Churchill Downs Must Bolster Pay, Union Says, or Risk Derby Week Disruption

Posted on: April 24, 2021, 07:18h. 

Last updated on: April 25, 2021, 04:23h.

A contract impasse between Churchill Downs and more than a dozen workers who help prepare jockeys and horses for races threatens Kentucky Derby week preparations. On Saturday, union members protested outside of Churchill Downs on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Churchill Downs Valet
Members of SEIU Local 541 and other unions stood outside of Churchill Downs on Saturday. They called for the Louisville company to continue bargaining talks with the union representing valets that work at the company’s flagship racetrack. (Image: SEIU Local 541)

Officials with Service Employees International Union Local 541 said in a statement that the impasse could lead to a “major disruption” during Kentucky Derby week. That’s especially since Churchill Downs made its final offer last week.

A valet, pronounced with a hard ‘t,’ is responsible for saddling horses before each race, including putting the correct weights in saddle pockets. They also get the jockeys’ silks ready before each race and take care of the equipment for the jockeys and horses between races.

The contract between Churchill Downs and the local expired last October, meaning valets worked last year’s fall meet without a labor agreement. Saturday starts the beginning of the track’s spring meet, which runs through June 26.

The valets also have worked without a contract at Churchill Downs-owned Turfway Park, where the collective bargaining agreement at the Florence, Ky., track ended more than a year ago. Churchill Downs Inc. bought Turfway from JACK Entertainment in October 2019.

SEIU Wants Same Pay at Churchill Downs, Turfway

Under the old contracts, the valets earned $109 a day at Churchill Downs and $16.77 an hour at Turfway, where the rate has been in place since 2008. The workers also get $10.75 a day toward their pension at Churchill, and they receive $5 per day at Turfway, a benefit the union said has not changed in 22 years.

The union wants valets to earn $120 a day at both tracks, retroactive to last year, with $5 per day increases the next two years. Churchill management has countered with the rate staying the same at the Louisville track this year and increasing to $115 and $120 in subsequent years. At Turfway, company officials have proposed 25-cent increases for each year, meaning the third-year hourly rate would be $17.52 an hour.

On pensions, SEIU members want a 25-cent per day increase for each year, meaning in the third year, the track would contribute $11.50 per day to each worker’s pension fund. At Turfway, they want the pension contribution to double in the first year to $10 per day, with 75-cent increases in the following years, which would then make them level with the Churchill Downs contribution.

Churchill Downs has proposed no changes to the pension fund at either track.

The valets also want staffing guarantees of 13 per race day. In addition, they want 20 for the Breeders’ Cup and about 24 for the Derby.

Valets work 70 days during the year at Churchill Downs and 50 at Turfway. They also work at other tracks during the year, but they must pay for their own travel and lodging.

Valets’ Union: Anything’s Possible

David O’Brien Suetholz, a lawyer representing the union, said that the members are keeping their options open.

We’ve been clear the valets are going to work tonight, but we’re keeping our powder dry,” he told

After Saturday, racing resumes at the track on Tuesday. The Kentucky Derby will run next Saturday.

Late Wednesday, Churchill Downs Inc. announced its first-quarter results for 2021. The company reported net revenues of $324.3 million and net income of $36.1 million from the racetracks, casinos, and online platforms it owns and operates.

Union leaders noted the margin in pay between CEO Bill Carstanjen and the median salary of other full-time workers at the track was more than 400-to-1 last year.

“The regular valets who ensure safe and fair races at Churchill Downs’ racetracks contribute mightily to the company’s billion-dollar success,” SEIU Local 541 said in a statement to “They deserve job security and a wage that is at least $20 per hour.  When the company can pay $10 million for its CEO, it can pay the men who properly saddle the horses a just wage.”

A message to Churchill Downs Inc. seeking comment Saturday afternoon was not immediately returned.