Racing on the right track

Horse racing in Kentucky is bringing in new fans the old-fashioned way: by giving them a better product.

All the doom and gloom we've heard about the future of Thoroughbred racing makes the success of night racing at Churchill Downs even sweeter.

Churchill's "Opening Night" the Saturday before this year's Kentucky Derby drew 38,142 people, the biggest crowd ever assembled under the Twin Spires outside the Derby, Oaks or Breeders' Cup.

Since Churchill began experimenting with night racing in 2009, on-track attendance has tripled and on-track betting had doubled, compared to earlier afternoons of racing.

It makes sense that more people could come to the track outside work hours. And Churchill is offering a festive evening under the lights with special food, drinks, music, decor and also a popular betting promotion.

As a result of the increase in handle, Churchill has twice increased purses, which should help counteract the lure of slots-subsidized purses offered by competing tracks in other states.

The Herald-Leader's Janet Patton reports that a similar strategy also helped Turfway in Northern Kentucky buck the national trend of wagering declines this year.

None of this diminishes the threat to Kentucky's Thoroughbred industry from casino gambling in other states — especially the slots revenue that's going into purses and other financial incentives for breeders, trainers and owners to move operations there.

Ohio is moving ahead with plans for full-fledged casinos in its four largest cities, including Cincinnati. Gov. John Kasich announced a deal last week that would also allow video lottery terminals at Ohio's seven tracks, a plan that will have to weather court challenges because it wasn't part of the 2009 referendum.

Kentucky's tracks should be allowed the full arsenal of weapons to compete for horses and fans, including casino-style gambling.

In the end, though, the only thing that can secure the long-term success of horse farming and racing in Kentucky is the creation of new generations of racing fans and Thoroughbred lovers. The best way to make new fans is to get them to the track and show them a good time.