TV creates early Derby controversy

Thursday, April 30, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

derby draw
Horses names are removed from the board after officials decided to redo the Derby draw.
(AP photo)
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LOUISVILLE -- The Run for the Roses is unusually red this year. Red-faced. They tinkered with tradition at the Kentucky Derby Wednesday, and they paid for it with various shades of chagrin. A draw procedure that had worked perfectly well for more than a century was deemed inadequately dramatic for the purposes of television.

So they fiddled with the format. They added pointless complications to a process that had always been simple. And they did a marvelous job of messing things up.

"Sometimes, when you make history, you've got to do it twice to make it right," said Chris Lincoln, the ESPN announcer and chief suspect.

If it's not broke . . .

Sometimes, you should leave history the heck alone.

But no. In their headstrong quest for hype, the honchos at Churchill Downs decided they needed to be different. They decided the world's greatest horse race wasn't good enough as it was; that it had to be tweaked in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Kentucky Derby logo
Associated Press coverage
They dispensed with a draw procedure that had served its purpose for more than a century because of a misguided mandate to make it more dramatic. Instead of drawing pills from a bottle to establish post position, the pills were drawn to establish a draft order for the selection of posts. The extra wrinkle was intended to add a human element -- decision making -- to a process judged a mite tedious for an entire hour of television.

Instead, the added human element was error. Against all odds, in spite of all precautions, the first try at the new format was a fiasco. The last draft position -- No. 15 -- was somehow selected twice from the same bottle of pills while the fifth selection was oddly omitted.

"You've got to be (kidding) me," growled Churchill Downs President Thomas Meeker, as he stormed off in search of answers.

Hours later, the precise cause of the problem had not been definitively identified. Lincoln thought he might have misread a number -- this despite a new pair of contact lenses. A Maryland racing steward thought Lincoln had mistakenly returned the No. 15 pill to the bottle after first reading it, instead of placing it in the tray where it belonged. The demands of live television prevented the possibility of a thorough postmortem.

Lukas loses shot at No. 1
Rather than retrace the steps, and correct the error, chief steward Bernard Hettel ordered a redraw, citing "administrative regulations." Given the time constraints, this was probably the easiest and most equitable decision.

Even so, it was precarious.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had won the No. 1 pick the first time around -- "D. Wayne, you're living right," Lincoln said -- was saddled with No. 10 on the second try. In another sport, this might have led to litigation.

"I felt like they did the right thing with the redraw," Lukas said. "But I'd have been a lot less serene if they had drawn the second time and I got the 15 hole."

Bob Baffert, trainer of undefeated Indian Charlie, improved his draft position from fourth to second, but not without some anguish. "I think when it first happened," Baffert said, "we probably all wanted to vomit."

In a perverse way, though, the screwup probably served its purpose. It made the Derby draw a little more than the mundane news it is normally, and helped focus attention on the premium placed on post positions.

Favorite Trick's trainer Bill Mott, who ultimately picked first, selected the No. 7 hole. Baffert, choosing second for Indian Charlie, took No. 8. The trainers showed a pronounced preference for the middle of the track, leaving the rail open until the 11th pick (Nationalore). Lukas preferred the No. 11 hole to the inside post.

"It'll turn out OK," Lukas said. "I don't think we've lost our chance to win the Kentucky Derby."

If he should lose, Lukas already has his alibi.

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