Times Change: Churchill Hired Columnist As President

Confession: I am for anyone and any thing that helps Churchill Downs lure heavy hitters in the business and entertainment world who in turn can help the economy of Louisville and Kentucky.

With that said, let’s look at a little history of the historic track in south Louisville that is the soul and heart of the Thoroughbred racing industry.

And I may be able to do it better than anyone else because I have been close to the track since 1949, when I and about 50 other Kentucky National Guardsmen were trucked to Louisville for crowd control on Derby Day.

That was the day that Calumet Farm’s Ponder won another Kentucky Derby for trainers Ben Jones and his son Jimmy, and for historic Calumet Farm – the only farm named for a baking powder!

It was my job to control the area closest to the finish line with these orders: No one – NO ONE – will cross the track in this area at any time. I was fine until four of the biggest deputy sheriffs you ever saw stepped over the rail. They were lucky. I didn’t shoot them.

I got to see the next Derby because I worked for The Courier-Journal and was in the pressbox – which was a dinky little place filled with a lot of big-name sports columnists. I offered to carry Red Smith’s typewriter up some narrow stairs to where the biggest out-of-town stars were seated. Red was a little guy, a Pulitzer Prize-winner later for The New York Times, but he spurned my offer and barely made it.

Remember this because it will be interesting to note how times change:

Churchill Downs officials were so desperate to attract all of the top New York writers that they made one of them, Bill Corum, president of the track!

It was Corum’s job to wine and dine the top newspaper stars and get them to come to the Derby. Churchill even built an apartment for him at the track.

Years later the track did away with the tiny media room and built a much bigger area that was used for just a few weeks before and during the Derby. The rest of the time you could have ridden a motorcycle through the pressbox without hitting anyone,

As my career advanced at The Courier-Journal, I bought (yes, I paid for it) a choice Derby box between the two United States senators from Kentucky. And I used it to invite some of the top sports editors and their wives to the Derby. Seth Hancock even let me take one of the couples to see the great Secretariat at Claiborne Farm.

President Lynn Stone and General Manager Bob Gorham invited me to Stone’s suite, where the Derby winners’ owners, trainers and only the biggest movie stars gathered for post-Derby toasts. Princess Margaret was all alone across the room from where our sports columnist, Dave Kindred and I were. I told him to go on and talk with her. She was fine with Dave’s visit. Her husband, Tony, sought out the head of the princess’ security, Jim Host, and had him shoo Dave away, but Princess Margaret said that she wanted to talk with Kindred!

Jim Host – wonder what ever happened to him?

Now for the shocker. Churchill, which used to have to bribe writers to come to the Derby, is throwing the bums out! Putting us on the first floor where it remains to be seen how much of the Derby the writers can see. Meanwhile, Churchill announced that it will spend $9 million on the fourth floor pressbox and turn it into something of a Taj Mahal (Southern-mansion style). All for the titans of the industry and only the biggest of the high rollers (that means that the latter will bet big bucks). Waiters – and, yes, even butlers!

The cost will be – well, if you have to ask, don’t. Okay, the price will run in the thousands of dollars. And get this: You have to be invited to apply for tickets!

Maybe Churchill can play recordings of Happy Chandler singing My Old Kentucky Home.