LOUISVILLE — Worried their struggling neighborhood track could lose key racing dates, some Northern Kentucky leaders are mounting a late-stretch campaign in support of Turfway Park ahead of a decision on next year's racing assignments.
The business and political leaders are targeting the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is weighing competing requests from Turfway and Churchill Downs to host racing next September.
The commission's Race Dates Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, and the full commission is set to meet Oct. 23. The commission has a Nov. 1 deadline to assign 2013 dates for the state's racetracks.
Turfway has been the state's traditional home of September racing, but Churchill is seeking permission for racing during four three-day weekends in September. The famed Louisville track, home of the Kentucky Derby, says it could offer at least $200,000 in daily purses in September, twice the amount of daily winnings Turfway awarded to horsemen during its 16-day racing schedule last month.
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Churchill also says it would look at including popular night racing and stakes races, possibly tuneups for the Breeders' Cup. The September racing would be tacked on to the track's traditional spring and fall meets.
"Certainly Churchill is a big player and they have a big voice in the state. It's probably a little like David and Goliath when we're talking about competing for those dates," said Steve Stevens, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
That's not deterring the Northern Kentucky leaders, who are making calls and writing letters in support of Turfway.
The Florence track also has a holiday meet in December and a winter-spring meet from January through March. Those meets enable Kentucky to offer year-round racing. But September racing is seen as a crucial revenue generator to help get Turfway through the winter.
"There's a fall tradition of going out to Turfway," said Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore. "We need to protect that. We need to fight for that. We want to do everything we can to preserve the Thoroughbred industry here in Northern Kentucky."
Turfway has struggled to keep up with competitors outside Kentucky that sweeten their purses with money from casino-style gambling. Kentucky's tracks have pushed for a proposal to allow them to add slot machines, but their efforts have failed in the state General Assembly.
In another setback, Turfway scratched its Kentucky Cup Day of Champions, its top fall racing event.
Some of the track's supporters said Turfway's ownership, which includes the casino groups Caesars Entertainment and Rock Gaming, could strengthen its position by outlining plans to enhance the track.
"That would go a long way," Stevens said.
He said that Turfway would benefit from adding Instant Racing, which allows gamblers to wager on previously run but unidentified horse races. The casino-style game is a big hit at Kentucky Downs, generating new revenue for the track at Franklin near the Tennessee line.
Ellis Park at Henderson, another Kentucky track that has struggled to compete, also has added Instant Racing machines. Turfway, though, has stayed on the sidelines while the legality of Instant Racing is being challenged in court by the Family Foundation of Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Downs is asking for three racing dates next March, another time traditionally set aside for Turfway. That would be on top of five days of racing the track is requesting in September.