The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to approve racing dates for 2013 that are designed to shake up the calendar and boost purses.
After intense bargaining between tracks and horse trainers, the commission moved September racing from Turfway Park in Florence to Churchill Downs in Louisville.
This year, Turfway offered average daily purses of only $97,000. Churchill has promised that September purses next year will be at least double that.
To help the struggling Northern Kentucky track increase purses during the rest of the year, Turfway wanted to consolidate racing to January and March.
But horsemen objected to eliminating all but two days of racing in February. Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association president Rick Hiles asked for six more days of February racing, saying the horsemen need it to pay the bills.
"It's enough that it could make a difference on paying a training bill," Hiles said.
Hiles also raised the threat of horsemen withholding approval for simulcasting, which Turfway relies on for revenue.
Chip Bach, Turfway Park director of operations, agreed to add Feb. 8 and 9 to the live racing calendar, and the commission later agreed to add Feb. 15, 16, 22 and 23 as optional racing days. That will give Turfway 47 in 2013, down from 81 in 2012.
Keeneland retained its traditional spring and fall racing meets; Ellis Park in Henderson will race July and August.
Commissioner Ned Bonnie raised questions about approving optional racing dates.
"I'd like somebody to tell me what the definition of 'optional' is. I'm concerned about that," Bonnie said. "Does this mean they can decide two days before not to run races? What's the time frame and do we put any conditions on that?"
Racing commission executive director John Ward said that by statute, the dates must be awarded up front and cannot be added later, should the tracks' financial picture improve. The commission recommended optional dates for Turfway Park in February and March and for Churchill Downs in September.
"If we do enjoy success, we'll have the ability to flip the switch," Bach said.
He said Turfway anticipates purses — not counting the Spiral Stakes, Turfway's $500,000 Kentucky Derby prep race — will be about $143,000 a day next year.
"We want to make sure the business model supports the purse structure," Bach said. "Right now this is totally new territory for us. We have to see how the public responds to it, how the public responds to it ... that better races bring in more money."
Both Bach and Kevin Flanery, Churchill Downs racetrack president, said they would race the extra days if betting handle improves.
Flanery said the optional Thursdays would allow Churchill to maximize racing "if things are going well."
Kentucky Downs in Franklin, which has a turf track and purses augmented by instant racing revenue, will race five dates in September interspersed with Churchill.
Kentucky Downs did not get March race dates but did win "host track" status for six days in September, which will boost its simulcasting revenue from other Kentucky tracks.
Flanery said that Churchill hopes to decide by June if itcan run the extra days.
He said Churchill plans to add some upper-level, stakes races in September, with probably two popular "night racing" programs.
"I believe this is going to become a permanent fixture at Churchill," Flanery. "We're in it, and we're going to try to do it for as long as it makes sense for everybody in the industry.