you have seen?
I have had the good fortune to see every Derby since 1982 and the narrow wins by Grindstone in 1996 and Silver Charm in '97 rank as the most exciting renewals that I have personally witnessed. The win by Grindstone was a special reward for the remarkable owner/breeder/Kentucky icon William T. Young and it was impossible to know who won the race until the result of the photo was posted. Silver Charm's win was my first personal exposure to one of the gutsiest horses I have ever seen. He would not let Captain Bodgit by that day and I believe to this day that the latter would not have passed him if they'd run another mile. If he saw you and he was on his game, Silver Charm would not let you get past him.
The most impressive Derby winner that I witnessed was Alysheba, who overcame a near fall in mid-stretch to win the Derby and go on to be one of the great horses in the last quarter of the 20th century. Like last year's Preakness run by Afleet Alex, Alysheba turned a near disaster into validation of his brilliance. Not only did he regain his composure and balance after clipping heels with Bet Twice, Alysheba kept running and blew past that rival to take the roses. It's impossible to watch a replay that Derby without having your heart in your throat. It's the greatest athletic display by a horse that I've had to the joy to personally witness.
Mr. Asher: For those of us in the industry the dream has always been the Derby; it is a hope that drives us each and every day. The association with YUM! brands and the inevitable renaming of our beloved event as the Kentucky Fried Derby has forever cheapened the dream. We all understand the need for sponsors, advertising, and exposure; however, the world would laugh were we also to present the McDonald’s Super Bowl or the Roto-Rooter World Series. I wonder if you might be kind enough to take a moment and apologize to those of us who might one day have to start from a great post under a giant taco. It is a bad association regardless of the good corporate citizen spin, and I sincerely hope that Churchill will realize this before we become the standing joke on the late night talk show circuit.
Thank you for voicing your concerns about the five-year agreement in which Yum! Brands will be the first presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. We have heard from a few fans with similar concerns, but I'm hoping that you will give us the benefit of the doubt and view the results of the sponsorship at this year's Kentucky Derby before reaching a final conclusion on the agreement.
Maintaining and growing the tradition of the Kentucky Derby is job one every day for all of us who work at Churchill Downs. We also have an obligation to our shareholders to maximize the success of our biggest events and race days -- and there is no bigger day in racing than the Kentucky Derby. But we must perform those duties with a keen regard and appreciation for the work of Col. Matt Winn and those who built the foundation for America's greatest race and built the tradition of a race that, as we approach its 132nd consecutive year, ranks as America's oldest continuously held sports event.
In other words, the tradition and history of the Derby -- and the protection of both -- were prime considerations as we entered this partnership. Yum! had been a Derby sponsor for several years and was eager to increase its role -- and Churchill Downs felt that this hometown partner -- a company with a keen appreciation for the Derby and what it means to our city and region -- would be a perfect candidate for the race's first presenting sponsorship. The company's huge presence in international markets also provides an opportunity for us to take the Derby and its rich tradition to potential new audiences abroad.
There has been some misunderstanding and miscommunication in the public and the media regarding parts of the sponsorship agreement. First and foremost, there will be no sponsorship banner strung between the Twin Spires. Those structures are the heart and soul of our company and that is sacred ground here. There will be a couple of Yum corporate logos on the Derby starting gate, just as the Woodford Reserve logo will be on the gate for the Grade I Turf Classic and the Humana logo will be placed for the Grade I Humana Distaff. No giant tacos are included in the contract.
And it is a presenting partnership -- not an event sponsorship. The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands is significantly different from a naming sponsorship that would dub the race the Yum! Brands Kentucky Derby. Similar partnerships are in place for major races and other major sports events and are important part of that business -- whether that event is the Toyota Blue Grass, the Breeders' Cup Classic powered by Dodge, or the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
It is a partnership that we believe will help us sustain and grow the tradition of the Kentucky Derby and horsemen will benefit from the deal in revenues that will go to race purses at Churchill Downs. And, in doing so, our primary goal is continue the Derby dream. It's not only the dream that drives you and others in the racing industry each and every day -- it's the dream that drives all of us on the Churchill Downs team.
Again, I hope that you'll give Churchill Downs and this sponsorship agreement the benefit of a doubt through this year's Derby on May 6. Those of us on the Churchill Downs team love and revere the Derby dream and tradition, and what I appreciate most about your comment is your obvious passion for this great race. Thanks again for writing.
As someone who loves racing as a sport and not so much as a business, I wonder how you view the recent developments at Churchill Downs with the reconstruction of the facility and the Derby sponsorship?
First of all, you're on the money in your description of my love of racing. I fell in love with the Derby as a fairly young boy and consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people in the world to have the opportunity to be a part of this incredible tradition.
Although I'm paid to say good things about our track, I truly do love our renovated Churchill Downs. Our architects, Luckett & Farley, did a remarkable job in paying respect to the history of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby while bringing our more than century-old track into a new century. The artwork throughout the facility pays homage to Derby legends and lore, and it is a year-round facility the welcomes visitors to business meetings, social events, and gala dinners. The smiles I see on the faces of patrons during our race meets and during those year-round functions tells me that we did the right thing in spending $121 million on the home of the Derby.
Some fans remain concerned about the status of the Twin Spires now that taller structures rival the Spires on either side. But I love the fact that racing fans who walk out on the terraces on each of those floors in the Jockey Club Suites and the new Clubhouse have unprecedented access to the Twin Spires -- and can almost reach out and touch them. I'd like to think that the new Churchill Downs will bring fans closer to the Twin Spires than ever before.
As for the presenting sponsorship of the Kentucky Derby by Yum! Brands, it's important to remember that Churchill Downs is a publicly-held company and that it is our duty to investors to maximize the value of our key events -- and no event is more important than the Derby.
But it's also important to realize that it is a presenting sponsorship -- the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands, and not the Yum! Kentucky Derby. The sponsorship represents a break with Derby tradition, but it does not ignore that tradition. Yum! has been a lower-level Derby sponsor for several years and, being a Louisville-based international company, understands the importance of the Derby to our community and region.
And, let me promise you that there will be no sponsorship signs strung between the Twin Spires! The Spires are the heart and soul of our company and the center of what we do -- that territory remains sacred at Churchill Downs.
You are known for being a sharp handicapper. What are the most important factors to you when handicapping? What makes handicapping the Derby so different?
I appreciate the kind words about my handicapping, but my efforts to find a Derby winner are pretty woeful. But the fun is in the chase. I strive to approach each race as an individual contest and, after studying the past performances, try to run the race in my head before the horses break from the gate. In doing so, I find that my ultimate choice in that race is surprising to me -- and often is determind on where a horse may be sitting in relation to speed scenario, field size and post position. Speed figures are an important part of the puzzle -- but just a part. I'm also a "trip" handicapper -- I love to watch races and look for trouble that may have not been detected by the chart-caller and reflected in the official race chart.
There are several factors that make the Derby a difficult race to handicap: the distance, field size, the enourmous crowd, potential traffic problems, and simple bad luck are enough to derail Derby hopes in an instant. The likes of Native Dancer, Damascus and recent stars like Point Given were not able to get the job done on Derby Day.
As a handicapper and racing fan, however, I believe that emotion is the toughest thing to put aside in successfully handicapping the Derby. We all get emotionally attached to these horses and their connections and we make assessments and decisions in handicapping that are often colored by those emotions. If I could put successfully put emotion aside, I would have picked a few more Derby winners over the years. But, if I could do that, I wouldn't be fighting off the tears when the University of Louisville band plays "My Old Kentucky Home."
The great thing about the Derby is that, with 20 individual wagering interests and incredibly long odds on serious contenders, you can make up for a lot of bad Derby bets with one successful one.
Do you miss doing daily radio work...especially at Derby time?
I love my work at Churchill Downs so much, and it includes so many elements that I enjoyed in my previous career in radio, that I honestly do not miss the daily radio work -- even at Derby time. I loved that career -- but being a part of the Derby and Churchill Downs team, given my lifelong love of the sport and our great race, is much more fulfilling.
There is one time of year that I do miss being on the radio and you may be surprised by it. I did play-by-play of the Kentucky Boys State Basketball Tournament for several years and dearly loved that event. I have not been able to attend a state tournament since I joined the Churchill Downs team in 1997 and that is one time that I truly miss my old profession. I loved doing play-by-play, but the drama of watching those kids play and make memories that will last a lifetime is not unlike the emotion that makes the Kentucky Derby such a special event. Both events, I believe, significantly transcend their respective sports.
Fort Thomas, KY:
I have always enjoyed a visit to CD on the Wednesday or Thursday of Derby Week. Given the success of Oaks Day on Friday, are there any plans to add more events or stakes races to those days to make Derby Week a four-day event?
With attendance at the Oaks topping 100,000 for the past several years -- including a record 111,000 last year, we've been looking to build our Thursday racing program. Infield concerts and the addition of stakes races have pushed attendance for that program into the 20,000-to-25,000 range over the past few years, and that day is a point of focus for us.
This year's stakes menu on Thursday will include the $100,000-added Mamzelle for older fillies and mares at five furlongs on the turf and the $150,000-added Kentucky Breeders' Cup for 2-year-olds at five furlongs. We'd certainly love to see attendance grow on the Wednesday card as well.
Hi, John! Is there any truth to the rumor circulating around Louisville that you're giving up pari-mutuel wagering for Lent? That's what I thought. Do you think the defection of Stevie Wonderboy gives credence to the opinion that you have to gear a young horse up so much for the large purse money in the fall that it takes its toll when they turn three, or is the Juvenile Jinx just dumb blind luck?
No truth to the Lenten rumor -- certainly in a year when the remaining two pools of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks Future Wagers fall within the Lenten season.
Regarding Stevie Wonderboy, I'm not a real believer in the so-called Breeders' Cup Juvenile Jinx -- although it is hard to ignore an 0-for-22 performance by the winners. But remember that some of these Juvenile winners were just like some false Derby favorites: horses that were not equipped to win at a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.
My feelings fall more along the lines that the Kentucky Derby is the most difficult race in the world to win. Your horse needs stamina, speed, pedigree, and heart -- plus a temperament that will allow them to handle exposure to 150,000 people on Derby Day and the backside buzz in the two weeks leading up to the race. Stevie Wonderboy looked as likely as any Juvenile winner you could cite to end the streak, but encountered bad luck.
Few of these horses are going through exhaustive campaigns prior to the Juvenile -- but it's just a tough double to pull off. Remember, too, that stretch between Triple Crown winners stretches back to 1978. But I don't think anyone views that as a jinx. It's simply a tough accomplishment that we will appreciate even more when a horse is able to sweep the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. We'll have the same appreciation for the special horse that wins the Juvenile and the Derby.
Although I've requested a ticket for the past five years, I have yet to be granted one. I've been offered tickets by folks standing outside as I approached Churchill on Derby Day and seen them advertised on Web sites at a premium price. Can you tell me what your policy is and what I can do to improve my chances? I was born on Derby Day and will be fifty in a couple years on the first Saturday in May. Actually seeing the race live would be the best gift I can think of.
I love hearing from Derby fans in Michigan and beyond. Thank you so much for your support and your love for our great race. There are a couple of ways to apply for Derby and Oaks tickets each year. Churchill Downs will begin accepting letters requesting tickets for next year's Derby on the day after this year's renewal of the "Run for the Roses." We will continue to accept those letters through Sept. 1. Those letters should be addressed to:
Churchill Downs Premium Seating
700 Central Avenue
Louisville, KY 40208
A committee looks over those requests each year, so be sure to throw in your Derby Day 50th birthday. I'm not assuring you that it will help you get available Derby tickets, but it can't hurt! But my main advice would be to keep trying -- invitations to purchase Derby and Oaks are made to fans each year through that letter-writing process.
You can also apply for Derby and Oaks tickets by becoming a member of our Twin Spires Club, Churchill Downs' patron reward program. Membership in the TSC is free and you can sign up online at www.kentuckyderby.com, www.churchilldowns.com, or www.twinspiresclub.com.
Here's hoping that our paths cross under the Twin Spires on that special birthday.
Is Churchill going to get involved in bidding for the NYRA franchise?
Our parent company, Churchill Downs Incorporated, handles the business of acquisitions and other business arrangements. We have expressed our belief in the importance of New York racing to our entire industry. NYRA tracks are customers of ours through simulcasting, and vice versa, so the health and vitality of New York racing is vitally important to us. We have said that our company would be interested in being involved in the effort to advance New York racing, but it's far too early to know what role, if any, CDI might play in that effort.
If Kentucky gets slot machines, where will they be placed at historic Churchill Downs?
The question of slot machines and other gaming at Churchill Downs is one that is out of our hands. Our $121 million renovation completed last spring represents the best swing we can take at increasing competition for our racing product from inside and outside of our industy. It has turned our track into a year-round center for business activities, tourism and social activities outside of our Spring and Fall racing meets. The renovation was geared to those activities -- and not to slot machine or racino operations. If the legislature and the people of Kentucky were to agree to additional gaming at our track, you would likely see a temporary operation to get those activities going and then additional construction on a facility devoted to those new products. Racing and gaming are two very different products. We view a day at the races as a family activity -- I was 11 when I spent my unforgettable first day at Churchill Downs -- while slot machines and other gaming are conducted in an age-controlled setting. If approval for gambling expansion ever happens, Churchill Downs will be ready -- but be assured that you will not be walking past rows of slot machines to get to your season or Derby box.
John, you must be busy, because you haven't updated your Derby Top 20 list in over two weeks. C'mon, we need your help.
It appears that I dropped the ball on last week's Derby Top 20. I could have sworn that I updated that list and sent it on to our Web team, but when I checked in this week to update I found my list from two weeks ago was still in my file. So, my apologies on that misstep -- it won't happen again. My Top 20 should be updated now on the Derby site -- with First Samurai still on top and big moves for horses like Steppenwolfer and Corinthian. I'm anxious to see what happens this weekend in the Derby preps at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. I'm a huge fan of First Samurai and a big believer in his trainer, Frankie Brothers, so his first two-turn test in the Fountain of Youth will be a big one.
I actually loved his race in the Hutcheson -- he did everything but win. And I believe that he is a horse that possesses the presence and star quality to appeal to casual racing fans as well as longtime lovers of the Derby. But he has to take the necessary steps on the track and Saturday's race is a huge on for him.
Again, my apologies on not having an updated list -- but thanks for checking in. This is an amazing time of year in which major Derby contenders can blossom seemingly overnight. Good luck on your search for a Derby winner -- and for any investment you might make in this weekend's Derby and Oaks Future Wagers that kick off on Thursday.
Thank you very much, John. I'm sure all who read this will enjoy.
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