The More Things Change

by Ed Meyer

posted on April 26, 2009 in General Discussion, Kentucky Derby, News | 1 Comment >>

The most dramatic changes at the historic South Louisville track: a three-night experiment in racing under the lights late in the meet (June 19 and 26 and July 2), and a new announcer with a British accent (Mark Johnson).

While many horsemen are not thrilled with the night-racing concept — by the time horses in late races are cooled out and in their stalls, it’s mere hours until morning training begins — it’s a worthy endeavor to see if it brings in a bigger crowd and new fans.

But not every day, please; and never for the Oaks or Derby.

Finding his voice: Johnson, the first Brit to call races at a major U.S. track, is a friendly and personable guy. But the bigger adjustment for the local crowd than the accent could be his seemingly nonstop talking. That’s fine for a simulcast host, as his duties in Britain included. But American bettors don’t mind some quiet between races.

Johnson is aware that his style, while abundantly enthusiastic, might not be embraced by all the racetrack regulars (though he was the top vote-getter in an online poll Churchill conducted with five guest announcers last fall).

Meet outlook: This is a pivotal meet. The rift with horsemen over account-wagering splits that adversely impacted both 2008 meets is over, but the staggering economic crisis is affecting nearly every track in the country.

Field sizes at Churchill are taking a hit from the beginning, with today’s average at 7.9 horses per race. Indiana Downs is clearly impacting Churchill, with a quick check of its entries showing a plethora of Kentucky-based trainers running there.

Those slots-enriched purses might not be to the level of Churchill, but they’re awfully good considering the competition doesn’t figure to be nearly as tough.

Churchill is starting out its overnight (non-stakes) purses at the same level as last year before a 20 percent purse cut was instituted. General manager Jim Gates said management hopes that having the races available for account wagering and in Florida (a separate dispute that kept Churchill out of that state last year) will offset an otherwise likely decline in betting as people hold on tighter to their money.

What’s new: The track has installed a new high-definition graphics package that will appear on all HD monitors, spread around the track and at simulcast outlets. The big screen in the paddock has much more clarity than its predecessor.

Likewise, the second-year Chief Party Officer contest to find the person to lead the Derby infield revelry is an inspired way to promote the Derby in non-traditional venues.

Selling individual tickets to the Infield Suites ($1,900) and Marquee Village suites ($1,400), which are good for the Derby and Oaks (and include food and beverage), is a good idea. Ditto for the 5,000-person Infield Club, to give fans some of the amenities of high-end tickets at a far lower price.

Three cheers for the return of the opening-day T-shirt giveaway, which allows the wearer to get into the track free every weekday during the spring meet after Derby.

New bets: The 50-cent Pick Four has been added, and you can bet it on Oaks and Derby Day. (Dime superfectas, however, will be allowed every day but Oaks and Derby.) The Z-5 — the Super High-5 that last fall zigged between Churchill and Calder — adds another stop, with races at Arlington thrown into the mix.

Missing friends: Churchill is that much less fun without trainer Blackie Huffman, who died Christmas Eve. His homespun, self-deprecating way, humor and story-telling is greatly missed. Johnny Meihaus, who died Monday at 87, was a Louisville icon on several fronts, including being one of the most dedicated hotwalkers ever, cycling in from his East End home to the track well after his retirement.

Missing: This might be the first Derby, in at least modern history, without a track president as Churchill Downs Inc. continues to seek a replacement for Steve Sexton. He moved into a new position charged with creating and securing additional entertainment events at the company’s track properties.

Welcome: Jockey Jon Court returns to a Kentucky circuit after riding in California since 2004, and Tony Farina (Julien Leparoux’s brother-in-law) is back riding after a two-year absence. Trainer Gary Thomas also is back this spring. California-based Bob Hess will have a presence here for the first time.

Milestones: Trainers Bill Connelly and Kenny McPeek are nearing 1,000 career victories. Both have 995.

Favorites for leading jockey, trainer, owner: Look for a repeat from the fall record-setters: jockey Julien Leparoux, trainer Mike Maker and perennial winning owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. I expect the Ramseys will run plenty of drop-down claimers — just perhaps not 2-year-olds (see Derby-bound General Quarters for details).