LOUISVILLE, KY (MAY 17, 2017) — Every so often, we will be addressing a few things: comments, decisions, people, whatever that – for one reason or another – should be tossed into the literary “muck pit.”

It is in the spirit of cleanliness, recycling, and protecting the environment that we offer this service of “addressing the muck” – free of charge. After all, someone has to do it, right? So…without further adeau. Here’s a bone to chew on.
Our SECOND Installment of The Muck Pit:


Ok. Now, this is an interesting…er…development?

Friday, May 5 – the day of the Kentucky Oaks and just 24 hours before the 143rd edition of the Kentucky Derby, WDRB-41 TV ran a story about Churchill Downs recent investments in the area that surrounds the legendary track.

According to WDRB’s report, “…in the last six months, Churchill has gone on an unprecedented buying spree, acquiring nearly three dozen vacant lots, houses and commercial properties on three sides of the Central Avenue track, Jefferson County property records show.”

The television report went on to state that the “total price tag for that real estate is just shy of $13 million. In fact, Churchill has spent more on properties near the track in the last six months than it had in the previous ten years, according to a WDRB analysis of property records.”

Ok. That is newsworthy. That is interesting. And, that is relevant. No problems there.

But the headline on WDRB’s “Sunday Edition,” which updated the story just 24 hours after the Derby read:

“Churchill Downs grabs $13 million in neighborhood real estate during unprecedented buying binge.”

Really? Seriously? I’ve known a few headline writers in my past. Truth be known, a lot of them couldn’t cut it as writers and they took out their frustrations by trying to be cute, clever, demeaning or bombastic in writing a headline that is neither fair or accurate.
This headline probably falls into all those categories.

First of all, Churchill Downs didn’t “grab” anything. They purchased something that it deemed to be worth buying. And, to be more accurate, there has to be a willing seller before there can even be a potential buyer.

Secondly, Churchill Downs is not some real estate drunkard on an “unprecedented buying bing” either. If you read the story (maybe the headline writer should), you will discover just 15 paragraphs from the top this prose:

“Churchill has been amassing more parking around its landlocked racetrack since the late 1990s, primarily in the neighborhood west of the track,” WDRP’s Chris Otts reports.

Three paragraphs further in the story, we get this:

“For years, records show the company has sometimes paid far in excess of the homes’ value, but for their proximity to the track.”

Ok. Yet, further down, the writer pens:

“Churchill went on a smaller buying binge in the early 2000s, and, at the time, company officials talked of wanting a big, contiguous parking lot extended from the track to Taylor Boulevard.”

So, let’s be honest. It really isn’t “unprecedented,” is it? Hint: if it has happened before, it isn’t “unprecedented.”

Just a day after the WDRB’s “Sunday Edition” update to the story, The Paulick Report rushed into the fray of investigative reporting and launched a reprint with the headline: “Land Rush: Churchill Downs Buying Up Property Surrounding Racetrack”

The Paulick Report offered five paragraphs with not one sentence of new material. Not one. Not even a new quote from anyone in the neighborhood or a Churchill official.

By the way, Churchill Downs is located in Louisville – just about 60 miles west of Lexington – and if you can’t get an appointment, you can call their published number. Give it a try. The people there are very nice. They just might take your call.
But, all of that aside, let’s put all this real estate banter into real context. This week, Luke Broadwater, a “Contact Reporter,” (whatever that is?) for The Baltimore Sun wrote a story about the Park Heights neighborhood that surrounds the historic Pimlico Race Course – the current home of the Preakness Stakes. It was printed on May 13, just a week before the 142nd running of the Preakness.

Yet, that is where the comparisons of these two stories begin to fade dramatically. This is a far different tale of woe.

Broadwater writes:

“Cheo D. Hurley, (who is the director of the nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance and has been charged by the city with revitalizing Park Heights, a once-thriving community that has lost population for decades) stands here now, looking at a block of vacant row houses. He’ll be here next week to welcome the bow-tied fans, and he’ll be here when they depart. This block is the next step in his plan to remake one of Baltimore’s long-struggling communities.

“Soon, a developer working with Hurley’s organization will invest $16 million here to build new affordable housing — and there are more ambitious plans nearby.”

Broadwater continues:

“These are 50-plus years worth of problems we’re trying to tackle here,” Hurley says. “Laws that have been in place that have allowed this to happen. Policing tactics that have allowed these things to happen. Education tactics that have allowed these things to happen.

“You’re not going to turn it around overnight.”

True to form, two days after that story appeared in “The Baltimore Sun,” it popped up on – you guessed it – “The Paulick Report.” Another “staff report” that was a yet another “cut and paste job.”

But this time the headline in the hard-hitting, creative, “Paulick Report” reads:

“Pimlico ‘Renaissance’? Baltimore Officials Need to Make ‘A Real Commitment’ To Neighborhood Improvement”

You have got to be kidding me. More importantly, who is trying to kid whom here?

According to both reports now, Churchill Downs started reinvesting in its neighborhood development nearly 20 years ago – with a designed plan to add property; create easier traffic patterns and routes; develop safer, cleaner parking facilities; and to assist the surrounding area transition from a dated, older living community into a more vibrant business one.

Churchill Downs has, to date, invested millions and millions of dollars into this plan and has embarked on an aggressive pattern of buying property and redeveloping it for immediate purposes and future purposes.

And, guess what? It has worked. Papa Johns Stadium, a beautiful football facility that is home to the University of Louisville, was built just a couple of blocks away. On most Saturdays, the entire neighborhood comes alive with tail-gating, block parties and college football fever.

A new baseball stadium – where the University of Louisville’s highly-ranked Cardinals play — was constructed just across the street from a corner of Churchill Downs.

Thousands of fans and spectators now travel to the area adjacent to the famed Twin Spires, and have dinner and walk to the games. Restaurants have popped up. Bars have been opened. Parking lots now are full other than one weekend of the year.

Not far, new hotels are going in to accommodate these visitors. And, one new facility – only speculation here — may eventually be built on Churchill Downs’ property to give racing fans and visitors a hospitality experience that no other track offers in this country – an in-room look at the track and the races.

The famed Wagner’s Pharmacy, which has some of the best breakfast foods in the country, is now accessible and parking is free. But you had better come early or wait until late. It still gets so crowded Derby week that neither Billy Reed – the former award-winning sports columnist and one of my enduring friends – nor I can find a seat.

Millions of dollars of private investment have been poured into a neighborhood desperately in need of a facelift. It didn’t cost the citizens of Louisville; the Commonwealth of Kentucky; or the taxpayers of either a single penny.

And, instead of applause, Churchill Downs is accused of a “land grab?”

In Baltimore, on the other hand, the neighborhood surrounding Pimlico has fallen into such ill-repair that one of the track’s chief operating officers and spokespersons, Tim Ritvo, is quoted as saying:

“When we run the Preakness here we try to get everybody out before it gets too dark. I believe in rebuilding the race course with a longer commitment around what’s going to happen around the track. If you could have night events and shopping and a place where people can walk, eat and drink, that could be a success. But that has to come with city infrastructure and a real commitment.”

Where has Pimlico’s plan for reinvestment in the neighborhood been for the past 20 years? Did track management there have the foresight and commitment to spend money, time and resources to reinvigorate its’ surroundings? Did it spend millions in a “Land Rush?” Did Pimlico spend a few hundred thousand on an “Unprecedented Buying Bing?”

Maybe if Pimlico officials had developed the same plan as did Churchill Downs, say some 20 years ago, times would be different today and track officials may not be looking for an easy excuse to flip the historic property and run off to Laurel Race Track, which it also owns and operates about a half-hour down I-95 to the southwest of Baltimore.

Instead, Pimlico officials state: “…has to come with city infrastructure and a real commitment.”

Sounds like a threat; maybe a shake down. If not, certainly sounds like they are saying the city, state and taxpayers have to “pony up.” Yep, that pun was very much intended.

Back in the day, when I wrote for the real “Lexington Herald-Leader,” I got (or took?) the opportunity to drive to Louisville for an interview with Tom Meeker, at that time the new President of Churchill Downs.

On this day, Tom Meeker (whom I never considered a close associate) looked at a beautiful painting of Churchill Downs hanging on his office wall. And, he said something to this effect…

“I’m not here to paint another picture. We have a wonderful picture. I’m here to make sure the frame on that painting stays strong, sound and in good shape to hold that painting.”

I always remembered that. It was good copy. More importantly, Tom Meeker was right. Whether it was by his direction or decision, or his successors, Churchill Downs has been spending time, money and resources ensuring that the frame around the world’s most beautiful picture stays strong and healthy.

It is too bad that the owners of Pimlico haven’t had the same commitment to history; to restoration; to preservation.

It’s not the taxpayer’s bill to pay. It not Baltimore’s commitment that needs to be questioned here. It’s Pimlico’s.

And, it’s not “The Paulick Report’s” job to either defend, entice or solicit. I would ask “The Paulick Report” for a retort. But I would probably have to write it. So they could just “cut and paste.”

He broke really well out of the gate and put me in a good spot in the race. He broke and shot out of the gate and put me where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be too far back and I think it was a perfect ride for him. I was concerned a little bit in the last part of the race, especially around the last sixteenth. I think that my horse tried to hold back to force inside and we had some contact. They say he tried to intimidate my horse and that is why I couldn’t get past him. I wish it would’ve just been the two horses running straight in the race. We were the best two horses in the race. I just want to see who the better horse is.”

Javier Castellano, Bolt D'Oro Jockey and winner San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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