Letter To The Editor: The Implications of Choosing Not To Run in This Year's Derby

First turn on Derby Day at Churchill Downs | Coady Photography

The Derby is not just any race. It is the pinnacle of American horse racing from virtually every angle: breeding, owning, training, riding and yes, even betting (who doesn't want bragging rights for picking the winner?).

And the Derby race/event has grown to such importance for the entire industry (the hoopla around the Derby as an event got bigger in the preceding years even while horse racing has been struggling), that its import flows far beyond the private parameters of ownership of Churchill Downs, Inc. Derby day is an industry-wide event even though it is run by a private entity. And herein emerges the problem that begs for a resolution.

The owners of horses trained by Bob Baffert, in refusing to switch barns in order to get their horses eligible to the Derby race, are, in essence, calling out the management of the Derby race by Churchill and boycotting the race.

I write this from the perspective of years of graduate study in political economy during my Ph.D. work. These owners have made (and undoubtedly not deliberately so) a huge first step in challenging the balance of power in the industry between owners/breeders and the racetracks.

Churchill, in arbitrarily extending the ban on their trainer and shortening the time for the required transfer of their horses from their chosen trainer to someone else (the transfer date was conspicuously set days before the Robert Lewis prep race at Santa Anita), had, apparently gone too far. Churchill was intrinsically questioning both the owner's management and judgment in the care of their horses. The owners, in turn, by not transferring their horses to another trainer and thus choosing not to run in the Derby, are questioning the management of the Derby race itself by Churchill Inc.

The implications from this small group of owner's decisions go far beyond themselves, their trainer and Churchill itself. Not only are these owners challenging Churchill's authority to interfere with the management and use of their property rights, by boycotting this year's Derby, they are preventing (again not deliberately) the breeders of the horses in question from participating in the Derby.

This battle of the power of Churchill Inc. over the Derby race with these owners has rippling effects on the breeding industry itself.  You breed a top horse, it gets sold and then doesn't get to participate in the Derby because of a battle between Churchill Inc. and a specific trainer that leads to the owners withholding the horse.

This situation needs to be resolved.

And the power of Churchill Inc. over a race that is now, de facto, an industry race (while proprietary to Churchill Inc.) needs to be curbed so that any similar situation doesn't re-occur. Decisions directly impacting the Derby race need to be subject to countervailing power by the key interest groupings in the industry-with representatives actually in the boardroom concerning key decisions on the Derby race. Such arrangements are not uncommon in business. Even the trainers do not have a voice regarding their own eligibility and seemingly arbitrary decisions regarding their participation.

The Derby is the Derby because everyone wants to run their top horses if they are ready for the race. As soon as capable, top horses are not put on the path to the Derby, the race can lose its significance before too long. The Derby race is too important to the industry to be allowed to be run without Industry-wide input to assure its continued impact.
–Armen Antonian Ph.D

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