Rick Bozich notes there was a time when Churchill Downs couldn’t do enough for the media. Legendary track president Matt Winn, who made the Kentucky Derby what it is today, knew it was vital to get press coverage in the early 20th Century.
So when asked for his reaction about Churchill Downs eliminating the press box for this year’s Kentucky Derby, Bozich, the long-time Louisville columnist, thought of Winn.
“You don’t need a comment from me,” Bozich writes in an email. “You need one from Colonel. Matt Winn. His plan for turning the Derby into America’s horse race began with convincing the media that they were as important to this spectacle as a good 3-year-old. Well, we had a good run, Colonel”
Indeed, the “Who-Needs-the-Media” tour moves to Churchill Downs this week.
The fabled track actually one-upped the NCAA, which cut back 2/3s of the media floor seating for the basketball tournament. Churchill Down has done away with the whole idea of having a press box.
What had been the Joe Hirsch Media Center overlooking the track has been transformed into a high-rollers area renamed, “The Mansion at Churchill Downs.” The reason is simple: Money. According to Ray Paulick of Paulickreport.com, the track figures to haul in $8 million over three years with the new luxury seating.
“Like any casino company, Churchill Downs Inc. now thinks in terms of revenue per square foot,” Paulick writes in an email. “The press box generated zero actual revenue, although it could be argued good press is worth something.”
What becomes of the media?
Reportedly, there are some media spots in the back of the grandstand about 150-200 yards from the finish line; the Hirsch Center was on the finish line. However, there is some question whether you can see the end of the race from that position. It is sort of important to see the end of the race.
Most reporters likely will watch the race on TV in a first-floor area that formerly housed the track’s corporate offices. Just as was the case at the NCAA tournament, where reporters were shuttled to the rafters in some venues, the new arrangement isn’t going down well with the turf writers.
Bozich, the long-time Louisville Courier-Journal columnist who now opines for WDRB.com in Louisville, writes: “I used to joke with some of my friends that the day would come when we were no longer in the stadium, arena or race track to watch the event that we’re covering. It’s not a joke any more.”
Besides Bozich and Paulick, I exchanged emails with Tom Pedulla, the president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association who will cover the race for America’s Best Racing and the New York Times; and Neil Milbert, who despite not attending this year speaks from experience of covering 31 Kentucky Derby races during his career at the Chicago Tribune.
The Central question: What do you miss by not being able to see the race in person from the press box?
Paulick: What I’ll miss is being able to soak in the flavor of the buildup to the race, looking down as the horses make the walkover from the stable area and the crowd’s reactions to the post- and pre-race activities. You can also get a much better idea of how the horses are doing, physically and mentally, as they walk over in front of the huge crowd, into the tunnel and then over to the paddock to be saddled. There was a viewing area of the paddock adjacent to the press box that was very useful. You can’t get any of that watching a television.
Pedulla: For those forced to watch on TV, it makes it impossible to convey the drama associated with what I firmly believe is “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” The roar of the crowd is unbelievable when the large field breaks from the starting gate, and it would be dishonest reporting to note that roar if you didn’t actually hear it. At least in my opinion.
Milbert: For me, drinking in the atmosphere from the upper level press box was an integral part of the experience. All of these sensations heightened my awareness of what was about to happen and I think they also tapped into my creative instincts when it came time to write.
Does watching the race on TV impact your ability to write a good story?
Milbert:The year that Smarty Jones won the Derby, I didn’t cover the race from the upstairs press box because a new state-of-the-art press box–that now has become a playpen for multi-millionaires–was being constructed and writers were relocated in a huge tent with big screen television sets. At the time I didn’t mind because there was torrential rain all day and I never left the tent. It wasn’t until I got home and saw the video-taped recording of the network telecast that I realized how much and how hard it rained. If I’d have been in the old press box, I’d have become aware immediately and perhaps I’d have written a better story.
The press has supported this race for more than 100 years. Is there a sense of disrespect at what Churchill Downs is doing here?
Bozich: The media has been moved from The Mansion to the servant’s quarters.
Pedulla: Writers do feel disrespected by Churchill Downs. At the same time, I noted at our Breeders’ Cup meeting that we are faced with ever poorer positions in many other sports. I also will say that we must recognize that, as important a role as the media in keeping the Derby prominent, we are there as guests of Churchill Downs and can hardly dictate what they provide for us.
One point to stress is that the usual number of credentialed media can still be accommodated. If anything, the capacity to handle media might be greater.
We can only hope this is not a sign of things to come. The Breeders’ Cup will again be at Santa Anita this year. The main press box, and the auxiliary site, offer excellent locations.
Paulick: The disrespect for the media began years ago under different management. It’s just a continuation of that attitude.