Some tracks say they'll request fewer race dates

Year-round horse racing in Kentucky might be in jeopardy, with at least one racetrack planning to request fewer racing dates next year.

But another track on the financial bubble apparently will race despite threatening to close without slots.

"We are seeking a reduction in our dates," said Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park in Florence.

He would not give specifics, saying the request must be put to the horse trainers and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Tracks have until Thursday to substantially complete applications for license renewal, including date requests. The commission must award dates by Nov. 1.

Elliston said the reduced calendar will be the product of economic and competitive pressures from tracks in Indiana and other states that have boosted purses with expanded-gambling revenue. Since the introduction this year of slots, Indiana tracks have twice raised purses already. "It speaks to maintaining the caliber of racing that we're able to do in terms of horse population and purse size," Elliston said.

Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said that Corey Johnsen, owner of Kentucky Downs, also has talked about possibly requesting fewer than the four race days that the Franklin track scheduled in 2009.

He said neither Churchill Downs nor Keeneland has told horsemen of plans to drop or add any racing dates. Churchill Downs reduced its spring race meet earlier this year by seven days and might seek approval to cut a day from the fall calendar.

Maline said that horsemen, who have to give consent for the tracks to run fewer dates, have not been notified of Turfway's plans.

"They have talked in the vaguest terms," Maline said Tuesday after a special meeting of the racing commission. "I suspect something in January or February" will be cut.

Turfway traditionally has run more racing dates than any other Kentucky track, with live racing in September and October and from December into April. Maline said horsemen need at least some weekly racing to survive.

No racing in January or February "would be a disaster," Maline said. "So many horsemen rely on their winter racing. A lot of them would just close up. They can't afford to go south."

The racing commission sets the racing calendar but is unlikely to demand that tracks race more than they can justify economically, which may mean more three-day-a-week racing.

"I certainly hope we'll have a yearlong circuit," said Robert Beck, chairman of the racing commission. Beck met with racetrack executives about a month ago to ask them to carefully consider the implications of their date requests.

Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park in Henderson, previously said that without expanded gambling, he would close his track next year rather than run its traditional summer meet. Track owners, along with many horse owners and breeders, pushed unsuccessfully for video lottery terminals at racetracks in a special session of the General Assembly, as they had in previous legislative sessions.

Geary said Tuesday that he will apply for racing dates, but he would not say how that calendar would compare. This year, he had to drop some racing days to keep purses high enough to attract enough horses. Ellis Park asked to cut 25 of its 48-day calendar, to race only on weekends but then added back five Fridays.

"We're going to fill out an application. Whatever we apply for, we in good faith plan on running those dates," Geary said. "I'm going to apply. I just don't know how many dates. My intent would be to try to find a way to run."

The racing commission will meet Oct. 27 to decide on a calendar. On Tuesday, the commission approved a new, more stringent racetrack license application form that is designed to ensure greater transparency in track ownership and finances.