Evans Says Product Doesn't Have to Be Boring

The new chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc. believes horse racing has an opportunity to move to another level if the industry embraces a new way of thinking.

Bob Evans, who took over as CEO from Tom Meeker this summer, recalled when a member of the CDI board of directors told him the product is boring. Evans at the time was considering the job.

"He was right and wrong," Evans said Nov. 3 during the "Thoroughbred Industry Forum" at Churchill Downs on the eve of the Breeders' Cup World Championships. "It's only boring because we let it be boring."

Evans, who said he's still gauging the landscape in his new post, touched on three topics during his keynote talk during the event sponsored by the Louisville, Ky., law firm Brown Frost Todd: growth in the industry, account wagering, and synthetic surfaces. He also touched on technology and its role in horse racing.

Evans noted that card-playing, bass fishing, and ballroom dancing could be considered boring, but "clever people" reinvented them in new media platforms. Now, each has about 30 million identifiable fans, he said.

"With a little creativity and innovation, I think we can repackage what we're doing," Evans said.

As for account wagering, Evans said the industry is competing over "an ever-shrinking pie." He said the current account wagering structure in the pari-mutuel industry doesn't work, but he doesn't advocate having one account wagering system.

"If there is anybody in the room who thinks it's right the way it is, come see me after the meeting and explain your logic," Evans said. "To me, it's nuts." Then, he said he supports having multiple platforms and allowing companies to compete for customers. "I'm dead-set against that idea," Evans said of having a single industry account wagering provider.

Evans also said the economic incentives of account wagering aren't aligned with the capital risks.

As for synthetic surfaces, Evans likened current developments to those in baseball, where the debate over grass versus artificial turf continues today. He said he expects many racetracks to install synthetic surfaces, but CDI is still in observation mode.

"It's clearly going to change the game," Evans said. "I think you'll see us do this at one of our tracks in the not-too-distant future."

In an earlier interview with The Blood-Horse, Evans said CDI would decide on synthetic surfaces at the appropriate time. "The trick is not to immediately adopt something that sounds like a good idea," he said.

Currently, four tracks are racing on synthetic surfaces in North America: Keeneland, Turfway Park, and Woodbine have Polytrack, and Hollywood Park has Cushion Track.