DYCHE | 2015 is a bounceback year for Churchill Downs - WDRB 41 Louisville News

DYCHE | 2015 is a bounceback year for Churchill Downs

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John David Dyche John David Dyche
By John David Dyche
WDRB Contributor

Everyone waxes rhapsodic about Keeneland, and rightly so. Under the skillful management of its president, my fellow London, Kentucky, native Bill Thomason, the beautiful Lexington racecourse recently completed a successful Spring Meet and is preparing to host its first Breeders' Cup this fall.

Keeneland's switch back to a dirt racing surface from its experiment with synthetic has been a big success in multiple ways. The new track handled this month's torrential rains incredibly well, has been remarkably without bias toward particular post positions or racing styles, and with the running of the showcase Blue Grass Stakes a week earlier than in the past, helped restore Keeneland's prominence as a Kentucky Derby prep venue.

This summer, Keeneland will begin construction of a quarter-horse track in the Knox County portion of Corbin. It will offer year-round simulcasting of races from around the world and lots of slot-like machines for wagering on races already run.

It seems that Keeneland rarely makes a misstep. When it does, it seems to be quickly forgiven because everyone so loves the special place. The only worry Keeneland may have is becoming a victim of its own success as crowds throng the place to savor the special experience it offers.

I, too, love Keeneland. But Louisville's Churchill Downs is my hometown track and thus occupies the primary place in my horseracing affections.

Churchill is unlike, and indeed the opposite of, Keeneland in many respects ranging from ambiance, intimacy, location, ownership, size, and style. Whereas Keeneland is widely lauded, Churchill Downs is frequently a favorite punching bag for horseracing folks.

Last year was an especially tough one for Churchill. It was a perfect storm of public relations disasters.

Churchill raises its takeout rates – the amount the track keeps from bets -- to the legal maximum. Although the purpose of this hike was to partly to sustain purse levels necessary to attract horses it caused a bitter outcry from the betting public.

Things got worse when Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte, a paraplegic from a racing accident, blasted Churchill for not making handicap parking available for him during Derby week. Said Turcotte, "Churchill Downs management knew well in advance that I would be attending the Derby, yet never made an effort to offer one shred of hospitality or professional courtesy."

Then the owners of Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome complained about their treatment at the track. One of them, Steve Coburn, said, "The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn't very good," and went out of his way to compare their Derby experience unfavorably to that at Pimlico for the Preakness.

Next, a horse died from a fall after apparently being spooked by the blast of a starting gate bell from a broadcast over Churchill's much ballyhooed new sound system. This incident took some of the luster off of the gigantic new video screen that was supposed to be the showpiece of Churchill's season.

To cap things off, track announcer Larry Collmus, who had come to Churchill to much acclaim, said he was leaving after a single season. Articles abounded to the effect that after having only seven track announcers in its long history, Churchill was now on its third in three years.

You get the picture, and even though it is by no means a complete or altogether fair one, so did Churchill. Expect a better year on Central Avenue as the Spring Meet begins and Derby weekend looms.

For example, Churchill recently unveiled new Winner's Circle Suites and a courtyard close to the track that will cater to owners during Derby weekend and be available for others the rest of the time. This will help with the big shots, but Churchill regulars are well aware that the track already features some of the friendliest and most helpful personnel to be found at any sports venue.

The sound system should be better calibrated in its second season. Here's hoping Churchill has worked out the kinks with audio in the paddock, too.

Last year it was frustratingly difficult for the paddock crowd to hear the pre-race analysis by popular racing analyst Jill Byrne and the track announcer. The paddock tote board and video screen could also use an update, but the saddling area and walking ring there still provide an incredible opportunity for fans to get close to the sport's amazing equine athletes and their fascinating jockeys, trainers and connections.

Derby weekend produces huge crowds, an electric atmosphere, and a disproportionate share of annual revenue for the publicly-held company that owns Churchill Downs. This is obviously extremely important, but it is the other racing days that earn the old but elegant track an emotional niche in the hearts of many locals.

Downs After Dark events continue to bring a younger crowd to the track as is necessary to cultivate a new generation of racing fans. Newly announced twilight racking happy hours on Thursdays are another effort to expand the betting (and drinking) base.

But to some of us the best days at Churchill are those that others might consider ordinary or plain. For on those you can more easily observe and enjoy the everyday essence of the horseracing culture, which partakes of industry as well as sport, and of art as well as science.

Churchill Downs operates in an extremely challenging economic environment. Competition for the entertainment dollar is fierce. The track is not perfect, of course, and should not take anyone for granted, be they owner or $2 bettor, but neither should we fail to appreciate the familiar friend that exists in our midst.

Now, the horses are approaching the post!

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. He writes about horseracing from a fan's perspective. His e-mail is jddyche@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.
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