02/21/2013 3:08PM

Q&A: Churchill's John Asher talks Kentucky Derby preps

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Churchill Downs

The vice president for racing communications at Churchill Downs, John Asher has in many ways become the face of Churchill and the Kentucky Derby, serving as a media-relations liaison primarily for the track’s racing and communications departments. He has worked for Churchill for 16 years, and before that he worked in radio, winning five Eclipse Awards from 1989-95 for radio presentation.

Age: 57

Residence: Louisville, Ky.

Family: wife, Dee; daughters Heather, Erin, Emma

Briefly describe the many Churchill hats you wear: Let’s just say my office door is open. Whatever department needs me in some way, I’m there. My fingerprints are all over just about every department as a spokesperson and communications strategist.

The new Derby points system – who thought it up and what was the most compelling reason for it being implemented? It’s something we’ve been seriously discussing for maybe five or six years. I think when you saw the explosion of the prep-race purses with some of the gaming revenue, it was really skewing our previous system based on graded earnings. Whether right or wrong, we saw trouble in that down the road. I can’t point to one person in particular who pushed this through. Being a group, not everyone agreed on every facet of it by any means. But we’re happy so far with the system we came up with. We know there could be some tweaking as we go on.

I love the Kentucky Derby more than anything besides my family, and I strongly believe this was the right thing to do. It’s like Seth Godin says: “Change almost never fails because it came too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.” We felt the timing was right for the new points system.

To how many pre-Derby ranking systems do you contribute and who is your No. 1 horse right now? I’m in three polls. I’m also always helping put together the lineups for the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. I’ve got Shanghai Bobby on top until he proves he can’t do it, but right now it looks like a pretty indecipherable year.

Where do you watch all the Derby preps? I watch a lot online because I’m usually involved with my daughters on the weekend. Twitter and the Web are invaluable. Every Derby pool I filed this year was on an iPhone. Last week for the Courier-Journal, I was in a car being driven down Interstate 65 by my daughter when I sent it in.

Your self-deprecation in regard to your Derby picks has become a source of amusement for yourself and others: It’s not self-deprecation – it’s public record. (Laughs) The last winner I had was Street Sense (2007), and the one before that was Ferdinand (1986). It’s not that easy. I’ve stopped some great horses by picking them: Point Given, Afleet Alex, Empire Maker, quite a few others. I’m actually in awe of people who pick the winner as often as they do.

When will we see an expanded roster of Future Wager horses from the current 24 betting interests? My fondest dream is to expand that roster. I think 40 might strike a nice balance. The main problem is it’s still a hardware issue. Most OTBs and other outlets can’t handle more than 24 interests. The bottom line is, it’s a business issue where expanding the roster does not justify the size of the investment. If you look at the online possibilities, sure, you could do anything you wanted. This is a major point of discussion every year.

Churchill as the muscle-flexing corporate giant − surely you recognize it from both sides. Your bosses, of course, want the company to maximize profits and enhance its future viability, whereas fans and horsemen often complain about the company forgetting the little guy: I think that’s a fair assessment of what some of the public thinks we’re about, but I honestly believe our corporation and the fans and horsemen are closer in our goals than each might believe. There is a perception that Churchill doesn’t care for racing, and it’s just not true. Yes, we are caretakers of a publicly held company, and it is our job to make it thrive and therefore, I would argue, to make the Derby and racing thrive, too. The company has made some real inroads and done some very imaginative things. It’s a little like in the movie “Moneyball,” where Billy Beane says, “Adapt or die.” We’re adapting, and we’re not dying by any stretch of the imagination. It’s our duty to make this company thrive for the next 139 years and beyond.

You’re known for your golden voice. When did you realize you could put it to optimum use? When I was a kid growing up on my grandmother’s farm, we had bad fences and one horse that pulled a plow. I was the quietest kid in the world, but I loved radio, and I’d listen to it deep into the night – WHAS in Louisville, WLS in Chicago. It was always easier for me to write, and when I found out if I didn’t have to look anybody in the eye, it was easier for me to speak. That’s how it all started. I knew radio was what I wanted to do, and having the voice was a lucky thing.

Where do you have your Eclipse Awards? In my living room at home in a glass case. They’re still very special to me, but greater than the awards was the experience of doing those stories. I do miss the part of the business where you put those great stories together.

Several years ago, arguably the most coveted job in local radio came open as morning anchor at WHAS (840-AM), and you turned it down: I did have that opportunity a couple of times, and honestly, I accepted it the second time. But the moment I said yes, I felt like my closest friend had died, and it kept getting worse. One day I was driving over from the infield, and I stopped the car, looked out at the twin spires, and said, “Can I give this up now?” And the answer was no. So I called them at WHAS and apologized and said I just couldn’t do it right now. Since then, staying at Churchill has been like Secretariat in the Belmont – it’s been that good.

About how many speaking engagements and media interviews do you handle per year? Dozens, I’d guess. I don’t say no very often. Anytime anybody wants to talk about Churchill Downs or the Derby or racing, I do my best to get there. It’s usually a great opportunity for the company and for the Derby.

Your picks for the Derby preps this weekend? I have bad news for Violence – I’m picking him in the Fountain of Youth. I’m really very intrigued with Proud Strike for Steve Asmussen in the Risen Star. He came out of a really good Churchill maiden race. By the way, I’m also rooting for Titletown Five to get a chance to make the Derby for Wayne Lukas and Paul Hornung.

Your all-time favorite Derby story? Ferdinand is still easily my favorite. Not because I picked him, but because of Charlie Whittingham, Bill Shoemaker, the horse, and his pedigree – every nuance of that great story. Eddie Gregson once told me that Charlie confessed to him that he had no recollection of how he got from his seat to the winner’s circle. That says a lot right there.

Trainer Phil Thomas Jr. likes to say every year during Derby week: “It’s going to be a great Derby – but which one isn’t?” You agree? I do. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s just such an unknown, even when the result is somewhat expected with a Fusaichi Pegasus or a Big Brown. It’s a truly magical event in every possible way.