Hey, Kentucky: Think Before You Act

One would think a state whose racing and breeding industry is struggling to regain its footing wouldn't be involved in a battle over racing dates, but such is the case in Kentucky. This one is hard to figure out, particularly given what's at stake: a viable, organized year-round Thoroughbred racing circuit that accommodates horses–and their owners and trainers–at all levels of the business in a state that needs a balanced program.

A recent Kentucky Horse Racing Commission subcommittee meeting revealed multiple conflicts and an apparent lack of communication. It was no secret Churchill Downs was eyeing the September dates long held by Turfway Park, but Ellis Park seeking an earlier opening and Kentucky Downs applying for late March dates came as mild surprises.

Turfway's racing product probably wouldn't be an issue this year had the track's owners moved forward with Instant Racing last year despite an outstanding legal challenge. The revenue certainly wouldn't have had the impact it had on Kentucky Downs, which did move forward with Instant Racing, but as some horsemen have said, even $30,000 maiden special weight races would make a big difference at Turfway.

Caesars Entertainment, majority owner of Turfway, unfortunately is under no obligation to do anything with Instant Racing. But if the KHRC is going to call out Turfway for inaction, it should do the same for Churchill, Keeneland, and The Red Mile, which also have no intention of moving forward until the legal issue is resolved.

The industry is now paying for its lack of a strategic plan regarding Instant Racing and the resulting purse revenue.

Perhaps the KHRC didn't do its due diligence when it approved the sale of most of Keeneland's share in Turfway to a Caesars partnership. Caesars Entertainment has a $20 billion debt load and a keen interest in protecting its Ohio gaming investments, which should have sent a message to racing commissioners.

If racing regulators haven't figured out after 20 years most gaming companies don't have racing's best interests at heart, shame on them. Look no further than neighboring Ohio, where Pinnacle Entertainment has floated a plan to demolish the grandstand at picturesque River Downs to build a VLT casino with racing, and even proposed to remove the turf course and one-mile dirt track to install a seven-furlong dirt track as part of the project.

Horsemen have balked about the racing surface plans, and the Ohio State Racing Commission is said to be in opposition as well.

After a disastrous start to its September meet because of short fields and short programs, Turfway somehow rebounded to end the session with an average field size of 8 horses per race. All sources pari-mutuel handle was down 24.6%, in large part because the Kentucky Cup Day of Champions was canceled this year for lack of purse money.

With average daily purses of about $96,000 in September, things clearly aren't good at Turfway, and the owners should take a lot of the blame. But to believe 12 days in September at Churchill is some sort of magic elixir is folly.

(It should be noted the KHRC played a role in Turfway's purse woes when it allowed Ellis Park to shutter its full-card simulcasting operation during the fall and winter months for two consecutive years. Turfway officials earlier this year estimated a loss of about $400,000 in purse revenue each of the two years because of that decision.)

Average daily purses of $200,000-$250,000 a day sound great, but average daily purses of $540,000 during Churchill's spring meet haven't done much beyond Kentucky Derby week and other major stakes weekends. Field size this spring averaged 7.74 horses per race, and the track had major problems filling more modest races despite good purses.

Why would September be any different? And what is the long-term gain?

Churchill would be better off improving its post-Derby spring meet rather than worrying about 12 days in September. And after the very strong meet Kentucky Downs had this year, damaging it a year later with more competition would be foolish.

If Turfway management is serious when it says losing September dates and the accompanying host track revenue–probably the most lucrative part of this equation–would damage its live meet from December through March, the KHRC should take note. Does it want to eventually trade 80 days of live racing for 12?

No other track in Kentucky is capable of accommodating winter Thoroughbred racing. So Kentucky may have to decide how much it values its year-round circuit.

Depending on who you talk to, a pro-Churchill vote on racing dates is said to be a done deal. But hopefully the KHRC will put more thought into this vote than it did for the done-deal race-day Salix phase-out vote earlier this year.

That regulation, according to sources, is now on the back burner indefinitely, but not before leading to chaos that nearly derailed a no-brainer medication reform bill.

The point is this: Think before you act, and make sure you have the best long-term interests of the industry at heart.

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