(Originally published in the April 17, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Purses at Keeneland are among the highest in the country, and the Central Kentucky track offers a wide array of graded stakes during its 16-day spring stand that sets the table for Derby week at Churchill Downs. This past weekend Keeneland drew a remarkable number of fans while offering six graded stakes including three grade Is, but the average field size in the stakes events was down by a full horse compared
to a year ago.
And it’s not just the stakes races where Keeneland is coming up light. Racing secretary Ben Huffman said the track’s barn area has about 100 fewer horses than a year ago. With the timing of the meet and its location, one would think it would be the ultimate draw.
An underlying factor at the Keeneland meeting involves the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority and the licensing of backstretch workers in the state. According to Lisa Underwood, the executive director of the state’s commission, in reviewing its licensing policy for 2010, it was determined by counsel the state needed to be more stringent in determining that applicants were indeed who they said they were.
To receive a license in Kentucky, one is required to present two forms of identification. Previously, a current license from another state—say, Louisiana or Florida—was allowed as one form of ID, but not this year.
That caused some concern among horsemen, and as word spread, many out-of-state trainers didn’t even bother to slow down, much less stop, at Keeneland as their vans headed north from winter racing scenes. Many of the top outfits that did ship to Keeneland and Churchill Downs sent sizably smaller strings; hence the limited action of out-of-state talent at the entry box.
Upon further review toward the end of April’s first week, the KHRA determined the issue required a resolution from the federal government rather than from Frankfort, Ky., and April 9 the agency went back to accepting out-of-state licenses as one form of identification. That resulted in a long, snaking line of eager applicants outside the racing office at Keeneland—the floodgates had been opened.
While the damage had been done for the first third of the Keeneland meet, it certainly brings a sigh of relief in the Churchill Downs racing office for Derby weekend.
We admit we can’t profess to know enough to solve the nation’s problems with immigration, but looking at it in the microcosm of our little world of Thoroughbred racing, all we can ask for is consistency. There is a laundry list of issues—medication being at the forefront—that has inconsistent regulations from state to state.
For the survival of the game, at any level, can’t we all just get along?
Already at Keeneland this spring were variables beyond regulatory control: Cooler weather in Florida has kept some horsemen there, and a longer Fair Grounds meet with its best stakes card that included the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) was moved to closing weekend.
Purses, more visibly stakes purses, in Kentucky and elsewhere, have not kept pace with expenses. A big chunk of the cost of training, and running, at the graded-stakes level is shipping from one venue to another.
Shipping companies—be it national or international—have seen a downturn in business. Greg Otteson of the H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Co. notes business is off some 20% from two years ago.
“It’s a squeeze play; as the economy has gotten tighter, everybody has tightened up,” Otteson said. “It’s typical of what is going on in Middle America. I guess we all have to settle for less.”
Kentucky’s state legislators have turned their backs on pleas to help the racing and breeding industry in the state via alternative gaming and have now responded with a proposed 1.5% tax on advance deposit wagering bets.
The recent clamp-down on licensing was yet another roadblock. We shouldn’t have to settle for less at a place such as Keeneland.
Evan I. Hammonds is the Digital Media Editor for The Blood-Horse.