TrackNotes: Zombie Churchill

Like the monster's claw arising from the hardpan, Churchill Downs Inc. is now awake, fully poised to wreak its consistent, insidious greed upon Thoroughbred horse racing and sports in general.

Starting this Saturday.

As if CDI didn't hold Kentucky state government's arm behind its back, Gov. Andy Beshear will allow Churchill Downs to open its barns and track for training May 11 with spectator-free racing beginning May 16.

As for racing, Oaklawn has, after all, staged a highly successful fan-free race meet that will culminate with Saturday's Arkansas Derby.

My beef is with the way CDI has handled, and continues to handle, the Kentucky Derby.

It arbitrarily moved the race to September 5 without consulting either Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, or Belmont Park, host of the Belmont Stakes. They slotted it one week after Travers Stakes Day at Saratoga, arguably the greatest single day of American racing after the Breeders' Cup, and a better card than Derby Day will ever be.

The primal goal of CDI is to pack as many people as it possibly can into Churchill Downs. It is both calculating and believing it can control the politics necessary to get a big crowd for the Derby. That's understandable when you consider these are monied people who consider themselves "elite." CDI's elbows span the state.

Don't get me started on the selfish American mania for getting things "back the way they were." But Dr. Robert Murphy, a professor of infectious disease at Northwestern University`s Feinberg School of Medicine and the executive director of The Institute for Global Health, said on Friday's morning news, when asked if these easing of restrictions will mean the second wave of the pandemic comes this summer instead of later, "Get your seatbelts on, because this is a very big mistake. This guarantees a second wave, get ready." That doesn't even sound like a lull in the pandemic to me.

So what's my point?

Taking into consideration local conditions, it has been proven that racing can be run without fans. CDI is clearly and selfishly making a calculated decision that it will be able to cram thousands of people into its behemoth facility. That is ALL it is thinking about.

If you read the greed between the lines of that release-driven report, you'll see that CDI CEO William Carstanjen is promising to conform to "the maximum acceptable processes and protocols." Yeah, right. Take into consideration the level of entitlement of the people who can afford a ticket to the Derby.

And, as if there's not enough horseshit in Kentucky, Carstanjen tousled the governor's hair with this stench.

"It was really gratifying to work directly with Governor Beshear on the protocols to open Churchill Downs racetrack," said Carstanjen. "If you've seen some of his commentary, he was fairly complimentary of us with respect to the comprehensiveness and the complexity of our processes to keep everybody safe that comes on our property. And that's what you can expect from us going forward."

I can bitch and moan all I want, but I also know I need to come up with some kind of idea.

That would be to move the Kentucky Derby back, to five or six weeks from now, June 5 or June 12. Obviously, spectator-free, although CDI would still reap the benefit of handle on one of the biggest betting days of the year - though it would lose a lot of civilian betting.

It would give current 3-year-olds, including the Arkansas Derby runners, the opportunity to get ready, and it would be a truer reflection of the historical nature of the race: younger horses trying to make their mark.

Granted, the Louisville, Kentucky area would lose a year of gouging the people who visit.

That doesn't mean it will tug the Triple Crown back into orbit - more on that later. But it would help give the 2020 schedule some semblance of normalcy and would concentrate attention on the race itself.

Dream on, TrackNotes! The Kentucky Derby long ago became a par-tay, big hats, football players with skinny fluorescent suits, the single worst cocktail known to man, with a horse stampede thrown in.

In fact, CDI and NBC are staying true to this script Saturday.

Because they own the Derby time slot, they are apparently going to run a retrospective on American Pharoah's Triple Crown campaign in 2015.

Oh, and because the main American goal is gratification, they've entered data on the 13 Triple Crown champions and will run a virtual Kentucky Derby. While they cooked up an alibi called Fundamental Probabilities, I'll be calling them this afternoon to say 11 of the horses are dead and one of them, Justify, cheated and should never have been in the Derby. Is this where the kids type BTW?

As for the other two jewels of the Triple Crown, Pimlico is suspended for the Preakness until further notice. And things are very serious in New York for Belmont Park (and Saratoga).

Aqueduct was shut down for racing in March after coronavirus cases were discovered in the Belmont backstretch, although it had been running without fans before that.

The New York Racing Association is treading very lightly on firm plans to open Belmont and then Saratoga.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated the obvious - that it wouldn't be a good idea to open Saratoga to throngs of people who usually come from New York City - New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Joseph Applebaum clarified that racing authorities are looking to open both tracks without fans, Belmont first.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, out at Santa Anita, track officials and horsemen are actively urging the Los Angeles County Department of Health, which closed down the track March 27, to reopen, with a target date of May 15. Again, no fans. In fact, horsey folks including trainers Bob Baffert and Doug O'Neill picketed a County Board meeting to plead their cases. Yes, that's Baffert and his wife, Jill, taking it to The Man. In fact, Santa Anita was saying it would release a condition book on race Thursday. The condition book lays down the descriptions of every race, from maiden claiming to stakes.

Santa Anita has even offered to build residential facilities for jockeys, so that they could stay on the premises - sounds like quarantine to me - and ride.

Question: Would we see Mike Smith or Victor Espinoza carrying in huge flat screens and pillows like the Bears used to do in Bourbonnais?

As for Arlington Park, they ain't sayin' nothin'. But we already know CDI is not really interested in racing in the Chicago suburbs.

If any or a couple of these tracks get up and running - Gulfstream is already racing - it could give horses a place to go to get ready for any kind of Kentucky Derby Day in June.

It would take some ingenuity and scrambling.

It would also take cooperation on the part of everyone in the industry.

But it's even money you're never going to get that from Churchill Downs.

Meanwhile, enjoy Oaklawn Park this weekend. Those will be flesh-and-blood horses and jockeys. I promise.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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