September switch could end year-round racing

Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky is facing the possibility of losing its September race dates to Louisville's Churchill Downs.
Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky is facing the possibility of losing its September race dates to Louisville's Churchill Downs. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission appears to be poised to drastically reshape the state's Thoroughbred racing calendar by taking a month of races from Turfway Park in Florence and giving it to Churchill Downs in Louisville.

The move ultimately could be the death knell for Kentucky's year-round racing circuit.

The push to move September's race dates apparently came from within the commission; Churchill Downs racetrack president Kevin Flanery said Oct. 1 that he'd been urged by members to ask for September.

And race dates committee members, who also are on the commission, were highly critical of Turfway's handling of the just-finished September meet, which offered average daily purses of just $97,000.

Commissioner Ned Bonnie called that "an embarrassment to Kentucky racing" and suggested that Turfway's new majority owners, Rock Ohio Caesars, should put in instant racing machines or subsidize purses with Ohio casino money.

Never mentioned but undoubtedly part of the subtext: Turfway's dumping of the Kentucky Cup Day of Champions, a card of stakes races that included the Kentucky Cup, for which the track had a sponsor.

Before the meet began, Turfway announced it was cutting all stakes races from the fall schedule to spread the purse money over the rest of races. Even so, purses fell well shy of the predicted daily average of $110,000.

On Friday, Turfway announced that betting during the meet was down almost 25 percent, partly because of the missing Kentucky Cup day and partly because of missing horses.

Turfway said Kentucky Downs in Franklin, with purses "inflated by revenue from instant racing," drew horses away and forced Turfway to cancel some planned races the first week of the September meet.

The final two weeks of the meet, with Kentucky Downs' all-turf meet over, Turfway officials said handle and field size rebounded.

"We expected some change with the new impact of instant racing at Kentucky Downs, and next year we'll make adjustments to further offset that impact," Turfway's director of operations, Chip Bach, said in a news release. "The rebound the final two weeks tells us we remain viable as a venue for horsemen while we continue to work toward a level playing field."

But the racing commission might decide Oct. 17 to go in another direction. Turfway officials apparently were caught flat-footed by the move.

Last week, at the meeting of the race dates committee, Turfway executives Cliff Reed and Bach said that cutting September would force them to re-evaluate the rest of their schedule, with the implication that they might be forced to drop January and February racing.

Turfway, the track that races more days a year than any other in Kentucky, could be reduced to two "boutique" meets in March and December, with roughly the same number of days as Keeneland.

Kentucky Downs, which has poured millions into purses statewide during the past year from instant racing revenue, also wants to add September dates and asked for "host track" status to pull in revenue from other tracks.

Reed referred specific questions about Turfway's predicament to Rock Gaming, but spokeswoman Jennifer Kulczycki declined to discuss specifics on what the change would mean for the track, saying the company prefers to make its case with regulators directly rather than in the newspaper.

"I can assure you that the horsemen, the fans and the employees of Turfway are at the top of Rock Gaming's minds," she said.

Late Thursday, Bach issued this statement: "Turfway simply endorses an equal playing field among the state's racetracks to continue to propagate the great tradition of Thoroughbred racing in Kentucky. A racing calendar that favors fans, horsemen and thousands of track employees throughout the state will support this mission; preferential treatment and unprecedented changes will negatively impact the industry for years to come."

Bach did offer one distant hope if the track survives: "Turfway will also closely monitor the further evaluation of instant racing within the state Supreme Court. If deemed legal by all courts, Turfway will plan to install instant racing machines."

Horse trainers are divided over what the September switch might mean. Rick Hiles, chairman of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said last week that his organization could not take a position either way because members who stable at Turfway want to stay there while those at Churchill favor the move.

But if Turfway, which has a synthetic track surface, drops January and February, those horses and trainers will be forced to go out of state if they want to race.

"Once they give it up, there may be somebody else step up, but I don't know who," Hiles said. "I don't know of anybody who wants to run in January and February."

John Asher, spokesman for Churchill Downs, said the Louisville track was pressured by horsemen and regulators to do something about September and proposed a three-day-a-week schedule but they have no interest in racing in January and February.

Flanery told the race dates committee that Churchill estimates the track would be able to offer average daily purses of $200,000 to $240,000, "conservatively," based on the number and quality of horses they could pull in and the simulcasting revenue that could be generated.

"Over the last few years, our total racing dates have actually declined 25 percent in an effort to keep purses competitive," Asher said. "In this case, the sentiment was so strong we took a look at the possibilities. ... We don't want to see any reduction in racing in Kentucky. We don't want to see anybody going out of business. There's a segment of horsemen who rely on Turfway Park."

Trainers Dale Romans, who is from Louisville, and Dallas Stewart, who also stables there but has raced often at Turfway, had no doubt that the move would be good for Kentucky racing.

"September needs to be stepped up to get the better horses racing here in Kentucky," Stewart said. "They don't need to be running at chicken scratch. Purses need to be strong in Kentucky to lead into Keeneland and Churchill Downs."

Horsemen lay the blame on the Kentucky Senate, which last winter defeated an attempt by Gov. Steve Beshear to bring casino gambling to the tracks.

"I don't know how Turfway could get any worse in the winter or the fall," Romans said. "They're just about to shut the doors. This conversation wouldn't be taking place if they'd voted for a sensible expansion of gaming law. ... It's Frankfort's fault. ... Where does it stop? It stops with them going out of business."