LOUISVILLE — When Turfway Park scratched its premier fall racing event last year, it was another sign of the tough times that had befallen the Northern Kentucky race track, where the amount of prize money has tumbled in recent years.
Now the Kentucky Cup Day of Champions is back, and the five-race series set for Saturday has picked up a sponsor for the first time — WinStar Farm in Versailles. The five races carry total purses of $600,000.
"To have it come back ... is just a real shot in the arm for all of us here at Turfway in terms of getting back on that national stage in the fall," Turfway Park President Robert N. Elliston said in an interview this week.
The Florence track hopes to re-establish the Kentucky Cup series as a popular destination for trainers preparing for the Breeders' Cup.
The feature race in the series — the $200,000 Kentucky Cup Classic — was last run in 2009, as were the Kentucky Cup Distaff and Kentucky Cup Sprint. They are back in the fold on Saturday's card at Turfway, as are the Kentucky Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies races, last run in 2008.
Despite the event's comeback, the track's problems haven't disappeared.
"It's a bit of a positive sign," said Kentucky-based trainer William "Buff" Bradley, who has a horse entered in the Juvenile Fillies race. "Still, there's a lot of things that need to be done in Kentucky racing to get it going again."
Turfway's biggest hurdle is its purse sizes, which have fallen behind those at tracks in states that supplement prize money with proceeds from casino gambling. It's a basic economic principle — larger purses attract more and better horses, which lure more bettors.
"As much as we're giving it a shot, these purses pale in comparison to what these other jurisdictions are able to do," Elliston said.
Also on Saturday, the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby will be run at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa. One week later, the $500,000-added Indiana Derby will top a day of racing offering more than $1 million in purses at Hoosier Park.
Average daily purses at Turfway have fallen from $176,270 in the fall 2004 meet to $108,637 in the 2010 fall meet.
Bradley still races at Turfway but has shifted some horses to races in other states offering bigger purses. He had a horse finish second recently in a $400,000 race at Charles Town track in West Virginia, where purses are bolstered by casino revenues.
"The quality is less than our quality here in this state, but they're running for more money," Bradley said.
In Kentucky, efforts to allow slot machines or other casino gambling at horse tracks have made no headway in the state legislature, despite intense lobbying from the tracks and their supporters, who warned that Kentucky risks losing its status as the world's horse capital. Turfway has been among the most outspoken supporters of bringing casino gaming to the tracks.
One Kentucky track already is benefiting from a new form of gambling, known as instant racing, which lets gamblers bet on past horse races. Kentucky Downs, situated at Franklin near the Tennessee border, has enjoyed a surge in betting since the slot-like machines arrived.
The new game has drawn a court challenge from The Family Foundation of Kentucky, though.
Turfway, which faces stiff competition from casinos in nearby Indiana, plans to install its own instant racing machines if the game withstands the legal challenge, Elliston said.
"It will help," he said. "It's not the complete answer to the complication that we face in our marketplace. But it will give us an opportunity to generate some additional revenues, draw some fans here and supplement our purses."