It was all gloom doom when the Churchill Downs fall meet ended in late November, and Kentucky racing moved north to Turfway Park. Winter racing can be unpleasant at times in Northern Kentucky, and the current state of the Kentucky racing industry only makes it worse.
So how bad is it? That depends on your outlook.
On opening day, a Sunday, a nine-race card generated $2.8 million in total handle, up 28% from the same program in 2008. One day doesn't make a meet, but on Sunday, Dec. 13, with Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots having to cancel because of near-flood conditions, Turfway handle was strong again. Almost $300,000 was bet on a 12-horse field competing for $6,600.
Through the first 11 days of the meet, field size is averaging more than 10 horses per race despite a five-day racing week and average daily purses of $111,000. So as bad as things have gotten around here, there's still demand.
"I've heard it said before--there are generations of people that continue to be involved in this business," Turfway president Bob Elliston said during a recent interview. "I recognize that here through the generations of families on the frontside and backside. It really hit home after the special (legislative) session in June. The day after, we had a rally at Keeneland. I thought it was a bad idea, but it became a defining point the industry launched from.
"Because of that, we became absolutely focused on what we have to do, and decided this is worth all the effort. That's what happens here every single day."
History can be selective. Yes, the quality of racing at Turfway has suffered, but the four months of cold-weather racing have always been largely supported by cheaper horses. And $300,000 a night in purses should gaming legislation pass isn't going to change that dramatically. What the money would do, however, is offer the track a chance to present a more balanced program and lure more horses to the state, which would help the local economy.
This is the time of year when the locals that call Kentucky home year-round and don't have the stock to ship south make their buck. Those $7,000 purses are too small for Kentucky, but they pay the bills. And right now, every bit helps.
One Kentucky trainer told me there will always be a place for the cheaper horse, and there's no reason to doubt him. That's how it has been for a hundred years. Slots don't create a magic wand that waves and eliminates $5,000 claimers. Tracks may raise their minimum claiming prices, but the horses are still $5,000 claimers.
With slots, the weather will still stink, racing days will be lost, and the racing surface won't always perform to the liking of horsemen. Ain't gonna change. But what will change is the one thing currently missing: Money, and with it a chance to bolster the financial foundation of an industry.
If the December meet numbers hold up, purses in January could average $150,000 a day because of a three-day-a-week racing schedule. Reduced racing schedules can actually help racing programs, but the bottom line is fewer opportunities for paychecks for all involved in putting on the show.
The lousy economy does have a plus if your a racing fan or horseman. Elliston noted the ground on which Turfway sits isn't worth as much as it was even a few years ago, so "I don't think there is anything else we can do with it right now."
So if you support Kentucky racing year-round, just be glad the joint is open and the fields are full. And who knows? Maybe by next Christmas, more money will be on the way.