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Could Be a Long Off-Season for Churchill Downs

Kentucky Derby Starting Gate 615 X 400
Photo: Eclipse Spotswire

 

Churchill Downs concluded its 2014 spring meet on Sunday. The majority of good news coming out of Louisville this season revolved around the prized event held annually. Despite high ranking numbers on the first 5 days of live racing, which concluded with the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, it’s what happened next that started a downward spiral.

 

*Numbers

 

  • + Average field size was 7.29 horses, down from 7.78 during 2013
  • + CDI ran 372 races this meet compared to 396 in 2013
  • + Average purses per day fell from $534,942 to $532,903 in 2014
  • + Purses paid totaled $20,250,300 vs $20,327,798 last spring

* The amount live racing days equaled the 2013 total; 38

 

The decreases may only be minor, but what’s concerning is guessing which direction things will go from here. To estimate or predict we have to rewind. It began right before the meet commenced when the reigning operators in control of what is now considered a gaming company announced the takeout increase.

 

Beginning Saturday April 26, 2014, the takeout for WPS wagers rose to 17.50%, an increase of 9.375% (2013 takeout rate = 16.00%) Further, a takeout for all EXOTIC wagers increased to 22.00% (19.00% in 2013).

 

As a result, boycotts began and many grass roots movements to deter bettors, gamers, players and casual racing fans grew.  Once the honeymoon period following the Kentucky Derby faded off into the sunset, Churchill Downs met what they won’t admit: a serious challenger. Though the meet has now concluded those that oppose CDI are not also taking a break.

 

And that is where CDI, needs to focus their attention. According to playersboycott.org the final handle for the meet when compared to 2013 was down -11.76% and a total dollar amount of ($49,178,915). If these numbers are accurate, or even close, I beg the question. How are the red numbers being received by the high ranking C-Level executives at CDI?

 

If I’m assuming correctly, Churchill Downs is probably as ready for July as they have ever been. Contributing to their need for a break was their inept PR Department that tripped all over themselves these past 2 months. I could go on for hours about their recent flaws but instead I’ll focus on solutions.

 

In my opinion, horse racing fans are pretty loyal. However, they’re also very aware of the rules within the game. Anytime they feel like they are the ones getting played is when their loyalty becomes a memory. In a nutshell, that is how I would sum things up for CDI at the conclusion of the 2014 spring meet.

 

So where do things go from here? I do not have an answer but one thing I cannot ignore is my general intuition that CDI doesn’t care. I doubt that I’m alone on that thought.

 

But if I may, and if the powers at CDI will listen, I offer the following recommendations that I hope they will consider this off-season.

 

Number one, you can keep your takeout increase, but only for the most active days on the calendar. For example, the first five days of the Spring Meet (i.e. Kentucky Derby week) or even for the entire Breeders’ Cup week if you’re ever so lucky to play host once again. As for the remainder of the season, fall back to where the majority of players prefer.

 

Secondly, it may be time to reduce the size of the Kentucky Derby field.

 

Before I get into the details, let me tender my opinion on a related matter. We all want a Triple Crown but it is not entirely up to Churchill Downs to produce better results. Specifically, CDI is not responsible for determining who is eligible to qualify for the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. They never have been nor should they ever be. Secondly, I don’t agree that either of the next two jewels should ever bar an entry based solely on whether or not a 3-year-old qualified for the Kentucky Derby.

 

However, a smaller field in the Kentucky Derby cannot do anything but potentially help the pursuit of another Triple Crown.

 

Now let’s get into the thick of it. After its second year I do not disagree with the points system. To say it is perfect would be a stretch but to assert that it has more holes than the previous qualification system would not be accurate in my opinion either.

 

The more I listen to the standard criticisms the more I’m convinced that a smaller field is the right decision. Mainly it’s because anyone that tends to gripe is someone that is comparing a non-starter to a horse that rounds out the bottom 25%.

 

My proposal is to eliminate the auxiliary gate and cap the Kentucky Derby field at 14 horses. Okay, so how do we accomplish that? Here’s my easy answer.

 

Only the top 14 scorers advance and tie breakers are still determined by overall Graded Stakes earnings. This might seem unfair because one year the 14th spot could be a horse that scored only 24 while in another year it could be as high as 40. Either way, what’s the difference between that and what we have right now?

 

In 2013, the final spot was secured by Giant Finish who had a paltry 10 points to his name where as Commanding Curve concluded a three way tie at 20 points in 2014. The first of the two had no business racing in the top 3-year-old race of the year. 

 

Like any other year the points standings were greatly affected by injury both times. Under this system it wouldn’t be any different. Should a horse at any qualifying position opt out, the next in line will receive the invitation and so on.

 

If this will be too hard to maneuver due to the politics at CDI then let’s at least make a new rule: 30 points minimum. If so, it won’t eliminate the possibility of a 20 horse field but the odds of it ever exceeding 16 would be pretty high. And in some cases, it could very easily get reduced to my ideal number of 14.

 

This past spring Candy Boy would have rounded out the field as entry number 15 with 30 points. Left out of the starting gate would have been Uncle Sigh, Vinceremos, Harry’s Holiday and Commanding Curve.

 

In 2013, the field would have been reduced to 16 and Falling Sky would have been the last one in. Those who scored under 30 points included Giant Finish, Golden Soul and Charming Kitten.

 

You might point out that the last two runner-ups defy my 30 point minimum rule. Sure, they both scored 20 points or fewer but who else thinks that racing so well in such a crowded field should have earned them a spot in the race to begin with.

 

Sorry to dig at their resumes but Golden Soul got in with a runner-up effort in the G3 LeComte, 6th in the G2 Risen Star and 4th in the G2 Louisiana Derby. Enough? Commanding Curve wasn’t much better. In fact, it was worse; 6th in the G2 Risen Star, 3rd in the G2 Louisiana Derby. Did he deserve a spot?

 

With this system, 30 points can be reached through plenty of different combinations but most of your work has to be done in the final two series.  [50-20-10-5 / 100-40-20-10] And, as pointed out with Commanding Curve, a horse will have to do more than finish 3rd in a major prep in order to have a serious shot at getting in.

 

Instead, a win in either series moves you into the starting gate automatically where as a back to back 2nd place finishes also makes you an easy qualifier. Two consecutive third places finishes will land you right on the mark at 30 points. Finally, a win in the first series (10 points) will still give you a chance to qualify but you will then have to hit the board in a prep race closer to May. This is especially true if you don’t have more than 10 points after racing in two or more early qualifiers in the juvenile season or at the beginning of the 3-year-old season.

 

All and all I think the Derby Prep season has the potential to be even more exciting. Beefing up the qualification system to dismiss more pretenders is a great place to start. Since CDI is the only one who can make such a decision, they will get all of the credit.

 

I’m sure there are others who have thought about a more difficult qualification system as well and why it makes more sense. I would love to hear them but what I would love even more is to learn that Churchill Downs is listening. Not to me necessarily but rather the large amount of fans that can’t stop shaking their head when it comes to CDI.  

 

After their dreadful spring meet and all the baggage that came with it, now is the time to make up for those corporate blunders. This offseason it should begin with the takeout. Again, save it only for the big weeks and events and secondly make the biggest event even better. If you do, maybe, just maybe, the Breeders’ Cup will change its opinion.

 

We all love the Kentucky Derby but we often forget just how bad everyone wants to qualify. Like the World Series of Poker some connections feel that all they need is a chip and chair in order to win. But, if it’s the title that everyone wants shouldn’t it be just a tad more difficult to qualify? As you can see, I think there's always just a few that didn't earn it. I also think that the truest of true Kentucky Derby contenders deserve an even playing field.

 

CDI, you might not agree with me (or listen). Other racing fans, you might not either, but the course they are on doesn’t seem to be moving according to plan or in the right direction. So, maybe it’s time for solutions. It's a long off-season before fall, I'm sure CDI can come up with something. 

 

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Older Comments about Could Be a Long Off-Season for Churchill Downs...

Jonquil that is one of the reasons with the Streaming web sites and betting outlets present. Nothing better than the comforts of our own home. If we do not like the customer service then,we can blame the man in the mirror.
@pumpsiam: That's why I stay away from the OTBs here. :/ Not much to do here anyways, sadly.
As a horseman that has worked at two of CDI's racetracks (CD and FG) I think the main improvment that CDI could make is to sell their tracks to a group that excells in customer service and isn't more concerned with profits than say the people that make their product, racing. The fact that CDI seems to be getting this bad press this year is amazing and disappointing all at once. People don't seem to realize that this has been a systemic problem for many years. During the summer, to save money, CDI cuts back on track maintenance. Part of that means they water the track less in the mornings. With the summer heat, the track is dried out and very deep by the harrow break and by the end of training hours. Conditions like this are difficult for horses to work through which in turn can cause injury. Horseman with good horsemanship tend to avoid these times when they can or at least avoid breezing or strenuous gallops. However this is not always possible. Due to these dangerous conditions, two exercise riders were hurt over the summer a couple years ago due to their horses losing traction during a work. In each case the riders broke their back and one fractured a vertebrae in their back. Very fortunatly both are able to walk and ride still today. It is only during the meet that proper track maintenance is practised at Churchill. This is just one small instance of CDI's complete neglect for the horsemen over profits. It's unfortunate that the company is more concered with their stock owners than their horseman and customers.
customer service is horrible at the Fairgrounds and all the OTB's in Louisiana
because they all want to be known as major players. WOuld not know a whale if they fell on them
Now that you mention it,some do seem familiar.But in all seriousnes Vic. Why post to the dollar what you win. Personally i could give a rats ass if people believe or don't believe if i win or not. Seems to some it is more important that others think they won. I do not know why??
Fantasy bets ALWYAS are HUGE never in the range of when these fibbers wager and lose, didn't you know that??
How did it ever pay so much Vic. I had it for $40
yes I hear EVERYONE here had it too.......................after the fact....Man so did I!
Big like to Bob Fritz. I don't want the field cut, for selfish reasons. The 20 horse field is a wagerer's like me paradise. It is so easy to throw out horses, and the trifectas are actually easy if you can toss the right ones and have some luck (picking Commanding Curve was not me, but my son).
Your plan for reducing the Derby field would have killed my $1,700 trifecta this year!
EP Taylor, every racing fan around the world tunes in watches and knows the Kentucky Derby winner. I could not tell you who won the Melbourne Cup last year and I watched it. I agree in their respective countries each race is a huge event. The Japan Cup draws a massive crowd and like you said the Melbourne Cup shuts down the nation but I think the Kentucky Derby is the world's most recognized race. Also I bet if you pluck out any trainer from anywhere around the world and ask them 5 races they would like to win The Kentucky Derby will be on 95% of their lists.
I am sorry to burst your bubble and please do not take it the wrong way. Other countries racing is a moot point. If and when their horses come over to race,then to me they become relevant.
From a Non US point of view, The Kentucky is not the #1 race in the world. Do you know what they do in Australia for the Melbourne Cup? It is like a nationally recognized day. The Epsom Derby is and will always be the biggest 3 year old race in the world. The Arc, Melbourbe Cup, and Japan Cup are the Biggest races period.
just like the World Cup, the average person stops caring about horse racing after the Triple Crown. that is the biggest problem facing the industry and i blame the "rush to the breeders shed" mentality.
I constantly laugh. The ones that complain about the Triple Crown needs this and needs that are the ones not involved in ownership. It would be ridiculous to cut back the siize fields. That is one of the major reasons that the Sales flourish with hopes of winning the Derby. Take away 6 spots and you take away 6 dreams. If you have not realized by now,one never will. THe Derby is not a Horse race like any other. It is an event and a celebration of the game. If someone is lucky enough to win this race with all the Hoopla and distractions that go with it. Then all the power to them. THat is what separates the Derby from any other race run in the World. Why it is the number 1 RACE IN THE WORLD.
Mary, the Ramseys will never ever ever ever ever ever ever heed your good advice. And if they won't, you'll have a hard time convincing anybody else.
racing is terrible u got non racing ppl running the show and it shows
Would like to see the field size reduced willingly, as in , "My horse is not good enough for this field at this time so we are foregoing the big day participation." Something along those lines.
As I have stated and written about many times, I totally believe that the Derby field size should be reduced for many of the reasons you stated and more! It will not happen because CDI will fear a significant drop in betting handle.

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