Spires (red flowers)For opposite reasons, two names have commanded the horse racing headlines all spring. On Saturday, they continued to trend in opposite directions.

The name California Chrome was further burnished; the reputation of Churchill Downs was further tarnished.

As he accepted the Woodlawn Vase that goes to the winner of the Preakness Stakes, Steve Coburn, the cheekily blunt co-owner of California Chrome, scolded the Louisville race track where his colt won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.

“I’ve said this once, I’ve said it 50 times, Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality,” Coburn said. “Because these people right here (at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore), they’ve treated us like we’re royalty. The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn’t very good.”

This is not a novel complaint.

Owners and trainers have quietly stewed for years about inflated prices, sparse tickets and austere amenities provided to the people whose animals stage the sport’s greatest show – and the signature event of Churchill Downs Inc.

Trainer Steve Coburn after winning The Preakness
Owner Steve Coburn after winning The Preakness

Coburn’s protest is merely the latest and by no means the greatest. But because it was aired on national TV, and because it tainted a feel-good celebration for a sport that sorely needs one, CDI executives should be doing some earnest soul-searching today.

The company’s many critics say the search is futile: CDI is a soulless corporation more interested in building casinos and pandering to Wall Street than in tending to its core business and historical legacy.

That’s not the case. Anyone who knows John Asher, Churchill Downs vice president for communications, and the hundreds of other Churchill employees who care deeply for the sport – and the horsemen and horses who sustain it – knows the company is not as cold and heartless as it appears.

But CDI is facing a crisis of public trust that goes beyond mere public relations. 

For one thing, the Louisiana legislature recently threatened legal action to compel CDI to spend nearly $700,000 to refurbish the dysfunctional turf course at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. CDI also pledged $100,000 toward marketing to parimutuel bettors. Horsemen complained that previous campaigns targeted only slot machine players.

Also, CDI decided last month to raise the percentage of money it keeps from wagering, which has prompted a boycott that could lower revenues instead of raise them.

Raising the “takeout” was perhaps unavoidable. Lacking the casino revenue that fattens purses in competing states, Churchill had to take measures to prevent trainers from shipping their horses to greener pastures.

However, antagonizing owners who pay small fortunes to enter Churchill’s marquee events is not unavoidable. The grievances boiled over with a vengeance last month.

On Monday of Derby Week, Fox Hill Farm owner Rick Porter, whose filly Eight Belles lost her life during the running of the 2008 Derby, blistered Churchill Downs in a post to his farm’s website.

Porter had entered Normandy Invasion, the fourth-place finisher in last year’s Derby, in the $300,000 Alysheba Stakes on Oaks Day. His trainer, Chad Brown, had another horse in a different Grade 2 race that day, entered on behalf of a South American owner who wanted to bring nine guests. Porter said a Churchill representative told him that neither ownership group was entitled to free tickets.

“We were offered several seats for $200,” Porter wrote, “but the (representative) said that we would not be happy with the seats.”

Porter placed a call to Churchill president Kevin Flanery. He said he was stonewalled – again.

Last year, Porter said he called Flanery to request accommodations for four special guests, 90-year-old war veterans who had participated in the Normandy invasion at Omaha Beach.

“The answer from his office was a flat out NO,” Porter wrote.

Porter called Dick Duchossois, a member of CDI’s board of directors. Within minutes, he had a well-appointed table for eight.

Not everyone is so well connected.

After reading Porter’s post, retired jockey Ron Turcotte sent Porter a letter detailing his repeated inability to convince Churchill to give him a handicapped-accessible parking pass. Turcotte was paralyzed in a 1978 riding accident, five years after piloting Riva Ridge and Secretariat to consecutive Derby wins.

“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,” Turcotte wrote. “After reading your post, it has become painfully obvious that this lack of basic consideration also applies to many others who helped shape Churchill Downs’ history or promote its welfare. More than anything it shows me exactly how the track values its precious bottom line above the sport and those who champion it.”

The same day Turcotte contacted Porter, celebrity chef Bobby Flay tweeted, “Just another example why I’m running my filly in the Black Eyed Susan (at Pimlico) not the KY Oaks.”

Before Derby post positions were drawn on Wednesday, Asher said, “We regret incredibly that (Turcotte) is unhappy with the situation. … Clearly there was a communication breakdown on multiple occasions. … I’m not making excuses, but I would suggest to you that when you have an event where you have 275,000 people over two days, sometimes the dots aren’t going to connect.”

Asher said Sunday that he was “blindsided” by Coburn’s complaints and that until he gathered more information, he wasn’t prepared to elaborate on an apology he issued after the Preakness. 

Coburn particularly lamented the treatment of his co-owner, Perry Martin, and Martin’s 83-year-old mother. However, a horseman who volunteers at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend said privately that he and others went to great lengths to accommodate Katherine Martin, carrying her in her wheelchair across the track to the winner’s party at the Derby Museum.

He also took Mrs. Martin to a mutuel clerk so she could cash her tickets without waiting and fixed her a gin and Sprite. The mint juleps the Museum serves as a customary winner’s toast were not to her liking.

This is not to say that Coburn’s complaints were groundless. They echo the grumblings of other owners in years past and forcefully underscore the recent objections lodged by Porter and Turcotte.

“We got to Churchill and not only did I complain,” Coburn said, “but there were other trainers and owners and even the jockeys were complaining.”

Churchill Downs is a private business, but the Kentucky Derby is a civic, state and national treasure. Most Louisvillians already are embarrassed and appalled by the price gouging that surrounds the event, but mistreating the very guests who supply the star attractions is beyond the pale.

The Preakness is the anemic middle child of the Triple Crown. To fend off irrelevance, it has to try harder and play nicer. The Derby’s allure is so great that Churchill can behave with imperious disdain and still boast a 20-horse field.

It wasn’t always thus. Matt Winn transformed a spring horse race into an iconic occasion partly by rolling out the plushest of red carpets to owners, trainers, jockeys and, yes, even lowly reporters. He bequeathed to his beloved race track a legend-making, profit-raking money machine.

To whom much is given, much is expected. A little common courtesy would be a nice start.

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Mark Coomes
Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.

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