Track officials: Kentucky racing in 'serious jeopardy'

LOUISVILLE — Churchill Downs Inc. President Bob Evans had all the telltale numbers in front of him, all the detailed charts right at his fingertips.

But instead of letting cold, hard figures explain why every racetrack operator in Kentucky was gathered in the Churchill paddock Wednesday, he let their collective presence speak for itself.

"Here we are on a beautiful Wednesday standing in the paddock at Churchill Downs without any horses, instead doing a press conference," Evans said. "I think that says all that we need to say about the current state of racing in the state of Kentucky."

The first day of canceled racing at Churchill Downs provided a powerful backdrop as industry leaders spelled out the ugly scenario it says will befall Kentucky tracks should the legislature fail to approve expanded gambling.

On May 12, the struggles facing the tracks crystallized when Churchill Downs received permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to cut seven racing dates and only run a four-day race week because of shorter fields and significant drops in handle.

The reduced field sizes were blamed squarely on several neighboring states, such as Indiana, luring owners out of Kentucky by offering larger purses fueled by slots revenue.

The principals of the state's tracks and horsemen's groups warned that without slots Kentucky's tracks would continue to lose business and the year-round racing circuit would be destroyed.

"We are in serious jeopardy as we perhaps have never been. And if no action takes place and we lose our racing circuit and we lose the prominence of our breeding industry, we do not want anyone in this state to be surprised," said Nick Nicholson, president of Keeneland.

The Churchill gathering was part of a full-speed push by the racing industry to get expanded gambling in Kentucky, which could come up in a special legislative session this summer. However, there is no certainty a bill would pass. Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, remains firmly opposed to it. And, if it did pass, it's unclear that racing would be the sole beneficiary.

Ron Geary, owner and president of Ellis Park, said without expanded gaming his track's summer meet would likely be its last.

Geary requested the track's live racing dates be reduced from 48 days to 23, saying he can no longer draw the competition away from Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, with projected purses of $11 million and $8 million, respectively, for 2008 compared with $5.3 million for Ellis.

"If we ran the whole 48 days we would be paying out $70,000 a day compared to $155,00 to $200,000 a day at Indiana Downs and over $225,000 a day at Hoosier Park," Geary said. "That's just this year. that's what we're facing." Turfway Park president Bob Elliston said the Florence track is already having to discuss "drastic" purse cuts for its September meet.

The fears were echoed by more than one prominent horseman.

Chip Woolley, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, is based out of New Mexico's Sunland Park, which has been bolstered by its slots revenue.

Part of the reason Mine That Bird was purchased privately last year by owners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach was so the duo would have a 3-year-old to run in this year's $900,000 Sunland Derby.

"I guess I'm probably the poster child for gaming because I wouldn't be here today without gaming in New Mexico," Woolley said. "Gaming is what brought us the Sunland Derby and the Sunland Derby is what brought me Mine That Bird.

"The thing is these states are just sitting there, Kentucky being one of them, they're just watching their money go right across the river," Woolley continued. "It just makes no sense."

Louisville native Dale Romans, the third all-time leading trainer at Churchill Downs, said that, without expanded gaming he would have to consider moving his base elsewhere to keep the business of owners who want the larger purses of neighboring states.

"I don't think there is a Plan B (if Kentucky doesn't get slots). I don't think there can be," Romans said. "There is just nothing else to do."

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