After the Thrill Is Gone - By Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the April 14, 2012 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 Hammonds April is a magical time in Kentucky. Keeneland’s spring meet dawns to azure skies with temperatures in the mid-60s. Central Kentucky locals flock to the big oval with daily crowds of 20,000-plus for opening weekend. The Lexington Herald-Leader splashes colorful front-page photos of young co-eds in the latest fashions. Churchill Downs’ big fling is just weeks away.
Clearly the perception—even among Kentucky’s elected officials—is that all is right with the Thoroughbred world in the heart of the Bluegrass.

As its annual session comes to a close April 12, the legislature has once again failed to move the needle on any meaningful legislation on casino gaming that could help our racetracks level the playing field with those in surrounding states and racetracks in competitive markets to the northeast.

The purse structures in Pennsylvania and now New York—where the new Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct is pumping millions into purses and breeders incentives—are, quite frankly, eating Kentucky’s lunch.

Keeneland is able to keep its purses up because it runs two 16-day boutique meets and has a sales company to help buoy prize money. Churchill Downs’ purses are top-drawer for its run-up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and for a few weeks after…but what will happen after the thrill is gone?

The bread-and-butter meets that drive the industry throughout the rest of the year in Kentucky are teetering on the brink.

Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky runs the most dates in the state—83 in 2011. On March 3 the track announced it had to cut purses 25%. Despite a big business day for its signature Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III), the all-sources handle was off 11.2% for the season that ended April 1.

The problems weren’t just at the windows; they were at the entry box as well. According to a Turfway source, the average field size fell by more than one horse per race during the final month as horsemen opted to run in other places.

Tougher times are ahead with a casino in downtown Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from Turfway, now under construction.

Churchill Downs’ meet runs from April 29 through the Fourth of July weekend. In the weeks following the Run for the Roses, there looms a battle for horses with the New York Racing Association’s spring/summer meet at Belmont Park. NYRA has already released a program that will offer a $100,000 bonus to the owner of a juvenile that wins a graded stakes in New York after breaking its maiden at a NYRA track. These kinds of incentives will move some owners to ship some highly touted 2-year-olds north instead of keeping them stabled off Longfield Avenue in Louisville.

A look at Belmont’s first condition book makes for interesting reading, with open maiden races at $75,000 and allowance/optional claiming races at the $74,000-$77,000 level. That’s tough to compete against.

Later this summer in Western Kentucky, Ellis Park faces yet another summer racing season on the edge. Owner Ron Geary is optimistic, but also honest.

“We’ll do our best, but for three years now we’ve seen the industry fading before our very eyes,” he said. “(Senate leader) David Williams and others in the Kentucky Senate won’t take it into consideration. They have other motivation, and they’ve slammed the door in our face.”

Ellis Park faces competition for horses from two tracks to its north in Indiana: Hoosier Downs and Indiana Downs, both of which receive revenue from slots for their purses.

One advantage Geary and Ellis Park have over Hoosier Downs is a turf course. Geary notes last year Ellis Park was able to card up to four turf races a day.

The installation of Instant Racing machines, a slots-like pari-mutuel game based on the outcome of previous races, may help Ellis Park a bit. Geary is supportive of the lead taken by Kentucky Downs, where the machines were first installed in the state. However, while Instant Racing has been deemed legal, it’s still awaiting a final ruling from the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Ellis Park has been approved for 252 machines, and Geary hopes to have them up and running by mid-June. But it may be small consolation considering a full casino sits across the river in Evansville, Ind.

“It’s a risk I don’t want to take, but it’s about survival,” Geary said. “We’re all struggling for survival.”

That's a quote that should make Kentuckians tear up before they hear “My Old Kentucky Home” on May 5.


Leave a Comment:

K.C. Jakeman

Well said, unfortunately people don't get involved until it effects them directy, by then it is usually too late.  It is so sad to see how desperate things are becoming.

10 Apr 2012 12:55 PM
Indiana Johnny

What really makes this sad is Kentucky is known for horses, its the heart of the horse breeding, horses have adorned their license plates, and home of the iconic twin spires at Churchill Downs, and probably the only time people from other states and countries ever hear " My Old Kentucky Home " is when at the Ky. Derby. And for the politicians from the state of Ky. to turn their back on the states horse industry is a slap in the face to all the people of Kentucky. Ride thru the parking lot of the Horseshoe casino outside of New Albany, Ind., just across the river from Louisville, Ky. and count the cars with Ky. plates. It's mindboggling how ignorant and backwards the politicians from Ky. are. It's time the people from Ky. wake up and " smell the roses " and vote these backwards politicians out of office. At least their governor is on the right track, but its the hillbilly politicians that will not stand up for wha'ts good for their own state.

10 Apr 2012 8:09 PM

Even a small slot venue may help. Many people don't like the bigger venues. I have lived in Las Vegas for 16 years and rarely go to the strip. If I do any gaming I like the neighborhood spots. The same slots that are in the big casinos are in grocery stores,gas stations, taverns, etc. They will get played.

11 Apr 2012 12:15 AM

Will the racetracks and various states ever wake up and realize the sport is doomed if they don't start co-operating with each other instead of trying to undermine each others efforts?

11 Apr 2012 8:13 AM
Criminal Type

This is going on in a lot of states. Now even Pennsylvania is rerouting their casino vevenue dollars to "other targets" mainly to make up for the budget shortfalls because these politicians do not know how to budget. Maryland is in such dire circumstances, we wonder every year if this will be our last Preakness. It's ridiculous to me for Mr Stronach to cry poverty for the MJC after spending 19 million bucks at an auction on 7 or 8 horses. Does he think we are stupid ? apparently so. Unfortunatly he really is our only hope in Maryland. Our shortsighted governor, who thinks milk is 2 bucks a gallon, has rerouted almost all of the casino revenue slated to go to the MJC. Maryland too was once a center for thoroughbred racing and breeding. Now every year its an argument and debate over racing dates that Mr Stronach says the MJC can't afford. A lot of good and even a few great horses came out of this state and it sickens me to see it all fading away. The politicos just spend spend spend and then take from Peter to pay Paul when they run out of money.

This is not just a problem affecting horseman, it's affecting the general public as well. As a middle class american I deeply resent the fact that people who make 3 and 4 times as much  money as I so are not paying the same percentage in tax dollars I am. We are now on average working one day per week just to pay for fuel. Americans and Horseman need to get angry and vote these morons out of office at a local, state and federal level. As far as I am concerned, my views are not being represented by my elected officials at any level.

11 Apr 2012 12:02 PM

The main problem facing our signature  horse industry  David Williams and his cronies                                                                            

11 Apr 2012 7:33 PM
Congaree Fan

I can't believe so many people are nearsighted enough to believe that other gambling substitutes are going to save horse racing.  You are fighting for another nail in the coffin.  See Ontario Racing / PA racing - The states are rerouting money and you will only reap the benefits for a short duration.  

How about some real suggestions like more jackpot wagers supported through pari-mutuel wagering on our current racing product.  Mobile distribtuion. embrace technology.  There are so many chances to move this industry forward and It is bloody frustrating to see people time and again place blame on something that clearly is not the end all solution to this industry but just a means to keep you going for a few years.  Lets fix this problem legitimately!

11 Apr 2012 7:45 PM

what keeps Turfway from forming an ADW ala Twin Spires and competing with them head to head, and possibly even running some internet adds, although I realize that advertising the sport is a difficult concept.

12 Apr 2012 1:20 PM
Bret Stossel

Is the future of racing going to be a couple of dozen tracks scattered across the country with all of them holding short "boutique meets" like Keeneland? Is the yearly national foal crop going to be five or ten thousand? I suppose if that's what racing comes to, the quality of the horses should be pretty high.

14 Apr 2012 11:50 PM
Storm Catwoman

We feel Kentucky's pain in NJ where we're surrounded by tracks with casinos but our tracks are held hostage by a dying Atlantic City cartel. It's especially hard to see this happen in Kentucky which was--and still should be --the horse capital of America as the home of the Kentucky Derby.

16 Apr 2012 11:00 PM

 in order to BOX this amazzzzing Quality Field on May 5 ! OR, Just hang-out with the Erie,Pa gang and DRAW STRAWS --20--for a winner. Logic and/or guts don't seem to us to a party conclusion. Last year the 'Animal was a distaff fav. SO WE Played a different 5. Sometimes US guys are dumb, but FUN.

 **The hunch says gogeten BO~~~@9/2.

18 Apr 2012 2:48 AM

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