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August 15, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: The new suit at the Downs

I was hoping Churchill Downs Inc. would replace Tom Meeker with somebody who had a deep and abiding passion for horses and the people who care for them. Somebody who revered the Kentucky Derby’s history, tradition and mystique so fiercely that he, or she, would vow to protect and nurture it at any cost. Somebody who would actually listen to the little guys on the backstretch and the $2 bettors who are horse racing’s heart and soul.Well, silly me.Robert L. Evans, the new president of Churchill Downs Inc., has no background in racing other than owning a small farm outside Versailles. He comes to the home of the Derby with a background in the heavy-equipment, automobile and computer industries.And I cringed when I read what he said about the Derby.“That first weekend in May, magic happens here,” Evans told reporters. “I think we can find in that magic some ways to go forward and grow the business and make it bigger and better.”No, no, no.What I wanted to hear was something like this:“The Kentucky Derby isn’t as much about business as it is about sustaining the nation’s belief in the power of hopes and dreams. I’m going to make sure that everybody at Churchill Downs understands that our primary role is to be loving custodians of the sporting shrine that is Churchill Downs and magical event that is the Kentucky Derby."Instead, Evans talked about building a broader international audience for Churchill’s simulcast product and incorporating more technology into it. Oh, swell. And Churchill board chairman Carl Pollard made it worse by emphasizing Evans’ track record of “growing revenues, increasing operating efficiencies, developing management teams.”Nothing about horses and horsemen. Nothing about juleps and roses. Nothing about why Americans love the Derby and the people who pursue it. Nothing to make you believe that Evans has the vision to regain all the goodwill that has been frittered away during Meeker’s cold, impersonal, bottom-line-driven regime.In fairness, however, it’s difficult to blame Churchill for going outside the industry when you consider the slim pickings inside it. No sport is more severely burdened by incompetent leadership. In racing, the good ol’ boy system is alive, well and doing its damnedest to drive the sport ever deeper into irrelevance.More than two decades after the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was established to stimulate interest, generate new fans, develop new marketing strategies and return the sport to the preeminence it enjoyed through the first three-quarters of the last century, the publicity and popularity gaps between racing and the major pro sports is wider than ever, no matter how you want to measure it — attendance, TV ratings, newspaper and magazine coverage, whatever.One inescapable reason is that racing has been put in the hands of lawyers and accountants instead of dream weavers who actually understand the reasons behind such stories as the national outpouring of affection for Barbaro, the stricken winner of this year’s Derby.Nobody asked me, but I’d like to see Evans begin doing what he can to make Churchill again look more like a shrine that deserves its place on the national register of historic places instead of a glitzy Vegas casino. A good start would be to elevate the twin spires so they again dominate the track’s landscape.I’d like to see Evans genuinely and sincerely listen to the horsemen and the bettors on a daily basis instead of just putting on a shiny jacket during Derby Week and wandering around the backside in a transparent attempt to impress the national media.I’d like to see Evans treat the media and the legislature with respect instead of contempt and condescension.I’d like to see Evans make more Oaks and Derby tickets available to local folks, especially those who support the track on a year-round basis, instead of catering almost exclusively to the big corporations and international high rollers.I’d like to see him learn about the sport’s history and its stories so that he can understand why the sport tugs at the nation’s heart unlike any other. Racing’s future depends on whether Evans and others like him can learn how to bottle the love for Barbaro or Seabiscuit and market it to an audience that yearns for heroes and uplifting stories.It’s a sport before it’s a business. It’s about flesh and blood, hopes and dreams, more than profit sheets and annual reports. That’s the truth, and the truth is the way to the sport’s salvation. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com