Churchill Downs Lets It Ride on IT

Churchill Downs has been transformed from a multi-million dollar institution with essentially no IT department and a data center located beneath a leaky water main, to a facility with a completely rebuilt IT infrastructure boasting handheld betting device

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When Queen Elizabeth II lands here on May 5 to see the Kentucky Derby for the first time, one of the things shell be able to do is bet on her favorite steed from the comfort of the royal box, using a handheld betting device. There will be no need for Her Majesty, or for her attendants, to find a betting window where she can plunk down two bucks on a horse with a good chance to show.

The reason is that Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of the race track and the Kentucky Derby, has found new life for an old sport through a dramatic upgrade of its IT infrastructure. The person responsible, Vice President of Information Technology Jay Rollins, decided when he was hired three years ago that if CDI were to break out of its stagnant situation, he needed to start from square one. As a result of his rebuilding of the IT infrastructure, the company has reduced costs, improved revenue, upgraded the user experience and helped bring more fun into horse racing.

Rollins said that when he came to Churchill Downs in June of 2004, he found an IT disaster waiting to happen. "We had a data center in a room beneath a leaky water main," he said. He told eWEEK that what passed for IT was mainly a help desk that had the job of reacting to problems when people had them. He also said that in the past, computers and applications were purchased without planning or coordination, that the wide area network was being run by the facilities department, and that there was no strategy for growth or improvement. Like this, he said, Churchill Downs resembled most other horse racing tracks.

"Most race tracks are cost bound and think short term," Rollins said. "Most believe their vendors, but dont have any follow up," he said, noting that most do not have qualified IT leadership. After he arrived at Churchill Downs the lack of leadership became obvious, he said. "They had multiple IT organizations, a lack of systems predictability, security, availability or standards," he said.

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"CRM was a separate organization," Rollins said, "they had multiple vendors, they paid retail for everything, many vendors were industry-specific, and there were many single points of failure." Rollins noted that industry-specific vendors are common in the horse racing industry because many applications were created by people within the industry to address a specific need, then never maintained or updated, and usually had no service or upgrade path.

Shaking the Foundations

The first thing Rollins did was initiate an IT audit. "We had to change the reputation of IT," he said. "We had a real thing to overcome from the user community." Rollins said that his next task was to get management on board. He said that when the results of the IT audit were in, "it was scary." He said the need to comply with the requirements of Sarbanes–Oxley was what finally convinced the board that an IT overhaul was necessary.


The next step, according to Rollins was to take a close look at the IT departments as they existed at the time. "A lot of the technology was still in the 80s," he said. In addition to looking at the infrastructure, such as it was, he looked at everything else, including the members of the department. "The next step was to look at the IT skill set," he said. Then he set out to understand the financial drivers and how the business affected them. Rollins said he came from outside horse racing, and as a result, it was vital that he understand the money flow, the dynamics of the industry and of his company.

One of the key events that convinced him that change was necessary was when the financial system crashed six weeks after he arrived, and nobody complained. "They werent using it," he said. Rollins said that hard disks on the server crashed, and when he returned from vacation to find this, he also found that the backup system the previous IT department was using wasnt compatible with the financial system, so that there were no backups.

Then, he took action. "I fired everyone," he said. Rollins pointed out that most of the IT staff lacked even the basic skill sets necessary to help run a professional IT department, and most of the vendors werent delivering what he needed. At the same time he developed his IT strategy. "I did a lot of root-cause analysis," he said. He looked at information capture as well, then he selected a new vendor to help implement the IT structure at Churchill Downs, and new equipment vendors.

"I wanted one vendor for PCs and laptops, and one vendor for the network equipment," he said. He also chose a systems integrator. Once that was done, he started implementing basic IT functions that were lacking when he got there. Rollins noted that there had never been a trouble or repair ticket system, so there was no means of tracking or following up on problems.

Rollins said that he wanted a network infrastructure that was well known and well supported in the Louisville area, and that also had the capabilities he needed. Because of this, he chose Cisco for the network, and for the systems integration. is based in Paoli, Ind., but has major offices in Louisville. He said that he chose Dell for the PCs and laptops.

Once he had a strategy and a systems integrator, he started work. "We built out the first year," he said, "we replaced any computer more than three years old." One of the goals hed had when he started the process was to add wireless access for use by the fans watching the races. "The board said they wanted people to be able to check stock prices while they watched the races," Rollins said.

But Rollins decided to go a lot farther.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...