Thursday, April 29, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In my first pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of Churchill Downs, I was shocked by what I didn’t see — slot machines.

No slot machines! How does racing survive in Kentucky?

By all means, let’s move the Kentucky Derby to Charles Town, W.Va., where they have the one-armed bandits that will save racing. Then it wouldn’t be the Kentucky Derby, you say? Tell that to the New Jersey Giants and Jets, or the Maryland Redskins. Sometimes a state is just a state of mind.

Heck, with the money they’re making in Charles Town from slots, they could build a replica of the Churchill Downs twin spires.

In a way, that is what they will soon have here in Louisville — a replica of the famed track. They are spending $121million to refurbish Churchill Downs, and about the only things that may look the same when they are done are the twin spires above the old grandstand. It is important to keep tradition. After all, this is considered horse racing sacred ground.

I know it is sacred ground because I heard a sacred message yesterday, when the backstretch — a Hollywood setting in the early-morning Kentucky sunshine — was filled with horses taking their morning workouts and trainers holding court for the press and public alike.

“Words can have a big impact on people,” the message blared over the loudspeakers. “Once there were two altar boys who made the mistake of spilling a few drops of sacramental wine on the altar. One priest slapped the boy slightly and told him to leave the altar. That boy grew up to be President Tito, the dictator of communist Yugoslavia. The other priest told the boy that it was all right, that some day he would grow up to be a priest. That boy grew up to be Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Words do have impact.”

Like Eric Burdon meant to say, “Spill the wine, change the world.”

The message was lost on the horses but not on the jockeys. They know words have impact, and the impact they are hoping for is cash in their pockets. A group of jockeys have filed suit for the right to wear advertising on their uniforms. Five jockeys in the Derby say a Kentucky law banning such ads denies them their constitutional right of free speech.

Racing officials believe they are protecting the sanctity of the sport. A ad on a thigh here, a calf there, and before you know it, you’ve got a NASCAR situation with ads from head to toe — although with jockeys, that’s not a lot of ground to cover.

“These horses are so fast no one is going to be able see them,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who has the horse Wimbledon in the Derby.

Pat Day, who is riding Minister Eric in Saturday’s race, is not one of the jockeys taking part in the suit. “I’m not opposed to it,” Day said. “But you need to have parameters. It would have to be done in good taste.”

Yes, like the tractor-trailers with “Jack lives here,” parked in the middle of the infield, referring to Kentucky’s sacramental drink, Jack Daniel’s. That kind of good taste.

What about an ad promoting slot machines? That’s one they might not object to.

They are trying to hang on to tradition here at one of America’s legendary sporting events, but that ship is sinking in a sea of construction, proposed jockey ads and, yes, slot machines. Like Maryland, slots at racetracks is an issue here in Kentucky, although the political process is not as far along as it has been in Maryland, where the debate went to the brink of the past General Assembly session before losing at the wire.

Track officials here say the average daily betting at Churchill Downs is down about 20 percent since the start of riverboat gambling at nearby Caesars Indiana on the Ohio River six years ago. But bills to legalize slots at tracks failed during the 2002 and 2003 legislative sessions to gain momentum. So slots supporters — including Churchill Downs — are taking a different approach, seeking a referendum for voters to decide on a constitutional amendment approving something called “alternative gambling” — perhaps an effort to separate the wholesomeness of horse betting from the decadence of slot machine wagering.

Unlike in Maryland, where there has been talk of Magna, the racing conglomerate that owns Pimlico and Laurel, possibly moving the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown — the Preakness — to another one of its tracks unless slots are approved, no one has even flirted with the notion of the Derby being anyplace except Churchill Downs.

Day, a five-time winner at the Preakness, said it would be difficult to think of the Preakness anywhere but Pimlico — but not impossible.

“It’s hard to imagine it not at Old Hilltop,” Day said. “But life is continuous change.”

And sometimes life is the luck of the draw, whether it is the payoff from three 7s on a slot machine, a horse by a nose or an altar boy drawing the right priest.

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