Posted Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Go inside equine rescue efforts amid massive East Coast hurricanes.
Posted Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Remembering the late John Asher, the face and voice of the iconic track.
Posted Thursday, May 03, 2018

While the handicappers and Facebook soothsayers foam at the mouth about the depth of the 2018 Kentucky Derby field, let us celebrate the rhythm and the reason behind the enduring symbols that make this race the most acclaimed brand of racing competition in the world. Consider the roses, the mint julep,  the descriptive slogans and the very ambiance that justifies the Kentucky Derby’s position as a universal bucket list candidate.

The rose is celebrated at the Derby, stenciled and silk-screened to the “inth” power on anything collectible. It is the optical connector from the audience to the eventual champion equine who is draped in a hand-sewn garland of red “Freedom” hybrids flown in from our friends in South America. The flower itself comes replete with its mystique and history emanating from the tale of Adonis’ illegitimate birth (always a constant in Greek myths) and then from an English civil war between rival monarchal claims of the tribal Houses of York and Lancaster. The white rose represented the Yorks and the red the Lancasters. Their victorious claimant, a Lancaster cousin, Henry Tudor, cleverly combined both shades to reflect his reign and re-branded the combo, the Tudor rose.

The Derby rose garland was first introduced in 1892 wherein an arrangement of pink and red roses was draped on the back of Ben Brush, the winning horse. In 1904, the red rose was established as the symbol for the Kentucky Derby and in 1932, the garland presentation to the winner was incepted with the garland supplied by the Kingsley Walker Florist of Louisville. The Kroger Company stepped into the activity of importing and constructing the floral banner in 1982, and the process of creating its iconic appearance has become a Derby event. The operation, orchestrated by professional florists, Kroger employees and volunteers can be seen at a Louisville Kroger located on Shelbyville Road in Middletown, on the East End of Louisville.

Many a Derby party hostess throughout the world will debate the attributes of the better and best recipe for the mint julep, the symbolic beverage of the Derby. The debate rages on the characteristics of bourbon brands, tearing or ‘muddling’ the mint, the use of simple syrup and water versus club soda with sugar. The buck stops on the relevance of crushed ice, as this is universal unless using a drink dispensary or silvered pitcher where limited ice cubes are permitted, as long as the bourbon is not diluted to any discernible degree. The consensus on the classic recipe is: into the julep cup goes 2-3 sprigs of hand-torn mint, a small scoop of finely crushed ice, a jigger or two of Kentucky bourbon and a generous dollop of simple syrup, followed by a tiny sipping straw. The julep cup is rested, allowing the ice to gently melt while the imbiber sings “My Old Kentucky Home,” a traditional hymn to the quaint where no one knows the words until the bridge of “weep no more my lady.” That stanza somehow sticks. Trust me. The sound swells from the stands at Churchill where “the sun shines bright” the first Saturday in May, no matter the weather.

Symbolic music resonates through all of the Triple Crown races, with the Foster tune paired with the Derby and the “Maryland, My Maryland” for the Preakness Stakes (nobody knows the words). Then there’s Frank Sinatra rendition of “New York, New York” for the Belmont Stakes where every word is remembered and enjoyed.

The bugler’s call to the post represents another musical salute to the symbols that are traditionally associated with Churchill Downs and horse racing. The gentleman attired in the red or green-jacketed fox hunting attire is a Kentucky treasure by the name of Steve Buttleman who has signaled the Kentucky Derby contenders parade to the starting gate for the past 22 years.

The host broadcaster for years has been NBC, always interesting for the background features on each of the equine athletes and their connections, each element portraying the grit and the personalities involved with getting their horses to the starting gate in this iconic annual event. Some of these back stories are tear-inducing and some are silly, yet all combine to inform and entertain.  Saturday’s broadcast starts at 2:30 p.m. ET, leading up to the Derby just before 6:50.

This year’s edition of the Run for the Roses, a phrase coined in 1925 by New York sportswriter, Bill Corum (also President of Churchill Downs from 1950-1958) is a puzzler for both fans and professional handicappers. No field in recent memory has been as profoundly talented as this year’s competitors. My so-called expert pick would be the suggestion of betting a dollar across the board on all 20 horses, an unsophisticated outlay requiring $60. This strategy allows for Apollo’s Curse (the un-raced 2-year-old theory), the Onion giant-killer syndrome (where the doubted entrant, Onion, clobbers a legendary horse named Secretariat) or the viability of a 50-1 longshot that sneaks up the track rail and becomes the subject of a Hollywood movie.

Theories of handicapping abound as much as the screwball betting scenarios. And with this year’s crop, everything and anything is possible. Measured guessing is as much a part of the crazy quilt of symbols and imagery that threads the story of the 144th Kentucky Derby. Beyond the pageantry, there is the race: the fastest, most stomach-churning two minutes in sports. And for all of the 40 competitors — 20 highly skilled jockeys on the finest horses, with the respective trainers and connections — the battle will be enjoined.

It is a test for the best on the first Saturday in May. Time for the War for the Roses.

Posted Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The quality of service in an internationally known sporting establishment is reliant on the character of the folks who love their jobs and do them well. For Jo-An Holleman and Angie Payton, serving the thousands of Churchill Downs patrons visiting for the 2018 Kentucky Derby and Oaks patrons at their second floor oasis, the two-day racing celebration requires preparation and consistent, rapid fire execution. The new bar, named for the 1921 Kentucky Derby winner, Behave Yourself, replaces the former “Silks” bar. And as Jo-An likes to describe its ambiance: “It’s a party every day.”

The Ladies stand ever ready,

And braced for a crowd,

Thirty-year Derby barkeep veterans,

Of endurance, they’re proud.

Fair-haired Jo-an and Angie,

Can sass with the best,

Yet for the guests they are serving,

Their hands never rest.

It’s a drink they deliver,

As fast and complete,

So, the fans can observe,

The Oaks and Derby horses compete.

Bourbon gets poured,

And the mint gets torn,

For thousands of juleps,

Blessed by J & A’s smiles never worn.

So, if you’re Churchill-bound,

With horses to play,

Come visit the ladies,

It’s a party every day.

It will be crowded,

You don’t have to walk far,

To get a bevvie and a smile,

At the “Behave Yourself Bar.”

Posted Tuesday, April 17, 2018
A witty and wonderful poem that speaks to Keeneland's sparkling reputation for service.
Posted Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Did Barbaro's crazy fans successfully push for a new laminitis treatment?
Posted Wednesday, November 01, 2017

When serious thoughts occurred to John Gaines, he knew more serious action was required.

In his Lexington farmhouse study, after watching a CBS “60 Minutes” feature in 1980, Gaines realized the perception of his sport. Horse racing was cruel and drug riddled. All trainers were crooked. The sport was un-regulated. And this, he conjectured, came after the roaring ‘70s saw television ratings race alongside the golden track warriors that were Secretariat, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid. Nowadays, the casual cable news watcher knows that a well-placed smear can disrupt even the most glittering of reputations. Kernels of fact can be built into a tsunami of ugliness.

Gaines knew it even then. John Gaines, even as a ‘son of the boss’ of inherited largess, lived in a competitive bloodstock arena where stallion managers had to produce viable racing progeny to survive, much less get these foals to the training track and, beyond that, to a stakes race. Analysis depended on cool-eyed assessments of relative strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — a SWOT methodology practiced by competitive leaders that want to stay in the race. He understood that the breeding industry survival and its racing product’s viewership depended on consistently solid entertainment value

Competition is visual, and there are few things more exciting than a horse race.
  Yet, the business end of a racehorse, its bloodlines and fostering of same, however, are more oblique to a sports viewer. Gaines also realized that maybe this sport of kings had a elitist champagne image when more of a beer taste was required. What American racing needed, he thought to himself, was a fall racing meet that broadened the racing schedule and continued public interest beyond the Triple Crown series

John Gaines also recognized a gap in the narrative of racing as a sport and a televised competition. What he saw was a need to romance the story of horse racing, by exampling its many storied chapters, from the breeding shed through the training to the track laced with the skills that peopled these champion barns. There had been racehorses throughout recorded history that had lifted the human spirit, sheltered dreams and inspired national pride. Gaines knew that the occasional fan only saw the obvious: the burnished coat of the winner and the smiles of the winning horse’s connections after a fast display of athleticism. The backstories featured on telecasts usually concentrated on the rare few equines that had beaten the odds of risk and reward

The few, the proud, the best of the umpteen thousand foals born in a year could not be expressed in statistical analysis. Then there were the tele-induced tidbits of supposed facts, like that CBS report that betrayed the alchemy and legitimacy of thoroughbred sport and failed to revere how racing, as a contested sport, was as ancient as recorded history would allow. History can be an iterative para-science subjective to interpretation. Gaines, himself, was fascinated with the origins of racing and, moreover, the service that horses had performed for mankind in the development of nations. From the Middle Eastern desert to the bluegrass of Kentucky, the thoroughbred story is woven into the ascendancy of many cultures including the United States. Horses worked the fields, transported families, carried men and munitions into battle and then entertained and lifted our spirits through their athletic agility

This was a significant story hardly ever told to a broadcast public. As Gaines mused, he began to outline a plan…a plan to establish a fall event that would celebrate the best in the world and provide a canvas for telling the story of the bloodlines and the practice of breeding the best of equine talent, or as doctrine has it: breed the best to the best and hope for the best.

Gaines had an idea and envisioned a summit for champions, scheduled for the fall of every year — an idea that became known as the Breeders’ Cup.
  He wanted a Super Bowl for racing.  Crazy? Many sage observers thought so. In hindsight, “crazy” becomes innovative genius. Moreover, crazy ideas cost money. While woodshedding the original concept with Nelson Bunker Hunt and John Galbreath, the question became how to raise the original operating and winning purse cost and, most importantly, how to get the most prominent stallion operations involved with the organization

Banking on his connections within the Kentucky breeding community and some goading from Hunt, a meeting was called, and his plan detailed to the assemblage. From Claiborne, they recruited Seth Hancock, along with Windfield’s Charles Taylor, Will Farish from Lane’s End and Leslie Combs from Spendthrift. John Nerud, Brereton Jones from Airdrie Stud and oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt were also included along with Walmac’s John Jones. During that meeting, the concept was generally accepted, yet there was suspicion of the hidden agenda that included: favoritism on host track location, qualification of equine entries for first two yearly runnings, seed money, and television interest for national broadcast of all of the proposed seven races. As Gaines, himself, was later to reflect, “There is always somebody trying to shoot down a good idea.

The naysayers speculated on the Breeders’ Cup’s potential failures and weaknesses. But the core idea and the group continued to consider the details of launching such an ambitious project. The Breeders Cup, originally franchised as Breeders Incentives, LTD, in ’81, was reincorporated in its present form in ’82. Gaines resigned his leadership position within the group shortly afterward, as he felt that some of the divisiveness centered on him and not on the idea. Yet Gaines continued to promote the Breeders Cup and is remembered as its founder.

In my study of corporate cases that focus on failures of organizational leadership to adjust to events, anticipate risks and/or fail to anticipate and react to competition, status quo maintenance is a dangerous mindset. This thinking renders an organization vulnerable to a takeover, brand dissolution and destruction of consumer trust. I believe Gaines sensed that stagnation in the breeding industry’s marketing of itself, therefore making it vulnerable for an ambitious broadcast producer to take a turn at attacking what was perceived as an elitist operation. How does one sell the word ‘breeder’ much less the concept of pedigree ‘nicking’ to a television audience? The term almost sounds medical.

Ask the powers of CBS and ABC that passed on the original Breeders Cup because they didn’t think that they could sell it. NBC got it as they absorbed the storytelling aspect of the concept. Gaines’ idea concentrated on showing the results of those same careful breedings: racing the best against the best. The Breeders Cup was generated by a visionary who had a concept, the tenacity to persuade a confederacy of doubters and humility to allow the idea to reign.

Dear John Gaines: Thank you for one crazy good idea.

Cartoon by A.E. Sabo at

Posted Tuesday, October 31, 2017
On a recent visit to the retired champ, we found this horse has a way with the ladies.
Posted Monday, October 09, 2017
The racing community gathered Monday at Keeneland to pay their respects to Penny Chenery, "First Lady of Thoroughbred Racing."
Posted Sunday, October 08, 2017
Take a look back in Breeders’ Cup history to the 1986 Distaff and Lady’s Secret.
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