By John David Dyche
The 140th Kentucky Derby is a mere month away. The run-up to the first Saturday in May is a good time to review the state of the business and sport of thoroughbred horse racing, especially in its Kentucky epicenter. The report is mixed.
This columnist is a big racing fan, but by no means an expert (as followers of his "DYCHE LIKES" handicapping on Twitter can attest). As such, your correspondent is prone to see the bright side of most things thoroughbred. So let's start with the predominately positive, of which there is plenty and save the negative, of which there is too much, for next time.
Everything depends on the horse, of course, and this is an era of several greats. Among the older ones Wise Dan, the two-time Horse of the Year, is a superstar of historic stature. The rivalry of Game on Dude, Mucho Macho Man, and Will Take Charge promises many riveting races to come. Perhaps Palace Malice may turn this talented triumvirate into a formidable foursome.
The Derby field is wide open with no clear-cut favorite among the charismatic colts and their colorful owners and trainers. Untapable, trained by the embattled Steve Asmussen (more about that later) looks like the leading filly for the Oaks. The point system that Churchill Downs now uses to determine these fields is not perfect, but brings even more excitement to the already scintillating prep races now in progress.
Television coverage of racing is good and getting better. FOX Sports 1 is broadcasting a good schedule in partnership with the Jockey Club, but NBC, with which Churchill Downs recently announced a lucrative 10-year Derby and Oaks broadcasting deal, is still the gold standard.
Its team is intelligent and likable, and its productions are high quality and well-paced with plenty of horse and human interest features for the casual fan. The network's recent Louisiana Derby telecast from Churchill Downs-owed Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans also featured the extremely popular Churchill Downs' track handicapper, Jill Byrne.
A fantastic ambassador for the local track and horse racing generally, Byrne is one of this state's several female stars on the international handicapping and media stage. Others include Jennie Rees of the Courier-Journal, Alicia Wincze Hughes of the Lexington Herald-Leader, blogger/handicapper J. J. Hysell, and multi-talented former jockey Donna Barton Brothers.
The sport would benefit from more female jockeys like the captivating Rosie Napravnik, trainers like the inspiring Kathy Ritvo, and owners like the accomplished Maggi Moss. But it offers more and more varied opportunities for women than many, if not most, other major sports do.
Churchill Downs is expanding seating, installing a gigantic video screen, and welcoming a new track announcer, the respected Larry Collmus. The Derby and Oaks are profitable, but small fields plague Louisville racing the rest of the year despite the debut of a promising new September meet. Churchill's other racing venues muddle by, and its casinos produced more revenue than its racetracks in 2013.
WFPL recently reported that the company's stock price went up 35 percent last year, and its top five executives received bonuses totaling $27.9 million, mostly in stock. At the other end of the economic spectrum the local track has the friendliest and most helpful employees to be found anywhere.
The iconic Keeneland is successful in terms of wagering handle and field sizes, but evidently not successful enough to maintain the status quo.
This picturesque and prosperous course is controversially changing its main track back to dirt from a safer synthetic surface and bidding to host the high-profile 2-day Breeder's Cup.
Repeatedly ranked as the nation's top track by the Horseplayers Association of North America, Keeneland is also installing 600 instant racing terminals, even as the legality of the slot-like game in which patrons bet on replays of past races meanders its way through Kentucky's courts.
Ellis Park in Henderson and Kentucky Downs in Franklin also feature instant racing, but are reallocating machines between them to maximize revenues. The electronic game funds the large purses that Kentucky Downs offers in its successful short, all-turf September meet. Meanwhile, Turfway Park in Florence, which is majority owned and managed by casino companies but lacks instant racing, offers small purses and struggles most respects.
Keeneland's $534.5 million in 2013 horse sales represents a respectable rebound from 2010's $381.5 million, but remains well below 2007's $815.4 million. Kentuckians Ken and Sarah Ramsey of Nicholasville won the 2013 Eclipse Awards as the outstanding breeders and outstanding owners and added to their long list of laurels at Churchill Downs. Their Kitten's Joy is an elite stallion.
Although it is not a thoroughbred racing event it merits mention that Lexington is again bidding to host the World Equestrian Games. Bringing this prestigious event back to the Bluegrass would help keep Kentucky the world's horse capital.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.