Churchill Downs Vice President John Asher watches as the new video board at the track is unveilled.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The sun shines bright, in crystal-clear 4K video resolution, on Churchill Downs' new 90-foot tall video screen.
I don't think they'll be tinkering with Stephen Foster's famous lyrics anytime soon. But that's about all they haven't messed with at Churchill Downs.
And I know what people are saying, and I sympathize. I do. The mammoth video board behind the backstretch further clutters a once sacred landscape, just as the light stanchions did before, and the corporate tents on the infield, and the advertisements on the barn roofs.
I feel your pain, racing purists. And I have lifted my voice with yours on these and other grievances in the past. But I come this morning with some bad news.
We have lost. The race went not to the swift, but to the wealthy. We lost it in a game of poker. Millions of them, actually, usually played in casinos or on video screens in other states. The days of pure racing are over. They are gone. They took the last train out, back when there were trains to take. Write the final headline, if there are still such things as headlines:
Weep no more.
The world has changed.
What you have to do today, to survive and possibly thrive, is what Churchill Downs did on Opening Night Saturday. You have to have a party. You have to have multiple live acts playing in various areas of your complex. You have to debut a video board bigger than any of its kind in the world.
You have to open a Grandstand Terrace, which might well be the best physical improvement the track has made in recent memory for the average fan. The Opening Night fans in large part hadn't discovered it yet on Saturday, but they will.
You have to become an "entertainment venue," not just a racetrack. Some would argue that Churchill has taken the concept too far in the entertainment direction and not enough in the horse direction, and I can't argue. Churchill Downs and its leadership are hardly sympathetic figures. They have become more Wall Street than Central Avenue. They increased their takeout of wagering, saying they needed to do it to raise purse levels. But the purses of their top executives seem to be the main thing swelling these days.
Churchill has big-timed the little guys in ways big and small. You don't have to tell me. I'm one of them. I'm out there far less since they moved the press into a near-windowless cubicle of a space so that they could turn the press box into a revenue-generating "mansion."
Your value to them, in general, extends as far as your revenue-generating potential.
I get all that. Churchill Downs has brought home one of the biggest longshots of all -- turning the keeper of the cherished Kentucky Derby into an object of resentment in its home state. Despite record revenues in the first quarter of this year it still posted a loss. There are dissatisfied folks from other properties it owns.
Those are just a few reasons the track has had such trouble getting statewide support for expanded gaming. But it's not the only reason.
Petty jealousies and pet projects have had just as much to do with it.
Regardless of how you feel about Churchill Downs, the facility it has built sits ready to become a casino. More than that, it could become the premiere sports book in this region of the country. You can't walk through Churchill Downs anymore without feeling as if it is a facility in waiting -- and not just for Derby week.
Walk through the Grandstand Terrace, or along other areas of the more recent expansions. The mix of people, even now, is like nothing you've ever seen. There's the young crowd at a live show near the entrance. The usual race fans and revelers crowding outside the paddock. A different group in the Terrace, different yet in the suites, and many longtime race fans in the grandstand.
They're all doing something different, but all there for the same reason.
I always think about Cliff Guilliams when I look around this commotion. He wouldn't have approved. I used to ask him if there were any part of the original track still left around, just to get him started ranting.
But people have always been ranting. They ranted at Matt Winn when he had the clubhouse built to resemble a riverboat. They said he was catering to the social elite. They were right.
Winn wanted press coverage so much that he arranged for special trains to bring reporters down from Chicago. He courted celebrities. All of those things made the Kentucky Derby what it is today.
The video screen, if you look at it from the backside, dwarfs the landscape, and further diminishes the Twin Spires, which already had begun to recede into the background with the construction of the two decks of luxury suites.
But the screen does something else. It changes the entire experience. It provides new interaction between Churchill and consumer. For the first time, it provides everyone in the track a chance to see every race.
But there's something people like watching even more than horse racing or any other sport. Themselves.
I walked through the grandstand when the producer (yes, Churchill Downs is not only a racing/entertainment venue, it's a live event which requires a producer to choreograph everything that happens on its giant screen), anyway the producer began to go to live shots of the crowd, and every head turned to the board.
Is that me? Is that someone I know?
You may not care for Churchill Downs, or its video board, but understand this: Kentucky's inability to act on expanded gaming dealt Churchill Downs out of the horse racing game. It ceased to be a fair fight.
Horse racing is one of Kentucky's signature industries, but it's other states that are raising purses because of casino money. Other states are offering lucrative breeding incentives.
Churchill could've become Keeneland -- that is, run very short meets to complement the Derby and let that be it. But its leadership took another approach -- grow and diversify. Maybe it outgrew the state in which its most famous property lies. I don't know.
Meanwhile the discussion over expanded gaming goes on. Kentucky has largely missed the boat on it. The latest from Louisville's mayor was that Churchill Downs would be willing to operate a casino downtown rather than at its current location. I suspect Churchill would do anything to grab its belated share of that revenue.
But even that shows a disconnect. The infrastructure already exists in Churchill's facility. It's there. The funds have already been spent. The building is in place. And not only that, it's an iconic venue that would draw people from all over the country, because it already does.
But the politics of it are that Churchill will have to sign on to some casino downtown, because city leaders want to build up downtown. And more new money will be spent. And people will come, because they always do, but an opportunity will have been missed.
Let expanded gambling expand into places where it already is, not new areas. That's a graceful compromise for those who worry about the moral side of expanding gaming. And for those worried about giving some kind of monopoly to Churchill Downs, or Kentucky's racetracks, out of frustration with the track for past behavior or just on principle, at some point, consider what that track means to this city.
Those spires, diminished though they are, have become a valuable asset to the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky. Why must we be so backwards at times that we seek to tear down those things which identify us as unique, rather than work to build them up?
Trainer Bob Baffert stood in the paddock before Saturday night's Derby Trial.
"I remember getting a horse in the Derby Trial and thinking that was as close as I'd ever get to the Derby," he said, looking up at the screen in the paddock. "I guess I can go to the track and watch the races now."
His horse on Saturday won the Derby Trial, but was disqualified and placed second by stewards. Baffert searched the big board for the stewards' replay, but none came. A glitch. Something will have to be done to correct that.
Your big TVs are only as good as what you can put on them.
But they aren't going anywhere. Life is lived on screens, these days. More people at the track this year will watch the Kentucky Derby on a giant video screen than will watch the horses live. Believe it.
Demographics are changing. Young fans need something to pull them away from their HD televisions at home. You have to give fans something they can't get from just sitting at home. Or at the very least, don't give them less.
So the landscape is no longer gentle and picturesque around Churchill Downs.