J.N. Campbell Commentary: Churchill Downs’ Title Defense Begins

J.N. Campbell offers commentary concerning Churchill Downs and the beginning of the 'Prep Season' that inaugurates 'The Road' to the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby.
J.N. Campbell offers commentary concerning Churchill Downs and the beginning of the "Prep Season" that inaugurates "The Road" to the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby.

In a matter of days, the Road to the Kentucky Derby … Number 148 … begins. Yep, it has arrived. Is it May '22 yet?

Despite the mitigating circumstances … a possible Medina Spirit DQ continues to loom … in the meantime, it is full steam ahead in Churchill-land. No rest for the weary Triple Crown watchers who vividly remember the disappointment of Baffert’s Folly on the 1st Sunday in May. A new year is apparently upon us.

Even though we still do not have a resolution to that last one, maybe there is a sense of FOMO on the next go-round or just frankly, letting the past be exactly that … the past. Since the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) and the legal processes have yet to move past even the opening salvo, something about labs and tests gone awry, we cannot wait. If you ask any turfwriter their opinion concerning when exactly we will hear from the KHRC, a combination smirk with an added shrug, follows. We will know when we know—how very Apollo 13.

Before the prep races begin, and the schedule ignites, I cannot help wondering though … what will be the aftershocks that will be realized by this delay? My sense is that this is not looking good when it comes to engendering confidence. It appears to be just another example of castle walls, behind which we find a group of Loki-esque “Time-Keepers” meting out an obscure regional governance. Money wagered on when, might be better served elsewhere.

What is an even more fascinating topic is the response by Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) in the wake of what happened in May. Would you have bet that in June they would have taken such a hardline against North America’s most well-known trainer? The possibility of a suspension was on the table, but 2 years? I am not sure I would have predicted that outcome.

I make that comment because the language that was employed in their June 2, 2021, Press Release entitled, Churchill Downs Incorporated Suspends Bob Baffert for Two Years, and quotes by CEO Bill Carstanjen, are pretty strong in nature. I was particularly moved by, “Mr. Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in Thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby.” Not only is that quite a pivot, especially considering Baffert has a long history of testing snafus (not just in the past year), but CDI explicitly tells us why they are taking this position … it’s The Derby … period. Attack that … threaten that … and now, them is fightin’ words.

Having time over the summer to digest this “ruling,” its context can be put into even sharper focus when you consider last week’s statement in another Press Release entitled, Churchill Downs Announces 2021-2022 ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ Schedule. Printed firmly in the 4th paragraph are the assertion that no points that are won along the Derby Trail will be awarded to any horse that is trained by a suspended individual. Thus, of the 37 races along “The Road,” Baffert is currently ineligible (and that includes the Iroquois S. “Kickoff” this coming weekend). Not to be seen in the Derby or for that matter the Kentucky Oaks which is also off-limits. That is unless his appeal, when that opportunity arrives, is successful.

I continue to be astounded, with a sprinkling of dismay, by CDI’s commitment to their blossoming business model—Derby 1st, now and forever. Not only do they continue to shore up their own financials (price per share hovers around $218), but their métier is horse racing brand building. Bob Baffert and his image, despite being the most celebrated trainer in North America and beyond, pales in comparison to what the “Twin Spires” is constructing. Currently, they are shedding their overweight assets, like the gorgeous and historical Arlington Park, much to the chagrin of everyone even remotely appreciative of the history of the sport.

Moving forward, CDI will be focusing their “Derby 1st” mentality only in one direction. With military precision, they are consolidating and pivoting in such a manner, that I am trying to imagine what the Louisville landscape will offer 10 years from now, with or without Bob Baffert. The HOF-er was finally put in his place, as he threatened to tarnish CDI's "golden fleece." The publicly traded company, who have their investors to think about, took a stand, but unpacking their motivations provides us with some telling explanations. 

In the meantime, as the “Prep Season” gets underway, and the Medina Spirit case drags on, CDI appears undeterred and poised for a “title defense.” Number 148 … it will be here before you know it.