Tim Sullivan: If American Horse Racing Is Doomed, Churchill Downs Will Be The Last Stand

May 6, 2023 at 10:40 am
Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs

If American horse racing is doomed, Churchill Downs will be the site of its last breath.

While the sport’s decline has been steady and is steepening, the Kentucky Derby endures, evolves and expands. It is the outlier to obsolescence, the exception that annually proves a bourbon-fueled bacchanal can continue to prosper in the face of demographic challenges, proliferating gambling alternatives, animal welfare concerns and exorbitant prices.

It is an island insulated from the rough seas that surround it.

The Economist’s web site carried a story Friday headlined, “Is horse racing in America on its last legs?” Though the question is not new, the industry’s key indicators grow progressively worrisome. The number of thoroughbred races run in the United States has dropped by more than half since 1992. The size of the annual foal crop has declined by nearly two-thirds since 1986. Beyond Central Avenue, the industry’s trend line suggests an anvil dropped from an airplane.   

As its core audience ages and its virtual monopoly on legal sports betting evaporates, racing’s executives increasingly rely on revenue from other forms of gambling and government subsidies to balance their books.

With the NFL’s Chicago Bears seeking a permit to raze Arlington Park, and Phoenix’ Turf Paradise now destined for redevelopment, more lucrative real estate opportunities continue to fuel the sport’s contraction. Though Churchill Downs, Inc., remains bullish on its home track, investing hundreds of millions in expansion and renovations, more than 40 U.S. tracks have closed since 2000.

“The short answer is there is no money in horse racing,” Sharon Ward told me last year. 

Formerly the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, Ward’s study of racetrack subsidies resulted in a report called, How Pennsylvanians Bankroll The Sport of Kings.

“Gambling has really exploded,” she said. “People are spending money on betting, but that money is not going to horse racing and the industry is continuing to decline. . .

“If you apply a cold business eye to horse racing, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Yet to visit Churchill Downs this week is to imagine the sport to be thriving. The announced attendance for Thursday’s “Thurby” – an event whose success reflects inspired marketing rather than long tradition -- was a record 54,848, more than the combined crowds of two of the year’s most prestigious prep races, the Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby.Friday’s Kentucky Oaks attracted 106,381.

If spectators harbored any qualms about the spate of equine fatalities that have preceded Churchill’s signature races, they have generally succeeded in looking past them from the back of long lines or the bottom of julep glasses. 

Outside of the hardcore handicappers who view Derby Week as a chance to enrich themselves at the expense of untrained eyes, More than any other major sports event in America, the Derby exists as an excuse for parading fashion and indulging foolishness. If the race lasted any longer than two minutes, it would risk intruding on the revelry. 

Elsewhere, the death of multiple horses in the days preceding a big race might be dealt with differently. The Maryland Jockey Club suspended racing at Laurel Park last month after a 4-year-old colt called Golden Pegasus suffered a catastrophic injury and was euthanized following a race. 

Churchill’s response to its five equine fatalities since April 27 was to issue a stern statement that the deaths were “highly unusual” and “completely unacceptable,” and to impose an indefinite suspension on trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who lost two horses to causes not yet identified. 

“Given the unexplained sudden deaths, we have reasonable concerns about the condition of his horses, and decided to suspend him indefinitely until details are analyzed and understood,” CDI President Bill Mudd said.

While emphasizing its commitment to transparency, Churchill Downs alleged no specific wrongdoing on Joseph’s part. It probably didn’t help that the trainer is presently appealing a 15-day suspension for a medication violation at Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Downs, another Churchill Downs property. It certainly didn’t help that Joseph’s horses died a few days before the Derby.

As Churchill previously demonstrated with Bob Baffert’s two-year suspension, issues arising around the Derby and Oaks carry more serious consequences than similar transgressions at other times. 

Case in point: Louisville trainer Brad Cox will enter four horses in Derby 149 despite a series of medication violations that prompted the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to suspend him last spring. Though Cox’s disciplinary record includes three such violations at Churchill Downs since 2019, the track has taken no action against him, asserting “any decision regarding disciplinary action against a trainer is not influenced by that of another." 

If this looks like a double standard, Churchill Downs remains a singular anomaly. If American racing is headed toward a last stand, it will surely be here.