A collective depression settled over Kentucky horsemen Tuesday as leaders of the state's signature industry contemplated a future without slot machines at racetracks.
One day after the state Senate budget committee voted 10-5 against the slots proposal, many openly questioned how long Kentucky can maintain its perch atop the equine industry without slots revenue to fatten its racing purses and breeders incentives.
"I know at my stallion barn, we bred about 40 percent fewer mares this year than we did last year because you have people sending their mares to other states because they have more lucrative breeders-rewards money," said former Gov. Brereton Jones, owner of Airdrie Stud. "How can they expect us to remain the horse capital of the world and to remain fully employed when we don't have a level playing field to compete on?"
Although the horse industry has used similar anecdotal stories to push for slots in recent weeks, it's not clear how much of the decline cited by Jones and others is attributable to the lure of slots-fueled tracks and how much is a product of the economic downturn.
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Kentucky remains the nation's dominant producer of Thoroughbreds, with a market share for foals that has climbed since the 1990s from 19 percent to 31 percent, but horsemen warn that the trend could quickly reverse as states such a Pennsylvania offer more lucrative race purses and breeders-incentive programs.
Racing purses are up 157 percent in Pennsylvania since 2006, when so-called "racinos" opened in the state.
The potential loss of Kentucky's year-round racing circuit also is a major concern for those in the breeding and racing industry.
Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky said it might have to close by the end of 2010 if Ohio lawmakers approve a plan for slot machines at racetracks. More certain is the demise of Ellis Park in Henderson. Owner Ron Geary confirmed Monday that he will close the track after this summer's meet ends on Sept. 7.
If horses have no place to compete, more Kentucky-based trainers may join the likes of Larry Jones, who left his longtime summer base at Ellis Park for the slots-fueled confines of Delaware Park in Delaware after a tornado hit the track three years ago.
"It just means I'm going to be out of Kentucky that much longer," the Hopkinsville native said from Delaware after learning of the slots bill's demise. "It really is going to kill Kentucky racing and breeding as well."
Jones says he expects more of his fellow trainers to move out of state on a permanent basis.
"I know there are several coming here once the Churchill meet is over, and once they get a taste of what they're getting here, they're not coming back," he said.
If such predictions come true, Kentucky breeders, particularly smaller operations already squeezed by the recession, will undoubtedly suffer.
"If a factory is producing a product that doesn't have support and have the market, the factory is going to have to cut back and eventually shut down," said Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm, which discounted a majority of its stud fees for 2009.
Without aid from expanded gambling, some people worry that it might not be long before even Kentucky's top stallions move elsewhere.
"Stallions are ultimately what makes any state viable in this industry and ... if we don't get some help, the horse capital of the world will be Pennsylvania or New York or Ohio," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Farm, noting that the farm sent six of its mares to foal in other states this year.
"You will see farms go by the wayside and we'll have 300 more Quiznos and suntan huts, not black fences and horses," he said.
Still, even those who support expanded gambling acknowledge that slots won't solve all their problems and that racing as a whole needs to do more to attract fans and sustain itself for the long term.
Churchill Downs, which eliminated seven racing dates during its current meet because of small fields and declines in handle, hosted its first card under the lights last Friday, drawing more than 28,000 people.
Three Chimneys Farm, home to stallions Dynaformer, Smarty Jones and Point Given, started "Club Three Chimneys" in March, providing fans with a variety of benefits, including a quarterly newsletter and vouchers for the farm's stallion tours.
"There are a lot of people, especially young people, who may not be able to buy a horse tomorrow, but down the road, they will have this connection and positive experience," said Jen Roytz, director of marketing for Three Chimneys. "We've had more than 200 people sign up so far, and that's 200 more people who have a chance to be part of this industry in the future. You never know."
Despite such efforts, some people worry that the quality of the product that fans come to see will eventually decline beyond repair if lawmakers don't eventually approve slots at racetracks.
"If you don't have quality racing, if you can't fill your fields, people will not come," Casner said. "It's very disappointing. We are losing our horse industry; it's a cold hard fact. It's going to be very bad for the economy of the state."
Reporter John Cheves contributed to this story.