Kentucky tracks, horsemen feeling competitive stress at all levels

Trainer Wayne Mogge watched workouts at Turfway Park last month. He said higher purses elsewhere make it hard to keep owners in Kentucky.
Trainer Wayne Mogge watched workouts at Turfway Park last month. He said higher purses elsewhere make it hard to keep owners in Kentucky. Jim Osborn

As the NBC cameras pan Churchill Downs during coverage of the 138th Kentucky Derby, those tuning in will see a crowd that is the largest for any sporting event in Kentucky, a lineup of horsemen among the most prolific in the sport, and a group of equine athletes at the pinnacle of their class.

It will be a scene of hope and glamour — the Bluegrass state's annual moment in the national spotlight.

But when the cameras are gone and the thousands in attendance have departed, many whose livelihoods hinge on the state's signature industry fear that the true reality show will begin.

On Friday — the same day Keeneland closes its Spring Meet and a day before Churchill Downs opens — Belmont Park marks the start of its 56-day meet in New York.

Bolstered by revenue generated from casino gaming at Aqueduct, the New York Racing Association announced earlier this year that stakes purses during the Belmont meet will increase 26.6 percent, to $9.05 million, with average daily purses growing from approximately $430,000 to $620,000.

Later this summer, average daily purses at New York's Saratoga meet will jump from $670,000 to $930,000, and stakes purses will grow 27 percent to $13.35 million.

The stakes purses for the 2012 Churchill Spring Meet are down slightly from last year's total of $7.325 million for 25 races, with daily average purses of $534,300. Keeneland offered average daily purses of $604,933 for its Spring Meet.

There is real concern that once Kentucky Derby week ends, many of the horses and horsemen needed to keep the state's year-round racing viable will depart for greener, more profitable pastures.

The economics of the game are proving too much to ignore even for horsemen rooted in Kentucky. Louisville native Dale Romans will have a full-time stable in New York for the first time this spring — and the trainer will be part of a crowded backstretch.

"(Trainer) Todd Pletcher, he's not going to have a single horse in Kentucky after the Derby," said Ben Huffman, racing secretary for both Churchill Downs and Keeneland. "Nick Zito will not have a stable here after the Derby, Ralph Nicks is not coming back. So we have lost trainers, we're losing horses, and owners that we're used to having are going North.

"We worked really hard this winter recruiting and getting people to apply for stalls. Now it's just a matter that the people who did apply ... if they show up and stay, I'm pretty optimistic we may have a good spring meet. But the New York thing is absolutely a concern. And we've been losing horses to New York, Indiana and Delaware Park for the last 6-7 years, just kind of trickling away."

Kentucky tracks losing drawing power

The trickle of horses and horsemen out of the state is not a new trend, especially as more racing jurisdictions add expanded gaming to fatten their purses and bolster breeders incentive programs.

Though Kentucky remains the mecca of the breeding industry and home to the game's best sires, the mares being sent to foal out of state — as well as certain stallions now standing outside the Bluegrass — are no longer just the ones of lower commercial quality.

As a result, field sizes already depleted by a shrinking foal crop are contracting even more, contributing to declines in purses and handle.

Each time a horse is claimed out of a race in Kentucky, the state receives a 6 percent sales tax. So smaller fields and fewer claims also result in less revenue for the state.

With a smaller horse population to draw from and less of a monetary pot to lure participants, Churchill, Turfway Park in Florence and Ellis Park in Henderson have all cut live racing dates in recent years with Churchill again slated to run four days a week this spring outside of Kentucky Derby week.

"I doubt if I'll be the leading owner at Churchill Downs this year because we're going to be sending our better horses to New York," said Nicholasville-based Ken Ramsey, who along with his wife, Sarah, are the all-time leaders in wins by an owner at Churchill Downs. "You have to be realistic with the economy being what it is, and all the expenses on these horses. You have to go where the money is."

Along with race-day medication, the repeated failed quests to bring expanded gambling to Kentucky have been among the most divisive issues in the industry.

On the one hand, it is obvious how beneficial gaming has been to tracks like Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Gulfstream Park in Florida — both of which raised purses in March right around the time Turfway Park was cutting its overnight purses by 25 percent.

On the flip side, even those who believe slots are the tourniquet Kentucky needs to hold on to its mantle as the Thoroughbred capital of the world concede that expanded gaming would be only a short-term fix.

At a time when competition for entertainment dollars is fierce, some argue racing hasn't marketed itself in a way to attract a younger fan base. When it comes to appealing to bettors, horse racing's high takeout rates have served to alienate some into seeking other forms of gaming.

"They (racing) let their fan base dwindle and age and didn't work to return new fans," said Kentucky-based trainer Jackie Christenson, whose father was also a trainer. "And the only new fans they have that are young are people like myself who were brought into it. I just think it's sad. I grew up in this business. I'm very fluent on the history of this business and to me it's sad to lose part of your history, and that's what Kentucky is doing.

"I've said all along, casino gaming doesn't move me in the least. Those who gamble on horses don't necessarily gamble on slot machines. So casino gambling is a band-aid for a bigger issue that horse racing never faced."

Since it does not appear slots are coming to Kentucky anytime soon, the immediate challenge for the industry is to find ways to cope until a larger solution can be discovered.

For Kentucky's tracks, that means going to new, creative lengths to enhance both the environment for its customers and the experience for the horsemen that do remain.

"Outside of having the best racing surfaces, the best barn areas, and the best customer service, I don't know what else we can do," Churchill's Huffman said. "It's still pretty cool, I think, to race and win races in Kentucky. Even though stallions and farms and mares are leaving, Kentucky is still the mecca, and we can't lose sight of that. I don't know what the million-dollar answer is but ... we have to refocus on things that are in our control because this gaming thing is out of our control."

'This is my home'

Trainers and owners who can afford to leave are not the only ones starting to turn their eyes away from Kentucky.

Jockey Julien Leparoux, who is about to secure his fifth Spring Meet riding title at Keeneland and has been the leading rider at Churchill Downs nine times, will be riding at Belmont full time for the first time this summer.

"He's ready for a different challenge," Leparoux's agent Steve Bass said in February. "We were looking for a place where we could go and basically stay year-round — not have to pack up and move every few months. The purses don't hurt, either."

While established trainers with ample clientele can afford to set up shop wherever the best races and purses are, the smaller conditioner who fills cards on a weekly basis is faced with a more dire immediate future. Many local horsemen have their families and business rooted in the state but are finding it hard to convince owners to stay the course.

"It still costs what it costs to take care of these horses. I can't do it any cheaper, but yet I can't justify to my owners to pay me what it costs to take care of these horses and run for the purses here," said trainer Wayne Mogge. "You can't bring new guys into the game, obviously, and the old guys can't really afford to keep their horses here. When I started (at Turfway) in the fall, I had about 32 horses and I'm probably down to about 18. Of the ones I've lost, probably 75 percent was due to 'can't afford to run here and have to go somewhere else,' ... it's a tough go right now."

"Personally, me, I'm scared to death," added trainer Matt Kordenbrock from his base at Turfway Park where he maintains a string of about 10 horses. "This is my home. I sure don't want to have to uproot my family and stuff, but the bottom line you have to do what you have to do and do what you think is right.

"In years past I never even gave that a thought (about going to Indiana) because I didn't have to. But as you sit around now, it's entered my mind like, what am I going to do? Keeneland is Keeneland. But with Churchill, you take away the Oaks and Derby and ... they're struggling. I really don't know the answers, we're just like everyone else. Just a nervous wreck thinking maybe I'm going to have to make a move."

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