Horse's death latest black eye for Churchill Downs

May 23, 2014 - 5:05 AM
Churchill Downs Horse Dies

FILE - In this May 3, 2014, file photo, fans watch a race on a large video screen before the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. A racehorse died Thursday, May 22, 2014, at Churchill Downs after a freak fall that the trainer blamed on the sound of a starting gate bell blaring on the track's new sound system. The 5-year-old mare Never Tell Lynda was walking toward the paddock on the dirt track when she reared, twisted and fell, hitting her head, said her trainer, Kenneth Wirth. Wirth later said the horse was spooked by what Wirth thinks was the sound of a starting gate bell coming from a commercial on Churchill's massive new video board. The system includes 750 speakers. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When California Chrome crosses the finish line in the Belmont Stakes next month, win or lose, his bid for a Triple Crown will be over and horse racing will begin its annual retreat from the mainstream.

For once, that could come as a relief to the people who run Churchill Downs. Their biggest weeks of the year are the run up to and right after the Kentucky Derby, which California Chrome won back on May 3.

But it's been a rough stretch for the track's image, the latest issue being the death of a horse Thursday in a fall on the track that her trainer immediately blamed on the sound system attached to Churchill's vaunted new video board.

Here's a look at some of the public relations problems the sport's most famous track has faced this spring:

BIG BOARD, BIG COMPLAINTS

The debut of the world's biggest HD video screen — the "Big Board," Churchill dubbed it — and its 750-speaker sound system were the track's biggest bragging point going into Derby week.

Towering 170 feet over the backstretch, the high-definition, $12 million video screen is bigger than three basketball courts, bigger than any single panel of the giant display hanging above the field at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Smitten by the close-up view of the action it gives those in the infield and the grandstand, many fans loved it right away.

Some trainers and jockeys didn't.

The day before the Derby, jockey Rosie Napravnik called the speakers "overwhelming" minutes after she won the Kentucky Oaks aboard Untapable. Napravnik said it didn't seem to affect her horse, however, and several trainers have said they haven't had problems with the speakers.

On Thursday, 5-year-old mare Never Tell Lynda was walking toward the paddock on the track when she reared, twisted and fell, hitting her head, said her trainer, Kenneth Wirth. The horse was startled by what Wirth thinks was the sound of a starting gate bell coming from a commercial on the video board.

"We teach horses to break from that," he said. "And you've got it on a loud speaker that everybody in a two-city block can hear. Well, what's she going to do? She thinks she's supposed to take off. And that's what she did. And when she did, she lunged and she lost her balance and went down."

Track officials extended their condolences after the horse was euthanized, called the accident extremely rare and said they were still gathering the facts.

Wirth said the sound system was "way too loud" at the time of the accident.

"The only thing you can blame is the music," Wirth said. "They've got to do something about it. ... The horses are the main thing here."

BUMMER FOR BETTORS

Weeks before the Derby, Churchill announced it would take a bigger cut of the money bettors place on its races. The decision came after Kentucky lawmakers rejected the racing industry's latest effort to add slot machines to generate more cash to boost prize money for horse owners.

Churchill spokesman John Asher said without the bigger cut, the track would have had to reduce the prize money for winners of spring races and some races would likely have been cut altogether.

Horse players at the betting windows grumbled that Churchill, of all places, should have enough other means of revenue without having to pinch pennies from people who come to the track.

RESPECT FOR THE PAST

Days before the Derby, Churchill rushed into damage-control mode after Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to Triple Crown glory, declared he would skip seeing the Derby because track management had snubbed him. Turcotte, who is paralyzed, said he couldn't get a parking spot during his last Derby Day visit, and then couldn't even get into the track to watch last year's race.

The track said any perceived snub of Turotte was the result of a "communication breakdown."

Turcotte's comments were posted on the website of a horse farm run by Rick Porter, who owned Eight Belles, the filly that was euthanized on the track after breaking both of her front legs following a second-place finish in the 2008 Derby.

Porter had posted about his own difficulties in obtaining tickets to watch one of his horses race at Churchill Downs on Friday, and in getting Derby tickets last year for four World War II veterans who were part of the D-Day invasion.

"What is wrong with this management group?" Porter wrote. "No wonder racing is on the decline."

RESPECT FOR THE PRESENT

Steve Coburn, co-owner of this year's Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome, lashed out at Churchill after the Preakness, which is held at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

"Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality," Coburn said. "These people right here, they've treated us like royalty."

Co-owner Perry Martin didn't make the trip to Pimlico, and Coburn was asked why.

"The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn't very good," Coburn said, so Martin decided not to make the trip to the next stop on the Triple Crown trail.