Cup in the Can - By Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the July 17, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

By Evan Hammonds 

By Evan HammondsThe focus of racing in Kentucky after the Fourth of July should have been on Ellis Park as the Henderson, Ky., track once dubbed the “Saratoga of the Midwest” opened its 27-day meeting July 10. However, news out of northern Kentucky July 7 turned our mood black in the Bluegrass.

Turfway Park announced it was requesting that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission drop four programs and all but one of its stakes from the upcoming September meet. Now, trimming race days from meet schedules and shaving money off stakes schedules are nothing new in 2010. However, Turfway’s request means an end to the Kentucky Cup program, and that should disturb anyone in the industry.

Since its inception in 1994, the Kentucky Cup has provided the best day of racing in the state between Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster day program in early June and Keeneland’s opening weekend stakes bonanza in early October.

It has delivered plenty of great performances for racing fans, and with its late-September date offered a solid springboard for horsemen to the Breeders’ Cup Championships. Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III) winners who went on to make names for themselves include classic winners and/or champions Editor’s Note, Boston Harbor, Point Given, and Vindication. Reraise and Cajun Beat both won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) after tasting success in the Kentucky Cup Sprint (gr. III). Silver Charm, Cat Thief, Roses in May, and Hard Spun used victories in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II) to either win or run second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Last year’s Kentucky Cup Classic winner, Furthest Land, landed the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I).

Two of the Kentucky Cup races were cut last year—the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies—but gone in 2010 will be the nine-furlong Kentucky Cup Classic, the Distaff (gr. III), and the Sprint.

The loss of the Kentucky Cup, along with the prospect of a slots parlor across the Ohio River at River Downs and a casino in downtown Cincinnati, may not put the final nail in Turfway Park’s coffin, but there is a guy out there walking around with a hammer.

Cutting such a successful program in the self-professed “Horse Capital of the World” is what makes the announcement so troubling. Questions abound. What does it say about the viability of our sport if it can’t support itself in the largest metropolitan market near the heart of the nation’s Thoroughbred breeding industry? With Keeneland and casino giant Harrah’s having part ownership of Turfway, hasn’t their expertise been able to help? Is a year-round racing circuit in Kentucky still viable?

While it can’t offer the charm of Keeneland or the Derby’s pomp, Turfway Park remains the lynchpin to the state’s year-round circuit, with the September meet being the run-up to Keeneland and its December-March stand filling out the winter months.

“We’re a blue-collar track serving blue-collar horsemen,” said Robert Elliston, Turfway’s president. “The other blue-collar tracks in the area: Penn National, Philly Park, the tracks in West Virginia, all offer more money but also have supplements (from other sources of gaming).”

The future of “blue-collar” racing in Kentucky is still viable, according to Elliston, but “absent alternative gaming, it’ll be on a far, far reduced schedule.”

Turfway reduced its racing in January and February to three days a week and did OK. In March it ran a four-day slate and “got killed.” Field size, a key component for a track to succeed, has been tough to maintain at Turfway. One factor is that maiden special weights run for $21,000 at Turfway but for $42,000 only a van ride away at Indiana Downs.

Simulcast wagering at Turfway during the spring and summer has been soft. That trend is not uncommon as simulcast wagering on Thoroughbreds is off some 11% nationally, according to Elliston. Today’s shaky economy is shrinking all gambling coffers. Casinos in Atlantic City recently reported an 11% drop in June for year-over-year revenue.

But as black as things may seem, all may not be lost…just yet. While alternative gaming in Kentucky has failed to gain any traction after a decade of cajoling and lobbying, Elliston believes the state’s leaders in Frankfort haven’t turned a deaf ear to the industry. That’s good news, if true, because the time is now to find an alternative that works.

Frankfort, we’re listening. 

Evan I. Hammonds, Executive Editor

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