The chief operating officer of Churchill Downs Inc. got down and dirty at his own racetracks, and the whole thing was caught on tape for the CBS reality series Undercover Boss.
Bill Carstanjen said Wednesday that going incognito for 10 days among the workers at Calder Race Course in Florida and Arlington Park in Chicago was "a fantastic experience."
And he found it surprisingly emotional.
"There were things I was very proud of and things that bothered me that I want to see improved," Carstanjen said in an interview Wednesday. "At times, I wanted to cry, and at times, I was very happy."
Undercover Boss follows executives as they take entry-level jobs in their own corporations. Based on a British show, it has been a commercial and critical hit since it premiered last month after the Super Bowl. The first episode drew 40 million viewers, and the show is CBS's second-most-watched series, behind NCIS.
For his episode, which airs March 14, Carstanjen worked a variety of jobs but by his own admission did none of them very well.
He spent time working for a trainer, saddled horses with a jockey's valet, wrote news releases, shadowed an outrider and practiced with a track bugler. He mucked stalls and cleaned urinals, as well, apparently.
Although he and producers were careful to do nothing to jeopardize anyone's safety, he said, "they still let me make an absolute fool of myself. There were very few things that I did right."
But he got to know a lot of employees.
"I worked with people who have a lot of personal challenges — family issues, commuting issues, health issues," Carstanjen said. "Part of what was really moving was how much commitment they bring to their jobs. ... I saw all sorts of things to improve on and to make better. It wasn't something I shied away from."
To go undercover, he wore jeans instead of suits, contact lenses instead of glasses, and grew out his beard. Nobody looked at him and thought "corner office," even though he was being followed by a camera crew, ostensibly to film a documentary on different kinds of work.
"When you have the 'reveal,' it's actually very emotional," he said, referring to the moment at the end of the show when the boss's identity is uncovered. "Since I'd gotten to know these folks, you might have thought it would be awkward, but it wasn't. They were happy to know I was listening and that the company cared about them."
Although he saw an early version of the first episode of Undercover Boss, featuring the head of Waste Management, he hasn't watched any other episode because he's too nervous about what his network TV debut will be like.
The hourlong series has gone behind the scenes at White Castle, 7-Eleven and Hooters and has had its share of eyebrow-raising moments.
Carstanjen plans to watch with colleagues and his kids at Churchill Downs in Louisville when the episode airs.
He said the company plans to implement a similar, although not secret, program to allow managers and assistant managers to "walk a mile" in workers' shoes.
"We want to give more people in our company the opportunity to understand what other people go through," Carstanjen said. "We are our own world. We've got a front side and a back side. ... It's very easy to not understand how difficult the other folks' jobs can be."