Churchill Downs will seek to cut seven racing days

Churchill Downs will ask the state Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday to cancel seven race days from its spring meet because of fewer and fewer horses racing at Kentucky's flagship track.

Track officials said they have struggled to fill out races because owners and trainers have been taking their horses to tracks in states where purses are enhanced with proceeds from slot machines and other gaming options.

"In some instances, they're getting more and in some instances it's very comparable purses, and the competition is more appealing to them because it's a little bit easier to win," said Kevin Flanery, a senior vice president at Churchill Downs.

The track also will cut purses by $425,000 for six stakes races to help offset lower-than-expected wagering. That will not affect the grades of any of those races.

Churchill Downs will maintain the same level for overnight purses that represent the winnings for the bulk of races throughout the meet.

The dates to be eliminated from the 52-day meet are May 20 and 28, June 3, 10, 17 and 24; and July 1. All are Wednesdays except May 28, which is a Thursday. The meet ends July 5.

The sparse fields have shown in recent days as Churchill Downs has canceled at least one race during each of its past four racing days because of small fields.

And people tend to bet less on races with smaller fields because there are not as many betting options, Flanery said.

Outside of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs' wagering handle, which pays for purses, has been down 20 percent this year.

The group that represents Kentucky horsemen had asked that the track avoid proposing the elimination of any dates in May, said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

But while meeting Monday with Churchill Downs executives, the group was told that to do so would mean overnight purses would have to be cut 20 percent, Maline said.

"If you cut purses, it's a guarantee that entries will dwindle," he said. "We just think that's absolute suicide if they do that, and we want to avoid that at all costs."

Maline said the exodus of some horsemen this year began when Ellis Park received permission from the state commission last month to cut its number of racing days later this summer in half.

Many stabled in Kentucky, he said, always counted on a run at Churchill Downs followed by Ellis Park, which is in Henderson in Western Kentucky.

"Many of these horsemen decided to take strings of horses elsewhere," Maline said. "When Ellis did what they did, horsemen had to react to the news."

Maline and Flanery said Churchill Downs' proposal is another consequence of Kentucky not allowing slots and other gaming options at tracks.

"We're dealing with the reality that there are two sets of racetracks around the country: The haves and the have-nots," Flanery said. "The tracks that have supplements (from gaming) have larger fields ... the tracks that do not are seeing their field sizes shrinking.

"If Kentucky wants to remain the horse capital of the world, then we have to play the same game everyone is."

Maline said Churchill's proposal demonstrates just what many people wouldn't believe.

"It's kind of like we were crying wolf, and now what's happened is the wolf has arrived," he said, a reference to the success of other states' tracks. "I never thought I'd see the day when those types of racing programs would eclipse our flagship track. It's just terribly unfortunate."