In-spiring interest: Churchill Downs Inc. stories of 2017

The year 2017 saw a lot of change for the company that I spent a good chunk of my journalistic life covering — Louisville-based Churchill Downs Inc. — and its signature racetrack, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and the Twin Spires. Many of these events would be great fodder for this blog, but I spent most of the year preparing for the arrival of our second child instead of writing. So give a bleary eyed second-time father a break and read now what I would have said in recent months.

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11. No Pepsi — COKE — The soda fountains underneath the Twin Spires now will serve Coca-Cola products instead of Pepsi brands, allowing re-enactments of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch that immortalized Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern.

10. No Forms — Racing Guide — The signs inside Churchill Downs suggest patrons can IMG_0893find Forms, which for decades equated to the Daily Racing Form. Now the business interests of the DRF (mostly its account wagering division) are colliding with the interests of CDI (namely its competing TwinSpires account wagering division), prompting Churchill to ban sales of the Form and offer, instead, a book of past performances from its Brisnet handicapping division. Enough has been said about this, but we’ll wish for a simpler time. For all the times that former CDI chief executive officer Bob Evans was criticized by racing industry participants, he said a lot that was spot on about the business. One such comment was the racing industry spends too much time arguing over how the pieces of the pie are cut rather than seeking a bigger economic pie. No peace.

9. Back in the fold — Churchill Downs Inc. rejoined the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in March. Peace in our time.

8. Bytes in the bluegrass — Although it was announced in 2016, the moving of Churchill Downs Inc.’s technology division — including the headquarters of the TwinSpires account wagering service — from Mountain View, California, to the corporate headquarters was celebrated.

7. Internationalizing the Derby (aka Pulling Kempton Park back in) — Even though no horse from the initial Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby made it to the starting gate, the program was expanded for 2018 to guarantee a European horse a spot in the gate should they get points in new qualifying races. Note the new Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes will bring Kempton Park Racecourse back into the Derby fold (like the Godfather), after an earlier failed effort to get a European starter in the Derby field. Kempton could still be targeted for an eventual closure.

6. Manifest Destiny — Churchill declared a major victory in its longstanding effort to buy up neighboring property around the track, announcing extensive parking upgrades at the flagship track. That included accquiring a private lot in the 900 block of Central Avenue — almost literally in the morning shadow of the Twin Spires — that the whole world thought already was owned by Churchill.

5. The battle brews — Racing dates for 2018 in Kentucky ultimately were awarded without much debate, but a partnership of CDI and Keeneland Association announced this year is a placeholder for what likely will be a future battle over the future of Kentucky’s horse industry. After Keeneland failed in its efforts to open a new racetrack in Corbin to replace Thunder Ridge and put historical horse racing (HHR) machines near Interstate 75, a partnership with CDI was announced to build that new track. The biggest bombshell of the announcement was that the two giants also were seeking the state’s long-dormant ninth license to put racing HHR machines near Fort Campbell, a move that would compete with Kentucky Downs. Kentucky Downs objected that the proposal would put competition within its market. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission didn’t address the applications — but the issue is sure to resurface at some point.

4. Indiana vs. CDI — Gambling in the state of Indiana, a competitive thorn in the side of Churchill Downs Racetrack for many years, is consolidating. Centaur Gaming, which owns both Indiana Grand and Hoosier Park (a former Churchill property), is being acquired by Caesars Entertainment. As a result, the Harrison County casino that already is owned by Caesars, will join forces competing against CDI. The casino competes for bodies and gambling dollars. Indiana Grand, which has slots, competes for horses as well.

3. Ground broken for Louisville gaming facility — Churchill broke ground for its $60 million historical horse racing parlor at its Poplar Level training facility best remembered as Sports Spectrum and Louisville Downs. The site is set to open in the fall.

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Courtesy of CDI

The machines, which remain the subject of a protracted lawsuit, have provided larger purses at the other Kentucky tracks that have implemented them. The venture will show how much revenue Churchill can get because of its closer proximity to Louisville’s population center that it now loses to (what will remain) the only full-scale casino in the metro area.

2. Kentucky Derby presented by … — For the first time since a presenting sponsor was named prior to the 2006 Run for the Roses, the name behind the “Kentucky Derby presented by” is changing from Yum! Brands to Brown-Forman Corp.-brand Woodford Reserve. If ever there were a sponsorship deal that made sense, this is it. Yum always seemed an awkward fit — what says the greatest thoroughbred race more than restaurants? Using the Derby telecast to promote Yum to potential investors was the given reason for the partnership, but neither side seemed able to do much with it. The Yumfecta was a bad idea scrapped after one year. In Woodford, Churchill gets to partner with a younger brand than the Derby, but with a company that is older — Brown-Forman was founded in 1870. This partnership should be easier to parlay as the only thing better paired than bourbon and horse racing would be apple pie and America.

1. Big Fish gets away — Churchill corporate announced the sale of its Big Fish Games division, giving up on an attempt to expand from gambling into social games — a world where the revenues and profits might be harder to understand that how the takeout is cut up at the racetrack or through an account wagering service. This was, by far, the biggest change for the company as it gave up what possibly was headed for being the company’s biggest driver.

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