After unusually heated debate, the race dates committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved racetrack requests that are almost a carbon copy of this year's calendar.
The full racing commission will take up the race dates at the Oct. 18 meeting. "Aren't we going through the same thing as last year? I don't see what we are going to do to make our game different," said Tom Ludt, a committee member. He is also chairman of the Breeders' Cup board and president of Vinery, a Thoroughbred stud farm. "We can't keep repeating the same thing we're doing."
Ludt's comment came after the five Thoroughbred tracks asked for 210 days of racing and three Standardbred tracks asked for 65, almost exactly the days they raced this year.
One harness racetrack, Thunder Ridge in Prestonsburg, cut its request by three days, to 21. Asked why, track general manager Anita Ratliff was succinct: "Money."
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She said that the track lost thousands of dollars on the extra days this year and that there were some days when betting on live racing totaled $18 for the day.
Ludt suggested the tracks throw "something controversial" at the committee to get the public's attention rather than continuing in the same vein. "For $20 a day, why bother?" he asked.
That prompted fellow committee member Betsy Lavin to ask whether Ludt was "suggesting denying dates to someone will put pressure to the state as far as gambling."
Ludt said he was not directing criticism at any track, but he wanted to see more innovation, especially since they will be competing soon with slots-enriched purses in New York. His farm is moving some operations to New York to take advantage of expected larger purses for state-bred horses.
But several tracks said they were making some adjustments:
■ Churchill Downs has invested $4 million in lights for a few nights of racing each year.
■ Kentucky Downs has opened the first instant racing parlor, increased its dates request from four days to six and nearly doubled the tax revenue paid to the state in September, compared to last year.
■ Ellis Park is applying for instant racing, which track owner Ron Geary said he expects to boost purses by 50 percent, to about $270,000, after the first year of operation.
■ Keeneland has rolled out a mobile betting application that saw $40,000 in handle the first day.
Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park, said a recent report noted that casinos at tracks in Pennsylvania had pumped $275 million into that state, siphoning horses from Kentucky. "These (changes by the Kentucky tracks) are all attempts to overcome that big gaping hole," Elliston said.
Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack, said that even changing a track's meet from November to September would not be enough of a game changer. "The game changer is what Bob said," he said.
One major point of contention was Churchill's request to drop the Fourth of July from its schedule. For the past few years, Churchill has overlapped the holiday with Ellis Park in Henderson.
Committee member John Ward, a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, said that switch could cost the state money on handle and drive trainers out of the state faster.
"We're going to see a huge difference in handle between Churchill and Ellis," Ward said. "Do we represent the state of Kentucky to maximize profits to the state, or the tracks to maximize profits to the tracks, or the horsemen?"
Racing commission chairman Bob Beck said the committee must balance the various interests. "I don't know that we're here to maximize anybody's profits," Beck said.
But Beck also said he was still worried about the calendar. "Three years ago I had some concerns about the year-round calendar. ... I continue to be concerned about that," he said.