I have been wanting to write this blog post for a couple weeks now because I wanted to tell everyone how incredible the people are at Kentucky Downs. We met so many good people over the the course of the meet. We first met C.J. Johnsen the weekend before the meet started. He is the Director of Broadcasting and Interstate Wagering. He was incredible! It was a Sunday and he was so busy putting out fires (not literally) that resulted from a water main break at Ellis Park. It was bad enough to cancel racing and the OTB for the day but he still made time for a couple guys (us) from Call2Post that he had never met before. He spoke with us like he knew us forever. It was such a pleasant conversation and we never felt like he was rushing to leave to get back to his busy morning. He is a true professional. Our audio and video didn't turn out that great because of the wind so I decided to transcribe the conversation the best I could. We covered a wide variety of topics during our conversation and I think you will find the next two pages rather interesting.
C.J. Johnsen Interview Transcript
Kraig (Call2Post): We are here with CJ at Kentucky Downs. CJ, what is your position at Kentucky Downs?
CJ (KY Downs): I am the Director of Broadcasting and Interstate Wagering.
Kraig: How long have you been involved in horse racing?
CJ: I pretty much grew up around the track. I was born in Bossier City, LA. They let me call some training races when I was 4 years old at Louisiana Downs. Then we moved to Oklahoma City and grew up around Remington and then finally Dallas, Lone Star Park. That is where I currently live but I have been working here (Kentucky Downs) since 2012.
Kraig: Awesome. What is your greatest live horse racing memory?
CJ: Wow. I know this is more recent, but when Beholder beat Song Bird. Look, I am 35 so I haven’t gotten the opportunity to see some great races. I know the history of the game but I wasn’t there live for a lot of things. I will say, Songbird and Beholder, just because of that stretch run and I was actually at Ghostzappers Classic win at Lone Star Park and that was one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen, I mean that horse was amazing.
Kraig: Switching gears now to more at the track…How long does it take to get the track prepared for live racing?
CJ: It is pretty much a year round deal. It is kinda like your lawn at certain seasons you have to put pre-emergent down and different fertilizers and all that kind of stuff but once it starts getting warm here is when we really start focusing on it and previous to this ownership the track was not in the best condition. It really was just a field, no one did much to it, it kinda just got mowed. Over the last 5 or 6 years we have really put a lot of money into the track just trying to make sure all the grass is perfect and eliminating some holes, well not holes, but spots that would dip a little bit and things like that. Working on the surface to make it more fair surface because it was really hard in the past but we have done a great job aerating and doing all that kind of stuff to soften it up.
Kraig: What are you looking forward to in this meet?
CJ: Really the growth of our pool sizes. Its such a tremendous wagering value. We keep increasing and going up in handle and I just lowered the Pick 4 takeout to 14% and I think that will help us get a jump. You know our Pick 4’s are doing nice and if you want to talk about multi-race wagering it is my favorite. Sometimes Pick 3’s are a little hard to get a price and Pick 5’s are tough so I like playing Pick 4’s and the drop in take-out will definitely help. When people see those pool sizes they will recognize and want to play more and I know the idiosyncrasy of the track will keep people away but if you just follow it closely and take good notes…it is not an easy track to play but it is an easy track to get a price and I think that wagering value is second to none really.
Kraig: In your opinion, what does horse racing need to do to get people our age (30-40) involved and keep these people?
CJ: As you know there are so many different issues with it, it is a very intimidating sport. It is not like a slot machine where you just put your money in and push a button. There are so many little details. I almost feel the more I know the worse off I am because I second guess myself. I think a lot of tracks do a great job…it is fan education. I know the sport lives and dies by the horsemen and gamblers but we need to get those $2 bettors in here. There not going to help us out now and you are not going to see a huge return on your investment if you are a track but these $2 bettors are going to be the ones that are going to have disposable income in 10 years and are going to come and play a significant amount. I think obviously take-out is a big thing and the more casual player doesn’t understand that and that is fine but churn with the big players is a big part of it. So you lower your takeout to a reasonable amount, and I am not saying our (Kentucky Downs) takeout is going to work for everyone, and I have said that a lot. We run for five days and this is a special deal, it might not work for Keeneland and I get that…it is a business. People really rip the food trucks and festivals and all that and I get it, but I applaud those tracks for doing that kind of stuff. It is going to get people out here that have never laid a dollar down. I try to take friends to the track as much as I can and teach them and sit down with them. Fan education is first, it is a big thing. We have had success in the past doing paddock tours. Taking them into see horses up close and they are like “wow this is gorgeous”. “I never knew”…”I had no idea”, that is what I hear the most. If we can just get it out there to them that it is a tough game but you can still make money playing the easy way I guess. So the biggest things are: fan education and getting the casual fans out there.
Kraig: What do you think about the tailgating? I don’t think people realize that you can come out and tailgate and have horse racing going on at the same time. You can come out in a controlled area and enjoy the day and the horse racing and see a whole other side of it.
CJ: Yeah. You can kinda tell at the top of the stretch we allow tailgating now and it is free. You can pull your truck right up to the rail and bring a tent, bring a grill, bring a cooler…whatever you want. I don’t know of any other track in the state that you can do that.
Kraig: Yeah. I read that online and I was really looking forward to it.
CJ: It is pretty cool. You will see a lot of tents popping up down there.
Kraig: Your favorite bet. That is what we like to end out interviews with but you already answered that (Pick 4) so I have one last question. You are an owner at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby and your horse is coming around the clubhouse turn into the stretch…who is on your horse?
CJ: Okay, so this is going to sound crazy and we actually just ran two at Del Mar over the last two weeks…its a tie. First, Mike Smith, obviously we are friends with him and he has ridden our horses. He rides in the big races. Second, Drayden Van Dyke, the kid is my favorite. He such a nice kid. He is humble and he listens to you when you give him instructions. He never takes a race off and I have been saying it for years how great he is going to be. We finally saw it last Sunday at Del Mar. Again, he is such a humble kid and he is smart. He works his butt off. He used to gallop for Proctor and he would gallop our horses and when Gary (Stevens) got hurt he started taking over some of those mounts. Proctor would have him in the barns in the morning cleaning out stalls and all that. He worked his way from nothing and he deserves everything that he is getting right now. I am so happy for him. I can’t say it enough…he is such a nice kid.
Kraig: CJ thanks for your time and thanks for everything and we really really appreciate it.
CJ: No problem. Thanks for coming out.
I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as we did. That was just the beginning of our unbelievable experience at Kentucky Downs. Stay Tuned for Part 2.