Churchill Downs has revealed its hand. No longer able to hide behind Louisville's iconic twin spires is a looming casino, slots and online gambling company.
As Churchill executives try to convince our legislature that Kentucky needs casinos, let's be clear about who's doing the talking and why. Churchill may keep the Kentucky Derby front and center in Kentucky minds, but the company is busy building a casino empire for its shareholders across the U.S.
The recent report that Churchill makes more money from casino gambling than horse racing highlights a shift that started 20 years ago and has ramped up in the last few years. This, in addition to owning one of the healthiest tracks in the United States.
In his latest letter to shareholders, Churchill CEO Bob Evans boasts six successful casinos (that's 5,713 slot machines) across the country. Churchill's most recent purchase, Miami Valley Gaming, a racino in Lebanon, Ohio, has 600 more seats for slot machines than seats to watch the harness races.
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Several Churchill properties have no connection to horse racing whatsoever. Consider Harlow's Casino Resort and Spa in Greenville, Miss.; Riverwalk Casino Hotel in Vicksburg, Miss.; and Oxford Casino in Oxford, Maine.
In addition, Churchill Downs isn't shy about efforts to get into the online gambling game — it wants a casino 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week in every bedroom, dorm room and smart phone.
The company has recently made high-profile acquisitions, betting on the possibility that online gaming — currently illegal in the U.S. — will be legalized.
Its website explains that the purchase of Bluff Media, a multimedia poker company, "... potentially provides it with new business avenues to pursue in the event there is a liberalization of state or federal laws with respect to Internet poker in the United States."
What's worse, by linking the results of slot-like bingo games on their gambling website, Luckity.com, to live horse races, they've sidestepped rules against online gambling.
Any company willing to benefit from online gambling — undeniably the most addictive, most destructive form of gambling due to anytime, anywhere access — has lost its bearings.
Just how far executives have gone in their thinking was highlighted this week by attorney Ed Glasscock, co-chairman of the pro-casino Kentucky Wins group. In a recent interview, Glasscock, with Churchill Downs track president Kevin Flanery nodding by his side, said more Kentuckians need to gamble more money for the state to prosper.
That's Churchill's constant message: If we could just lose more inside our state, we'd save the horse industry and have more jobs and more money for education.
Never mind that the lion's share of earnings from any Kentucky casino will go to the company's shareholders across the country.
And never mind that gamblers will cross over from the tracks to play the slots but won't leave the slots for the racetrack. It's widely reported by the horse industry that when slot machines are introduced at a racetrack, track betting decreases 20 to 40 percent, and in some cases as much as 80 percent. Repeatedly pushing buttons is much easier than studying the field, and slot machine payouts are significantly higher.
So, as legislators continue to debate whether Kentucky needs casinos, let's remember the true face of the player shouting the loudest.
With great respect for Churchill's 130-year horse-racing tradition, it's time to recognize that Churchill has left the stable for the slot machine floor.
Reach Keren Henderson at email@example.com and on Twitter @SPGKY.