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Trouble across the board: Churchill Downs Inc. fights to 'own' Derby name

by Brian Tucker

The snow is a distant memory and winter is in the rear-view mirror. A glance at the thermometer suggests we are going to be skipping spring in Louisville.

But one thing we do not skip around here is the Kentucky Derby.

Derby Day, 2011. Photo by Brian Tucker

In less than 76,000 minutes, the Derby will be upon us, and the 2012 edition is promising to bring with it as much scandal as an event this magnitude can bear.

The run-up to the actual race is filled with events such as marathons, hot-air balloons and bartenders running around with wine glasses. There are also fireworks on the waterfront.

These events are put on by the Kentucky Derby Festival, an entity that is separate from – and in no way connected with – Churchill Downs Inc.

Last year, in some type of mental lapse, the people who run the track decided to tell the people who run the Festival that they couldn’t use the phrase “Kentucky Derby,”  so the Festival people temporarily dropped “Kentucky” from the event’s name, calling it, “Derby Festival, 2011.”

That was just a one-year thing, they said. Nothing to see here.

People didn’t like it.

It breaks tradition, which is something the Derby used to be all about. Also, it seemed rather petty. Especially in light of the fact that the Festival promotes the Derby for two weeks (sometimes three) without cost to the track.

How would you like to have a two week promotion of your two-minute event put on for absolutely free by another group of people?

That sounds like one hell of a deal to me.

The Derby itself is brought to you by the folks who have, during my lifetime, done everything in their power to ruin horse racing, Churchill Downs, Inc.

In recent years Churchill has become obsessed with other types of gambling and have seemingly ignored their primary duty of tending to the horse racing business. Handle is down, purses are smaller and the crowds aren’t what they used to be on Central Avenue.

And while popular with the 20-something crowd, those night races do not turn the wanna-be hipster into a horse gambler.

Insiders are telling us Churchill Downs has become more aggressive in protecting the “Kentucky Derby” name, sending letters scented with legal language like “cease and desist” to local businesses that hold Derby events. At least one local hotel has had to change the name of a Derby-related event because of threats by the track.

Insiders also openly mock the strategy, noting there are “Derbies” in other states like Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana as proof that Churchill has no patent on the “Derby” name.

In this short-sighted and poorly executed plan, executives at CDI have failed to realize that the Kentucky Derby belongs to us, not some corporate board whose only aim is to enrich shareholders.

What’s next? Threatening Louisville residents who throw “Derby parties” at home?

Churchill has a knack for turning off the very people who prop them up.

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