John Clay: Churchill's reputation takes another hit

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 18, 2014 

BALTIMORE — Having captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown, California Chrome came out of Saturday's Preakness Stakes as the clear winner.

Churchill Downs was the clear loser.

Pimlico's peeling paint and outdated décor can't match Churchill Downs' casino shine, but in the eyes of California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn there's no comparison between the two.

"If I've said this once I've said this 50 times, Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality," Coburn said after the race.

If Coburn thinks it, he says it. The man with the cowboy hat has no filter. He first administered Churchill a negative customer satisfaction rating to a national television audience on NBC while speaking in the winner's circle. He then repeated his remarks, with a whiskey in his hand, at the post-race news conference.

"The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn't very good," Coburn said.

Churchill responded with a heaping helping of if-we-had-only-known.

"Our team worked to satisfy the California Chrome team's needs when they were communicated to us and regret that their experience at Churchill Downs appears to have fallen short of expectations," Churchill Downs vice president John Asher said in a statement.

Coburn could be dismissed as an emotional pop-off were it not for all the corroborating testimony.

Longtime Thoroughbred owner Rick Porter has been the most vocal, accusing Churchill of arrogance. During Derby Week, Porter claimed the track refused to provide special accommodations for disabled World War II veterans he wanted to bring to Louisville to see Normandy Invasion run last year.

Ron Turcotte, paralyzed former jockey of Secretariat, promptly joined the grievance committee, posting a letter on Porter's site detailing how he was not allowed a handicap parking pass when he made a Derby Museum appearance and wasn't even coming to the 2014 Derby because of the way he had been treated by Churchill.

There was also this weekend's tempest involving Churchill's petty request that Wes Welker repay the $15,000 the track claims it overpaid the NFL receiver because of a machine malfunction. Welker has refused — he was photographed giving out $100 bills during Derby day — saying he wouldn't have heard from the track if he had been underpaid.

This is the same track, by the way, that increased its takeout rates this spring to the maximum level allowed by Kentucky law. Maybe CDI should be renamed GREED.

The real punch-to-the-gut could come June 11 when the Breeders' Cup board of directors is expected to announce it is returning the racing showcase to Kentucky in 2015, only not at Churchill Downs but — drum roll, please — at Keeneland.

Coburn actually spoke out on behalf of his co-owner, who did not come to Baltimore after his treatment in Louisville. Perry Martin brought his 84-year-old mother from a nursing home in Michigan to see the Derby but allegedly got no help from Churchill in finding her an appropriate seat or getting her to the winner's circle to see Chrome wear the roses.

Owners and trainers have long complained about Churchill's treatment, its ticket policy, and Louisville's price-gouging hotels. There is a widespread perception that Churchill takes advantage of the Derby's popularity by treating it as a fleecing opportunity.

There was recent talk of moving the Preakness to another track because of Pimlico's rickety appearance, but maybe it's more about people than facilities, more about how you treat your customers than how you treat your shareholders.

On the day 17-year-old pop star Lorde sang her hit Royals for the record-breaking crowd at Pimlico, Coburn gushed he was the one who was treated like a king.

"We don't expect to be treated like royalty, but the hospitality that these folks in Maryland have shown us is top shelf," he said. "So thank you Maryland. Thank you for everything you've done for us."

In fact, Coburn said he hoped to be back next year with a full sister of California Chrome to run in Pimlico's top fillies race, the Black-Eyed Susan.

Two races into this year's Triple Crown, Churchill Downs is the one with a black eye.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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