Saturday, May 08, 2010
Churchill Downs and arrogance have been in lockstep for a long, long time. At a Kentucky Derby in the 1970s, I ran into Jesse Outlar, the respected sports editor of the Atlanta Constitution, at a Louisville hotel bar several days before the race. "Jesse, is it me or are you down in the dumps for some reason?" I said. "I left my press credentials in Atlanta," said Jesse, who was as hangdog as a basset hound. "Now I've got to go up to Raymond Johnson tomorrow morning and tell him. You know Raymond. He's not going to let me off without a tongue-lashing. I'll get the replacement credentials, but not until Raymond accuses me of double-dipping him."
Johnson was the former sports editor of a Nashville newspaper, but as a PR man for Churchill that didn't mean he had to like newspapermen anymore. Churchill had hired him for what became known as its resident (one word, one syllable, rhymes with trick), and Raymond overplayed the assignment. There's been a lengthy list of successors since Raymond left the track, some of them resident (one word, one syllable, rhymes with tricks) who continued on in the Johnson tradition. Edgar Allen, a beautiful man, was an exception to this prerequisite contempt for the media, and so was Tony Terry, but Tony's 24/7 niceness seemed to rub the front office the wrong way, and he was gone, not willingly, after a long career with the company.
Seconds before the break, a security guard about the size of Winning Colors got in my face and told me I'd have to sit down because the people behind me could not see. I glanced over my shoulder and saw most of the members of Interlopers Inc., a varied collection of yokels who didn't belong. They were standing in a non-existent third row.
"These people don't even have credentials," I said to the bozo who was asking me to sit down and miss the start of the race. "I came all the way from California to watch a mile and a quarter. You'll have to carry me out of here if you don't like it."
"Well, that's just what we might have to do," he said.
"Before you leave, could you give me the name of someone who can have you fired?"
"That would be God," he said, finally backing off.
Writing about that Derby was the easy part. The next day, I broached the incident with Karl Schmitt, who could have been joined at the hip with Raymond Johnson. Most of us are familiar with complaining to someone in charge and knowing that the someone isn't listening to one word we've said. This was Karl Schmitt, in spades. Karl made the corporate rounds at Churchill Downs, was eventually made a vice president (whenever Churchill's vice president roster dips under a dozen, the guys at the top feel understaffed), and at least once a day would answer a question with, "That's not in my department." After a while, I began asking, "Just exactly what is his department?" I never got an answer.
The same year the Gestapo-like rent-a-cop didn't want me to see whether Winning Colors broke right, Mike Battaglia was the track announcer at Churchill. Early on Derby day, between races, Mike went to the roof to do a TV interview. He left his coat, with the credential attached, in the booth, and you probably know what's coming. The interview over, Battaglia returned to the booth to call the next race, but was told that he couldn't get in because he didn't have a credential. Keeneland went silent for years, but this was Derby day, for cripes' sake.
I swear, I haven't been writing these down. In 1982, I watched in horror as the great Joe Hirsch and a rent-a-cop outside trainer Dewey Smith's barn engaged in an ugly chest-bumping episode. Smith, sitting in his office, heard the commotion and came outside. "What the hell's wrong with you, man?" he said. "This is Joe Hirsch. Do you think he'd try to get in to see me if I didn't want him?"
Mixing arrogance and ignorance makes for a rancid combination. By my count, there are currently 13 vice presidents at Churchill, most of whom probably don't know Jorge Velasquez from John Velazquez, or Ron Franklin from Ron McAnally. Security guards weren't a problem at this Derby for Jorge Velasquez and Franklin, but tickets were. The two retired riders were invited to Louisville, to add their handprints in cement to the prints of 31 other Derby-winning jockeys. The impressive display is outside the Galt House, which not incidentally is Churchill's official Derby hotel. Organizers notified Churchill three weeks before the Derby that Velasquez and Franklin were coming, and that they hoped to buy four good seats for them and their companions, as they had in each of the three previous years for other jockeys.
On Derby day, despite numerous attempts by Jane Dempsey to buy the tickets, Velasquez and Franklin were relegated to watching the race from the bar of their hotel. The fifth race on the Derby undercard was named the Pleasant Colony Purse, in honor of the horse Velasquez rode to victory in the 1981 Derby. Dempsey is not exactly a jane-come-lately to the Derby milieu. From California, she and her family have run an annual Kentucky Derby junket for 64 years. Forget that it's the Derby, wouldn't you think that 64 years of doing business with anybody earns you a return phone call?
"I'm not angry," Dempsey said. "I'm very angry."
In the closest thing to an apology to the embarrassed Velasquez and Franklin, one of the Churchill vice presidents said, "We should have known (about Velasquez and Franklin), and we didn't." It's not as though this hasn't happened before. In 2006, Johnny Sellers, of Carry Back fame, was an invitee, along with Babe Hanford, who rode Bold Venture to victory in 1936. Sellers took ill, and spent the Derby in a Louisville hospital, but it wouldn't have made any difference, they couldn't buy him a ticket. Hanford and his wife, both elderly, said it was just as well that they weren't issued tickets, because they no longer handled big crowds well. Inadvertently, the Hanfords got Churchill off the hook. Three years later, Babe Hanford, age 91, died. Churchill Downs put out a release that said he had attended his last Derby in 2006. Not quite. He was in Louisville, but was a ticket short of going to the track.
This year, Diane Crump would have liked to have gone to the Derby. Crump was trampled by a horse last year, suffered head injuries and incurred substantial debt. She hasn't been to Churchill Downs in 15 years, and this was the 40th anniversary of her becoming the first female jockey to ride in the race. According to Jason Neff, who's doing a documentary on female jockeys, Churchill knew more than a month before the Derby that Crump had this anniversary and was interested in attending. NBC might have interviewed her. Newspapers covering the Derby might have shown interest. But a complimentary ticket couldn't be found, and at the end of the day Crump, according to Neff, was invited to buy her own ticket on the Internet.
"I'm not bitter, just disappointed," Crump said on the phone from Northern Virginia. "It would have been fun to go, but this is racing isn't it? I was more disappointed for Velasquez and Franklin. Money is the only thing driving the game. Nobody in management knows anymore about the people and the great horses who made the game. Tradition doesn't count for anything. Yes, I know, betting drives the game, and it wouldn't be much of a game without the betting. But it's the people in the game who drive the betting, and the tracks have forgotten about them."
Which is not to say that the tracks don't have time to forget the fans. Churchill Downs has this rule about no umbrellas on Derby day. They probably roll out extra Dumpsters when it rains, to collect all the contraband. Mix arrogance and ignorance, season with a lack of common sense, and the smell is like being downwind at a landfill. A few years ago, a friend of mine witnessed this at the entrance to Churchill on Derby day: A woman was asked to surrender her umbrella. She pleaded that this was a special umbrella. Her son had used it for years, they always talked about it, and when he died, the umbrella wound up in the mother's hands. The mother with the dead son cried as she told the story. The umbrella police were unmoved. Into the Dumpster, the bumbershoot went.