- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - When California Chrome crosses the finish line in the Belmont Stakes next month, win or lose, his bid for a Triple Crown will be over and horse racing will begin its annual retreat from the mainstream.

For once, that could come as a relief to the people who run Churchill Downs. Their biggest weeks of the year are the run up to and right after the Kentucky Derby, which California Chrome won back on May 3.

But it’s been a rough stretch for the track’s image, the latest issue being the death of a horse Thursday in a fall on the track that her trainer immediately blamed on the sound system attached to Churchill’s vaunted new video board.

Here’s a look at some of the public relations problems the sport’s most famous track has faced this spring:

BIG BOARD, BIG COMPLAINTS

The debut of the world’s biggest HD video screen - the “Big Board,” Churchill dubbed it - and its 750-speaker sound system were the track’s biggest bragging point going into Derby week.

Towering 170 feet over the backstretch, the high-definition, $12 million video screen is bigger than three basketball courts, bigger than any single panel of the giant display hanging above the field at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Smitten by the close-up view of the action it gives those in the infield and the grandstand, many fans loved it right away.

Some trainers and jockeys didn’t.

The day before the Derby, jockey Rosie Napravnik called the speakers “overwhelming” minutes after she won the Kentucky Oaks aboard Untapable. Napravnik said it didn’t seem to affect her horse, however, and several trainers have said they haven’t had problems with the speakers.

On Thursday, 5-year-old mare Never Tell Lynda was walking toward the paddock on the track when she reared, twisted and fell, hitting her head, said her trainer, Kenneth Wirth. The horse was startled by what Wirth thinks was the sound of a starting gate bell coming from a commercial on the video board.

“We teach horses to break from that,” he said. “And you’ve got it on a loud speaker that everybody in a two-city block can hear. Well, what’s she going to do? She thinks she’s supposed to take off. And that’s what she did. And when she did, she lunged and she lost her balance and went down.”

Track officials extended their condolences after the horse was euthanized, called the accident extremely rare and said they were still gathering the facts.

Wirth said the sound system was “way too loud” at the time of the accident.

“The only thing you can blame is the music,” Wirth said. “They’ve got to do something about it. … The horses are the main thing here.”

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