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.

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