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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On Thursday morning the backstretch at Churchill Downs was jammed with the usual suspects, some of whom were actually horse trainers trying to do their work. They were hard to find, though, amid the sea of humanity that crowds around the media center trying to see or be seen.
The “dawn patrol,” as some wag dubbed it years ago, used to be the exclusive province of the famous newspaper columnists and turf writers who knew the Kentucky Derby always produced more good stories, in a far more convivial atmosphere, than any other major sporting event.
It was where, uninterrupted by TV cameras and microphone-toters, scribes such as Red Smith and Jim Murray got to fill their notebooks with the wisdom of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Plain Ben Jones and Laz Barrera. In 1955, William Faulkner covered the Derby on assignment from Sports Illustrated.
Today, though, precious little great literature is being produced about the Derby because both horse racing and newspapers are deeply troubled industries. Nobody knows whether either will be 25, 10 or even five years from now. When turf writer Bill Christine retired from the Los Angeles Times, he said he was tired of covering a dying business for another dying business.
Of course, you would never know this by looking at the crowd on the backstretch Thursday morning. Undistinguished bloggers and tweeters have replaced the great journalists of yore, but sad as that is, it’s not as depressing as the tacky collection of dandies, phonies, social-climbers, hucksters, and self-promoters who fall over each other getting at the free coffee and doughnuts.
Nobody knows who these people are or where they come from or how they get access to the backstretch. But there they are, every year, milling around in greater numbers. Most are talking on their smart phones or taking photos with it, just to show somebody how cool they are to get access to the Derby’s inner sanctum.
If this sends like nothing more than a curmudgeon’s rant, so be it. But there’s also a serious issue that needs to be addressed before somebody, human or equine, gets maimed or worse.
Most of the backside interlopers are not schooled in the etiquette of how to behave around a temperamental thoroughbred. Every year I fear that a horse is going to get loose and trample somebody. If it can happened to a veteran horseman, it certainly can happen to one of the knuckleheads who will do anything to get his picture taken with a Derby Festival princess or a radio talk-show host or a politician such as Larry Clark, speaker pro tem for the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Unlike many of his colleagues in the legislature, Clark is a friend of Kentucky’s horse industry. He wants to save it, not run it out of the Commonwealth. He understands the industry’s problems and wants to give it the tools it needs to remain competitive with Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other rival states that are aggressively trying to convince racing stables and breeding farms to
leave their old Kentucky homes.
Everywhere except Kentucky, the life-support system that’s keeping horse racing afloat is the revenue that comes from slot machines and casinos. The public prefers those forms of gambling to horse gambling. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. But our rival states don’t want to see the racing industry die – it provides a lot of jobs and other benefits — so they’re using money from casinos and slots to beef up
track purses and breeders’ incentive programs.
The result is alarming. Much as they may want to do their work in Kentucky, owners and breeders have to be businessmen first. They have to go where they have the best chance to turn a profit – a difficult proposition, at best. So over the past decade, as the geniuses in Frankfort have repeatedly refused to legalize expanded gaming, our breeding farms are opening operations in other states and stables are
leaving for other jurisdictions.
The politician who has done the most to harm the thoroughbred industry is Senate President David Williams, whose ego is much bigger than the five rural counties he represents. He says he doesn’t oppose expanding gambling on moral grounds, but because it’s not good public policy — as if destroying our thoroughbred industry is good public policy.
Of course, Williams isn’t being honest. Of course, there is a moral component to expanding gaming, which is why various right-wing religious groups have lobbied vehemently against it. The opponents self-righteously claim that expanding gaming would undermine the commonwealth’s moral fiber and turn it into a haven for sinners.
What nonsense. Incredibly, the critics to expanded gaming stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the obvious: Kentucky already has expanded gaming; it’s just across the river in our neighboring states. It’s not as if slots or casinos would be something new. Let me repeat: THEY’RE ALREADY HERE!
A billboard on I-65 angers me every time I pass it. It’s for the Belterra casino just across the Ohio River between Louisville and Cincinnati. The message is something like this: “Belterra – Where Kentucky Goes to Gamble.”
And it’s true. Every day of every year, hundreds of Kentuckians cross the river to gamble in Indiana or Ohio or Illinois. They gamble millions, and our neighbors used those Kentucky dollars to build roads, improve schools, and fund other projects. We need that gambling revenue to stay in Kentucky. Why don’t the dummies in Frankfort get this? It’s not that difficult.
Earlier in the week, according to reports in the media, Gov. Steve Beshear toured the backside at Churchill Downs. The reports didn’t indicate that anybody was rude to him, which was sort of amazing considering how he has failed the horse industry. Originally elected mainly because he supported expanded gaming, Beshear has never been able to muster the necessary support in the General Assembly,
thanks mainly to the obstructionist tactics orchestrated by Williams in the Senate.
One thing we know for sure about Williams is that he can’t take a hint. When the voters resoundingly rejected him and his policies to give Beshear a second term, it sent a message that Williams has arrogantly ignored. Now, more than ever, he works just as hard to thwart the Governor as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell works to thwart President Obama.
It may already be too late to salvage Kentucky’s signature industry. The commonwealth already is so far behind in the gambling business – and has already lost so much – that it may be impossible to catch up. Some doomsayers fret that the day will come when we lose the Kentucky Derby – that it will become something like, “The Kentucky Derby, presented by Yum! Brands and the state of Pennsylvania”
– and that’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem.
It should be so different.
Imagine, if you will, a world-class casino in downtown Louisville. Maybe it would be run by Churchill Downs, and maybe not, but it would be hotter than Las Vegas whenever the horses were running, especially on Derby weekend.
Every night there would be top-drawer entertainment. All the high rollers who come to the Derby would have a place for action away from the track. It boggles the mind to consider how much gambling revenue could be generated for projects in Kentucky that now are being slashed or under-funded.
Thursday morning on the backstretch, I put all this aside and got my business done. I checked out Union Rags, the likely Derby favorite, who is every bit as magnificent-looking as advertised. I checked out Alpha, the colt that I think finally might win the Derby for the Godolphin Stable of Dubai. I got to visit with trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Carl Nafzger, a couple of dear friends.
It was the 46th consecutive year I’ve spent at least one morning on the Churchill Downs backstretch the week of the Derby. I didn’t linger. I prefer the ghosts of Derbies past to the gawkers and hangers-on, the bloggers and blowhards, who have turned a good thing into just another carnival of the bizarre.
Billy Reed has covered 46 consecutive Kentucky Derbies, for the Louisville Courier- Journal, The Lexington Herald-Leader and Sports Illustrated. He grew up in Mt. Sterling and graduated from Transylvania University. He has written books, hosted a radio talk-show, and been a TV commentator and public speaker. He knows the horse and Kentucky’s horse industry.