Undercover Boss Blows the Horn

churchill downsThe toughest, most excruciating part of William C. Carstanjen's ten-day stint as an Undercover Boss at Churchill Downs didn't involve mucking horse stalls or cleaning bathrooms. As a matter, of fact, for this particular job, he was able to keep his hands relatively clean. The chief operating officer of one of the most famous racing empires in the world says that playing the bugle to start the races is by far one of the most difficult things he's ever done.

"I had to go out there in the red jacket and tight pants to play the bugle in front of 10,000 people," Carstanjen says. "I'd had instruction, of course, but it reminded me of when I was in sixth grade taking recorder lessons. I really did much worse than I ever thought I would, and my face was as red as my jacket."

He was actually relieved to join the night-time cleaning crew scrubbing urinals later that same day. "I'd done janitorial work in college, so at least I knew what I was doing there," Carstanjen says.

churchill downsWhile Carstanjen says he loves Thoroughbreds, he wasn't raised on a farm and is not exactly at ease in an equine environment. "Thoroughbreds are incredibly powerful. Anyone who has seen a horse loose on a back stretch knows what a handful they can be. I'm not afraid of horses, but let's just say I'm deeply respectful of them." He also became deeply respectful of the trainers -- he discovered that even washing and feeding the horses takes a degree of skill and savvy that he did not posses.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Who knew that being a jockey valet could be such an intense job? Most people don't even know that position exists, but, as Carstanjen came to realize, they help keep the races running. "I'd never spent much time in the jockeys' quarters before, and found out that a jockey valet can actually be responsible for invalidating a race." The valets do much more than bring jockeys iced tea. They make sure the riders wear the right silks and that the weights are correctly loaded on the saddle, in multiple races every race day. Sometimes they have only a few moments to prepare the jockey for the next race. Most intimidating of all, a horse can be disqualified if the valet doesn't get these jobs right.

It was while serving as a jockey valet that Carstanjen was actually moved to tears. The valet who trained him had a photo of his daughter attached to the clip board, and told Carstanjen that his 20-year-old daughter, who aspired to be a jockey, had recently passed away. The valet now worked in her memory.

"The experience was a powerful reminder to me that employees are more than just the tasks they do," Carstanjen confessed. "They all have challenges and complicated lives, and work can be an emotional experience for them; it's more than just getting a task done. It's important to find their passion in order to know them, understand their needs and motivate them."

The Thoroughbred racing industry in general has its share of complications and challenges. It has suffered with the economy-when discretionary income goes down, so does money spent on entertainment. Also, the rise of the casino industry has made a dent in racing's revenue, according to Carstanjen. "Customers come to the Kentucky Derby for the spectacle, but that's a one-day event," he says, noting that those who visit his company's other race tracks often go for the betting.

Each episode of Undercover Boss finishes with the big reveal, in which employees discover they've been working with the boss, and the boss attempts to meet their specific needs. In this case, rather than handing out cash or scholarships, as bosses have done in the past, Carstanjen bestowed raises, promotions, better and more convenient job--he even stepped up employee security. In the case of the jockey valet, he named memorial race at the track after his beloved daughter, extending her love and memory to thousands.

Oddly enough, when Carstanjen started his own career, he never dreamed he'd be working with horses and the people who love them. He went to UC Berkeley and then law school at Columbia University in New York before practicing law at a big firm. He worked for a time doing legal work for GE and was then recruited to move to Kentucky to take the reins at the Churchill Downs organization, whose namesake Louisville racetrack hosts the Kentucky Derby every year. But that's only a fraction, albeit the most high-profile part, of the company's business. In addition to Churchill Downs, they own three more racetracks across the country, including one in Chicago and one in Miami. It's a larger empire than meets the eye, and it's ever expanding.

Carstanjen says that there are job opportunities at every level with Churchill Downs. The company hires everyone from white collar workers like lawyers and finance experts to maintenance and operations people, mechanics and trainers. "Our tracks are 150-to-200-acre worlds with all sorts of activity," Carstanjen says. "In addition to expertise, the one thing our employees seem to have in common is a passion for the Thoroughbred racing industry," he adds. "And there's plenty of room for all different types," even for a corporate attorney who can't play the bugle.

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